One of the important financial streams for the lifeblood of Arizona Public Media looked in jeopardy last year when UA President Ann Weaver Hart announced a plan to sever funding to the local PBS and NPR affiliate.
A significant outcry followed, which played a role in backing away from the doom and gloom nature of the initial proclamation, but there's no question future funding options for AZPM have become an important topic within the organization as it attempts to find ways to maintain the quality of its product during challenging fiscal times.
Addressing these concerns has become a central issue for the Citizens Advisory Board, an entity that helps cultivate the direction and evaluate the performance of the media brand.
"It's clear good, local production, especially television production, is very expensive, so we have to think about how to structure ourselves because we are highly valued for our delivery of PBS and NPR content," said CAB Chairman Eugenia Hamilton. "Our organization also emphasizes the importance of telling Arizona stories and helping understand the cultural, political, social and economic forces that shape life here. That's the (strategic) plan we adopted five years ago, and our hope is that production and funding for the university won't endanger that. We're putting a lot of our emphasis on determining whether there are creative things we could be doing differently. Do enough people know about what we're doing to support us?"
That's one of many issues a CAB report will address, and it's a challenge in a market with limited resources.
"We are the 25th, 26th lowest income city in the country. We have a large percentage of residents who are part-time residents. We have a lot of issues that make fundraising a challenge," said Hamilton. "We also have a tremendous number of worthy nonprofits in town, and they clearly need philanthropic dollars as well. All of that needs to go into the brew. It's a tough one for all the nonprofits in town. As tax dollars are getting squeezed, lots of organizations who got some support, in our case through the university, in many cases the city of Tucson, Pima County, the state, are finding those dollars go away, and we're all grappling with the issue of what do we do next, now that it's gone. It's not an easy question."
Yet paradoxically, the financial well in terms of private donation options is not dry, even in a region with those challenges. The UA discovered the appeal of PBS and NPR programming (even though it doesn't show up in Nielsen ratings, Tucson's NPR affiliate routinely ranks fourth in radio listenership) in this market when it faced the kind of backlash it likely didn't anticipate once the cord cutting proclamation was prematurely unveiled.
"It's fair to say the university did not realize when they announced the cuts the deep loyalty and love this community has for Arizona Public Media," Hamilton said. "At the same time, it's fair to say those of us on the CAB did not realize how deeply the knife was going to fall on the university. The biggest change is we all see ourselves on the same team, and we're trying to figure this out together, which is major movement from where we were last year. I don't know if that's going to lead to a different outcome, but we have been told to hold our deliberations as if nothing is off the table."
And as the strategic financial process has unfolded, Hamilton has felt better about the legitimacy of the UA's interest in finding a balance.
"The kinds of people who were asked to join it show a seriousness of purpose on the part of the university, and I find that very gratifying," Hamilton said. "I was a bit cynical going in. We've all seen situations where the way to make a problem go away is name a committee, and I think the time and effort the university people have been putting in is a testament to the fact that's not what going on here."
Hamilton is a New Hampshire transplant with experience in the healthcare industry and a love of public media. That passion got her involved with public media assistance in her home state, and continued when she moved and subsequently volunteered for phone pledges in Tucson. She was asked to join the Citizens Advisors Board shortly thereafter and currently occupies the role as chairman.
The board's responsibility was largely designed to focus on content and general direction for AZPM's radio and television outlets, and it implemented a five-year strategic suggestion plan dedicated to pursuing ways to cover material pertinent to life in Arizona and the state's political nuances.
"Arizona is such a stressed state facing so many complicated issues," Hamilton said. "Our ultimate dream would be helping people understand those issues in order to make informed decisions for themselves about the policy questions that lie ahead."
As for the AZPM product in its current configuration, Hamilton is pleased with what she'd seen.
"I think there is always room for improvement, but when I look at it we weren't winning many Emmys five or so years ago, and we won 22 last year," Hamilton said. "We weren't consistently making our pledge drive goals, and we're now among the most highly rated for a market of our size of public television stations around the country. A lot of things that were shortcomings, it's hard to even remember what we were like five or six years ago. The progress has been remarkable, and I would be saddened if that progress came to a halt."