The University Record, June 17, 2002

U-M radio and television stations merge

By Julie Peterson
Office of the Vice President for Communications

The University’s two public broadcasting entities—WFUM-TV in Flint and Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Flint—will combine into a new organization called Michigan Public Media. The new operating structure will take advantage of digital technology and the convergence between different types of media to allow the radio and TV stations to create engaging new content for Michigan viewers and listeners.

The new structure grows out of the work of a review team convened jointly by Juan Mestas, chancellor of the Flint campus, and Lisa Rudgers, vice president for communications. The team, which included representatives from the Provost’s Office, CFO, Rackham, School of Information, Development, Health System, Government Relations and General Counsel, worked over nine months to determine how to address longstanding financial challenges at WFUM-TV and an FCC mandate that the stations convert to digital technology by 2003.

Donovan Reynolds, who was appointed director of broadcasting at Michigan Radio in 1996, will be director of Michigan Public Media and general manager of the radio and TV stations.

“Digital broadcasting offers us some of the most important opportunities in media in decades,” says Reynolds. “In the analog era of broadcasting, the University of Michigan played a key role in the development of both public radio and television. Now, in the digital age, the University is reclaiming its role as a producer of high-quality and intelligent programming.

“Digital technology is erasing the lines between the traditional formats of radio, TV, and the Internet,” he notes. “For example, we can capture pictures and sound digitally, use this material for a series of radio programs, edit it into a package for TV, and serve all this information up over the Web in an interactive fashion for those who are interested in more depth. In addition, having a digital TV signal ultimately will allow us to use up to four channels at once to offer alternatives—such as lectures and coursework—in addition to our mainstream programming.”

Interim President B. Joseph White sees the University’s public broadcasting assets as a crucial link connecting the University to the people of Michigan. “We have an incredible wealth of information here—lectures by the world’s foremost experts in their fields, fascinating panel discussions on the topics of the day, musical and dramatic performances, and museum exhibits,” he says. “It’s exciting to think about how the media convergence of digital broadcasting and the web will help us to share all this with a wider group of people. The radio and TV stations, in their production of top-quality local programming, represent a powerful way the University can reach out to the people of this state.”

The radio station has nearly 350,000 regular listeners stretching from Ann Arbor up to Flint and over to Grand Rapids, and the television station is carried via cable into 3.3 million Southeast Michigan homes.

Keeping the radio and TV stations’ local character was an important requirement in recommending they combine operations, according to the review team. The TV station, which will now be known as “Michigan Television,” will remain headquartered in Flint and the radio operation will stay in Ann Arbor. More importantly, they will place an even greater emphasis on developing original programming with a local flair that may also be of interest to public radio and TV audiences across the country, Reynolds says.

For example, Michigan Television has begun a new series titled “The Flint Project: Working for Change,” focusing on issues such as literacy, unemployment, race relations, environmental concerns, and labor/management relations. The series was inaugurated Feb. 28 with the broadcast of “Recall,” which dealt with the recall election of Flint Mayor Woodrow Stanley. The town-hall-style panel discussion was moderated by WUOM’s Todd Mundt.

“The TV station is very visible and important to the Flint community,” says Mestas. “We envision expanding Michigan Television’s role as a ‘public square’ for exploring local issues and giving a voice to our community.”

Other examples of original, local programming include:

—A forum on environmental issues with Michigan’s five gubernatorial candidates, co-produced by Michigan Radio and Michigan Television in partnership with the Detroit Free Press and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. The program was recorded live in Brighton before a public audience and will air on public radio and TV stations across the state.

—A two-hour documentary on land-use issues titled “Sprawling of America,” produced by the newly created Great Lakes Television Consortium, an outgrowth of Michigan Radio. The program has been nominated for six Emmy Awards.

—A radio feature series on the Royal Shakespeare Company residency at U-M in March 2001 and a four-part series on the life of playwright Arthur Miller. Portions of those interviews were picked up by National Public Radio (NPR) and aired nationally as well.

A national advisory board also will be created to pave the way for production and syndication of high-quality national programming.

Michigan Public Media will have a dotted-line reporting relationship with Mestas but will report directly to Rudgers. The savings created by sharing some personnel and operations in areas such as fundraising and administration will allow the TV station to develop greater financial stability over time and reduce University subsidies.

The new organization will build on the successes of WUOM, which has become the fastest growing NPR station in the country and is the top-ranked public radio station in Michigan. “WUOM has doubled its audience in the past year and is now the most-listened-to radio station, public or commercial, in Ann Arbor,” says Rudgers. “Its locally-produced programming, headlined by the Todd Mundt Show, has won numerous awards and is attracting a national audience as well.

“As some of the thought and talent that has created Michigan Radio’s success is shared with the television station, we think viewers will enjoy stronger University of Michigan programming. We hope pleased listeners will translate into increased listener memberships, corporate underwriting and foundation support.”

Reynolds says that shared programming staff and a shared investment in digital technology will make possible a high-definition, digital signal and a higher quality of programming in a multimedia environment. “We’re at the edge of a very exciting change that is happening across the country,” he says. “As consumer preferences change, media organizations will need to be flexible enough to adapt across all platforms. We’re seeing mergers like ours in Cleveland, San Francisco and Connecticut. We think it’s the best way to take full advantage of the new media environment we are entering.”

Michigan Radio can be heard on WUOM, 91.7 FM, in Ann Arbor; WVGR, 104.1 FM, in Grand Rapids; and WFUM, 91.1 FM, in Flint. Michigan Television (WFUM-TV) is Channel 28 in Flint and Channel 26 in Ann Arbor. For channels in other viewing areas, check your local cable listings.

# # # # #