Laura Walker, President and CEO, WNYC Radio

Laura Walker, President and CEO, WNYC Radio

The largest public radio station in the country, WNYC Radio produces more than 350 hours of original news, music, and cultural programs each week — on the air, both FM and AM, via satellite, and online. In 1996, journalist, radio producer, Sesame Workshop veteran, Peabody Award winner, and Yale MBA Laura Walker arrived at the station to shepherd it from a city-owned agency to an independent nonprofit. In doing so, she had to renegotiate the station's contract with the city, raise $20 million to purchase the licenses, and set a course for the future. From 2005 to 2008, Walker spearheaded a $57.5 million capital campaign to finance the station's move into new, state-of-the-art digs in downtown Manhattan. Not only did the station meet its goal, it exceeded it by 9 percent, raising a record $62.9 million.

PND recently spoke with Walker about the success of that campaign, how the economic crisis has affected giving, and what a fully digital future holds for WNYC.

Philanthropy News Digest: What was the impetus for your recently concluded capital campaign, and how much of your funding goal was secured before the economic crisis hit?

Laura Walker: The impetus for the campaign was that the station had been on the twenty-fifth floor of the Municipal Building in Lower Manhattan since what felt like the beginning of time. Our first broadcast aired from there in 1924, when our staff was only thirteen people. From 1924 to 1997, the city of New York owned and ran the station, but for almost the last twenty years of that, from 1979 to 1997, there was a foundation board comprised mostly of people appointed by mayors, with a handful of independent members who helped raise money. When Mayor Giuliani announced he was going to sell the station's broadcast licenses, the board said, "Then you have to sell them to us. We're going to become totally independent." It was a big deal because they were commercial licenses, and the mayor could have sold them for a lot more money.

I came to WNYC in 1996 with a mandate to raise the money needed to buy the licenses, secure the station's independence, and, maybe most importantly, to set the direction for what we would become. At my first WNYC staff meeting, everybody was discouraged. So I asked, "What is your vision?" Somebody said, "I just want people to want to work here." In our new space, we have three floors, each one about three times the size of the twenty-fifth floor at the original location; almost two hundred people work for us now; and we have thousands of applications each year for positions that open or are created.

The capital campaign financed our move to Hudson Square in 2008 as well as construction of the 120-seat Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, which opened on April 28; it will also fund new programming initiatives. Since September 2008, we've received about $11 million of the money that was committed, but many of those conversations were initiated long before that and/or there had been verbal commitments that have not been made public yet. In addition, several board members came in toward the end of the campaign and helped us meet the $2.5 million challenge grant we received from the Kresge Foundation. That match was an important piece, but the people we were talking to cared so deeply about WNYC that the faltering economy actually may have motivated some of them to give more. Many of the donors said they appreciated our covering the economic crisis in an issue-oriented way and compared the role we were playing to the one we had played after 9/11 — providing a forum for intelligent discussion among New Yorkers while satisfying people's emotional needs.

WNYC's board and I approached the campaign in the same way. We were ambitious and committed to growth and strengthening our impact, but cautious financially. That's a good combination. The unsung heroes of the campaign were the staff, with their incredible teamwork, and the board, led by chairperson Nicki Tanner and campaign chair Alexander Kaplen, who had the focus, determination, tenacity, and creativity that his job demanded. We had been looking for a new home for quite a while and didn't fully launch the campaign until we had found exactly what we needed. That was important in getting the board's approval, and it also made the story we told funders more powerful because we could show them the space and explain how we would put our plan into action. The result was a lot of major donations but also eight thousand small gifts.

If I were starting the silent phase of the capital campaign today instead of in 2005, I would still proceed in much the same way. I would work closely with the board to devise a plan based on whatwe need to do and whywe need to do it, and I wouldn't launch the campaign until I felt the board was 100 percent behind it. Certainly, the plan would be different if we were starting today, and it might even be a different space. But the goals would be the same.

PND: How does your funding support break down?

LW: Membership is huge and, frankly, in this economy, increasingly important. Membership support comes from fund drives, pledge drives, direct mail, regular mail, and e-mail and represents about 34 percent of our operating budget. Underwriting represents another 32 percent; foundations, major donors, and government support comprise about 24 percent; and interest and other ancillary revenues account for 10 percent.

PND: Has the economic downturn affected your pledge drives and the way individuals choose to give?

LW: We've been looking for big patterns related to the economy and have found them occurring at both the high and low end of giving. For instance, more people at the high end are saying, "Public radio is really important to me and to the city, so I'm going to give — maybe even give more than I've given previously." And people at the low end write or e-mail us, saying, "I've lost my job, but you're providing something critically important in my life, so I'm still going to donate, though maybe not as much as I have in the past."

Interestingly, at the beginning of our last pledge drive, in February, we saw fewer people calling in and higher dollar amounts, but by the end of the drive it was about the same as the preceding year, with the average pledge roughly $96, up a little from 2007, and end-of-year-giving a little lower than in 2007, but not significantly so.

PND: What opportunities does digital technology represent for WNYC, and what challenges does it represent for public radio stations that use only an analog platform?

LW: In envisioning our new space, we saw WNYC as a twenty-first-century content provider. So, while our radio signal remains important in New York City, increasingly we are becoming a national and, in some cases, an international audio-based multi-platform content provider. That's the future, and digital technology is enabling it. More and more people are using digital technology to tap into radio streams on the Web and using the Internet to communicate with each other and with us. The phenomenon is only going to grow.

In the new space, we have twenty small production studios and five large, on-air studios, compared to six large studios and only one or two production studios in the old space. The small studios are now fully digital, so producers, editors, and reporters can do their own mixing without having to wait in line. A few weeks after we moved in, a reporter told me, "What used to take me four hours to mix just took half an hour." It's not only about efficiency; that person is now free to go out and cover another story.

That's WNYC today. But I also think locally oriented, analog public radio stations can survive by taking on the role of independent, locally oriented media and filling the void created by the demise of local newspapers and the print newspaper business model. In the process, they'll be hiring reporters from some of the newspapers that folded while participating much more in their communities and investing more in their users. Public radio benefits from having diverse revenue streams — small donors, large donors, foundations, underwriters, partnerships. That said, the public radio stations that basically broadcast national programs and don't provide a lot of local service will become less and less relevant.

PND: WNYC's new street-level performance and broadcast studio, the Greene Space, seems a huge departure for a radio station. Why invest in a physical space when you're already in the homes, offices, and cars of millions of people via the air waves and Internet?

LW: That's a good question. Some of it has to do with putting down roots in the community. We were up on the twenty-fifth floor of a civic building for so long that we began to feel isolated, whereas in the new space we're changing our perspective, becoming more outwardly focused, and making ourselves more visible to the community. We're planning three kinds of activities for the space. First, live radio shows. It also will be a creative venture and incubator of sorts, in that we plan to commission works for the space, including original music and radio dramas. Finally, we plan to partner with other institutions to present concerts, debates, and other cultural events. Some shows will be ticketed, some will be free, and eventually we expect the space to be self-sustaining through a combination of ticket sales, funding from foundations and individuals, and corporate sponsorships.

Having a live audience will enrich the substance of all the shows we produce, enhancing the experience for both program participants and the person listening at home. For me, it's still very much about old-time radio, a lot of which was created with live audiences. Except that everything that comes out of the Greene Space will be produced in several mediums — radio, video, Web — so we'll be creating the intimacy of radio but in a state-of-the-art multi-platform space.

PND: Well, thanks, Laura, and congratulations.

LW: Thank you.

— Alice Garrard