Proposed cuts to WSIU broadcasting services would be ‘catastrophic,’ director says
Working in the news industry is an aspiration SIU student Collin Dorsey has long held.
The 20-year-old junior from Du Quoin began working in radio as a sophomore in high school, reporting and anchoring newscasts for WDQN-AM. As one of River Region Evening Edition’s most senior reporters, Dorsey began at the university’s student-led newscast as a producer his freshmen year and eventually transitioned to on-camera work, anchoring for news and weather.
“My mother would tell people that she could sit me in front of the television for the hour newscast. She could set me there at 5:30 p.m. and she’d go off and do whatever she needed to do, and I’d just be content watching World News Tonight,” said Dorsey, who studies radio, television and digital media. “I think news has always been something I’ve loved.”
River Region, which airs four nights a week, is an affiliate of WSIU Public Broadcasting, one of 15 centers or initiatives the university’s non-academic prioritization committee suggested could be cut off from state funding if the university is not allocated state appropriations by the end of the fiscal year. The committee, appointed by interim Chancellor Brad Colwell, released a report that focused on long-term efficiencies to save the university money, partially by making these units self-supporting by no later than 2022.
WSIU could lose more than 25 percent of its funding if the university receives no state appropriations by June 30, potentially forcing layoffs or cutting programs.
Greg Petrowich, who has worked as executive director of the broadcasting services since April 2009, said WSIU’s budget is about $3.5 million, $879,645 of which came from the state through SIU in fiscal year 2017. Petrowich described a possible scenario with such cuts as “catastrophic.”
Petrowich, who oversees three public radio stations, including WSIU Radio in Carbondale, two PBS stations and the Southern Illinois Radio Information Service, a reading service for the blind and visually impaired, said the broadcasting service’s federal grants are leveraged on non-federal money. This means for every state dollar WSIU earns, it receives an extra 10 cents in federal money. This also means if the university eliminates WSIU’s state funding, the service would lose another $87,964 in federal grants, totaling nearly $970,000.
The committee tasked with reviewing the non-instructional centers and initiatives suggested eliminating state funding from the 15 units, which includes Touch of Nature Environmental Center and Counseling and Psychological Services, would save SIU $5.5 million a year. The Daily Egyptian is publishing a series of stories to examine the impact those proposed cuts would have on the university community.
University spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith, who served as co-chair on the committee, on Monday said final decisions for the proposed cuts are under review by the budget advisory council, which is examining how all the items outlined in the report are “interconnected with the academic mission of the university.”
The centers identified by the committee as those that could be self-supporting, she said, were classified as such because they have other sources of revenue aside from the state dollars the university earmarks for their operation.
In the case of WSIU, nearly 30 percent of alternative revenue is provided through donations.
Each year, WSIU raises more than $1 million in private support — $500,000 from individual donations and $500,000 in business and corporate donations, Petrowich said. But, he said, most of the service’s expenses are fixed. For example, for the broadcasting service to be a PBS member, WSIU pays an $800,000 fee for all the programs, but it can’t pay less for fewer programs. The same goes for being an NPR station.
Because those expenses are fixed, Petrowich said, WSIU would likely see layoffs from the service’s about two dozen full-time staff if the proposed cuts are implemented.
“If we stop paying for programs, [the community is] going to see less and hear less,” he said. “If we eliminate positions of people who make programs, they’re going to see less and hear less.”
Asked if WSIU — which receives no funds through student fees — could become self-supporting, Petrowich said he doesn’t think it is practical in southern Illinois because the economy is tough and people are already giving generously. He said it would be similar to if a public library became self-supporting and then charged for its services.
“There are a lot of impoverished parts of southern Illinois where over-the-air broadcasting is vital,” Petrowich said. “For some people, an antenna is what they have, and their kids are learning to read through PBS, for free, over the air.”
If the committee’s proposed plan is applied and WSIU is forced to make layoffs, at least 100 students who work with the broadcasting services each year, some of whom are paid, would have fewer opportunities to work alongside professional staffers, Petrowich said. Those experts include Jennifer Fuller, WSIU Radio’s associate news editor whose voice is known throughout the region for her morning newscasts.
Fuller, a WSIU employee for the last 13 years, said one of her favorite aspects about working with students is when they get that “Aha!” moment. As a prospective student wandered into the newsroom Monday, Fuller recalled how she was prepared for her first job after working there as a student.
“You can’t put a price on doing this every day,” Fuller, who graduated in 2000 with her bachelor’s degree from SIU’s radio and television department, said of the knowledge students gain while working at the services. “We train students and they are working at a real NPR station, a real PBS station alongside the professionals, doing what we do every single day.”
Students at WSIU work on daily stories, features and investigative work on their own for the station that covers everything south of the Effingham region, but have trained professionals by their side if they need help, she said. With that reach, about 30,000 people tune into WSIU on the radio each day, said Jeff Williams, the radio’s station manager.
“It’s very easy to say we don’t interact with students, but it’s inaccurate,” Fuller said. “We have students in every single day. … We also help students understand what they want to do. It’s really easy to say, ‘Well, I want to be a journalist.’ Well, what kind of journalist?”
The non-instructional program review committee tasked with surveying and suggesting these long-term savings was formed during the state’s budgetary stalemate between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats who control the state Legislature, including House Speaker Michael Madigan.
In 2016, two stopgap measures passed through the Legislature totaled $83 million in support for SIU. Those funds, for the most part, were used to pay the bills from the 2016 fiscal year, in which Illinois was the only state in the nation without a budget. The university started the 2017 fiscal year “basically back at zero” and is dipping into the reserves once again, SIU President Randy Dunn said following the release of the report.
Should SIU receive no state appropriations by June 30, when these proposed cuts could be implemented to the listed non-instructional programs, Dunn said the university would be “running on fumes.”
Petrowich, WSIU’s executive director who received his bachelor’s degree from the university’s radio and television department, said he has questioned but understands why the university categorizes the broadcasting services as “non-academic,” but people within the college know it is a hybrid where students learn through hands-on experience. He said his experience with WSIU as a student “made my career.”
“There are a lot of schools that have journalism and radio/television programs — there aren’t very many that have their stations right in the building where you can walk right out of class, right into the studio at 4:3o and do the newscast,” he said. “That’s a pretty rare opportunity.”
River Region accounts for approximately $100,000 annually of WSIU’s budget line. Greg Todd, River Region’s news director, said the potential cuts could discontinue a 50-year tradition that distinguishes the university from most other communications schools in the country.
“A lot of communications schools either have nothing in the way of hands-on training or it’s something greatly less than what we’re doing,” said Todd, who graduated from the university in 1977 and worked on the television program as a weatherman and news anchor before he began his professional career.
Of the university’s 280 students enrolled in radio, television and digital media, Todd said about 100 work directly for River Region in the “classroom lab” voluntarily or as a requirement for several of their courses. The millions of dollars worth of equipment WSIU owns is used in some capacity, he said, by those in the program and throughout the college.
“Without WSIU, it in my view would destroy the very accomplished radio and TV program, and thereby the [College of Mass Communications and Media Arts],” Todd said.
In 2011, Todd returned to his alma mater to take the role of adviser after more than 30 years of professional experience. Despite the implications of his title, he said he considers himself as more of a coach than a news director because students who work for the program are responsible for producing all news content and have editorial autonomy.
“I compare myself to a backseat driver,” he said. “I’ll yell up front once in a while, ‘Hey, you’re gettin’ off the road.'”
Dorsey said the opportunities offered through River Region give students an outlet to learn the principles of responsible journalism. As a reporter, he recalled a few instances of “word-flubs” — or getting tongue-tied on camera — but the environment is one where mistakes are forgiven, even though they’re frowned upon.
“It’s a learning curve but you pick up pretty fast,” Dorsey said of the job. “There’s a lot of people here that are willing to help you because they’ve had experience in the industry and they want you to do well also.”
He credits the professional experience he’s gained at River Region during the last three years as a highly marketable skill, and said he hopes to land in a more urbanized area with a larger market to “see what’s out there” when he graduates in May 2018.
“Finding out what the program is — that really was a deciding factor to come to SIU, because it was close and the program is just unbelievable,” Dorsey said.