Lakeshore Public Media president discusses future of company
BY CARRIE NAPOLEON Post-Tribune Correspondent January 19, 2014 11:00PM
Lakeshore Public Media president James Muhammad says the company must be creative to survive in a tougher environment for public media. | Carrie Napoleon/For the Post-Tribune
Updated: February 21, 2014 6:20AM
MERRILLVILLE — Public broadcasting across the nation is in a state of flux.
Learning to adapt to a variety of multimedia platforms and finding new ways to raise money is causing public broadcasting companies across the country to look at how they conduct business.
In the wake of upheaval last week at Lakeshore Public Media, which included the recent departure of some staffers and complaints of low morale, James Muhammad, Lakeshore president, talked to the Post-Tribune on Sunday about his vision for the future.
On Wednesday, Lakeshore announced it will eliminate its nightly newscast Jan. 31 and switch to a weekly news program starting in early March.
“We need to look at ways to do things in a more cost-effective manner,” Muhammad said.
Much of that need is derived from the loss of the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program grant program administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
On April 15, 2011, President Barack Obama signed Public Law 112-10, the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2011, which provided no funding for the public telecommunications program, according to the telecommunications administration website.
“It was a huge loss to the (public broadcasting) system,” Muhammad said.
The facilities grants were used by stations for and expensive infrastructure improvements such as upgrading of transmitters, studio equipment and switches.
The move has forced systems across the country to look at ways to partner and become more efficient. Muhammad said stations are looking at things such as operating a joint master control system, where five or six stations combine and operate through a switcher.
It has also prompted stations raise more money locally from private sources.
“Community support makes up the majority of the funding we get,” Muhammad said.
In tight financial environment, with many entities vying for the same contributions, increasing that community support remains a challenge. Overall membership is down, however the funding from membership has remained relatively consistent with those remaining members paying more, Muhammad said.
Muhammad said it will be important to figure out new ways to bring more people into the fold. Public broadcasting as a system has been very transactional in its membership. Donors would receive a “gift,” say a DVD boxed set of programming, for an annual donation. Instead, he said, the station wants to set up a system of regular monthly donations.
“Those people tend to stay with you longer and creates less of a dependence toward other thank you gifts,” he said.
Fundraising efforts need to include increasing major sponsors, planned giving (estate-type donations) and car donations among other avenues to increase revenues in the absence of the PFTP grants.
“The station also is becoming more entrepreneurial,” Muhammad said.
At Lakeshore this means renting out the production truck to other entities. Muhammad said Lakeshore is seeking funding to upgrade the production truck to high definition to increase rental opportunities.
As part of the move to rethink how business is done, the Lakeshore audience can expect to see more community partners in programming across the multimedia platforms available to the company.
Muhammad tried similar things at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, where he served as director of radio services.
One partnership there was with the West Virginia University School of Medicine. The station and the university worked together to produce and provide content and support for the show “Doctors on Call.”
“There were a great community partner for expertise and funding,” Muhammad said.
Partnerships could also be struck with entities seeking to do documentaries with Lakeshore’s assistance.
“Those are some things we can do here. I think we can expand on that in the future,” he said.
Along with working on partnerships across the education and private sector will be collaborations with other public broadcasting networks throughout Indiana.
Providing more Indiana-pecific content will be a goal. Muhammad said Lakeshore was poised to conduct programming with the governor and key legislators during state Legislature’s current session, though bad weather at the start of the session put that plan on the back burner for now. That programming would have been shared with other Indiana public broadcasting companies.
“When we say consolidation, we are not talking about licensing or merging, but just kind of agreeing to consolidate efforts,” he said.
The goal is to have a single night of Indiana-based programming using content created throughout the Indiana Public Broadcasting System.
“It’s really looking at how we do business a bit differently and being very open to new ideas,” Muhammad said.