How sharing back-office services helps sustain collaborative journalism — and Alaska radio stations
In the world of 21st-century public radio, collaborations have become commonplace — from statewide partnerships in California, Texas and the Gulf States to networks focused on issues, such as Harvest Public Media, based in Kansas City, Missouri, and devoted to food and agriculture topics in the Midwest.
Yet among the growing number of collaborations in public radio, one stands out for its track record of more than two decades and for the creative way it funds its operations.
Since 1994, CoastAlaska has grown from an informal alliance of six Alaska public radio stations into a full-fledged nonprofit organization with an annual budget of about $4.3 million. Its mission is bringing communities in Alaska together through access to quality news and information. CoastAlaska offers back-office support to six public radio stations for a fraction of what local options would cost, and a shared editor coordinates editorial projects across member stations. Funding comes from fees paid by member stations, underwriting and grants, especially from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Mollie Kabler, CoastAlaska’s executive director, says CoastAlaska is both a collaborative and a service bureau.
“We work on the budget together and share our stories,” Kabler said. “We are definitely collaborative. It is the root of where we began.”
Sharing core services to cut costs
In addition to the editorial services it provides to the core six stations in the southeast and Aleutian parts of the state, CoastAlaska also offers business services to stations on an a la carte basis. This includes membership services, like sending personalized letters to donors and maintaining donor databases, and accounting services, such as compiling annual financial reports and processing invoices.
CoastAlaska also helps its members develop underwriting services, coordinating with potential advertisers across all six stations, and applies for grants that can be shared with all.
“In small public media stations, each employee may wear many hats,” Kabler said. “At this point in the CoastAlaska collaboration, the stations get significant expertise and service from the shared regional staff.”
For instance, Kabler worked with CoastAlaska’s station managers to secure grants for personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. These funds came from the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism, the Alaska Community Foundation and other community-based grants through the federal CARES Act.
All these services have helped some CoastAlaska member stations achieve more financial sustainability than they would have had on their own. That’s the case with one of CoastAlaska’s newest members, KUCB, in Unalaska.
“Before we joined CoastAlaska I was concerned about how the station would run if we lost key employees,” said Lauren Adams, KUCB’s general manager. “Now a lot of our important administrative and engineering tasks are done in tandem with Coast staff members, which means there are a lot more people able to fix issues and maintain stability.”
The same applies to member station KSTK in Wrangell. Cindy Sweat, KSTK’s general manager, says its involvement with CoastAlaska is key to its ability to keep broadcasting.
“Our station shares news, engineering, finance, business office, membership, underwriting and other services at a fraction of the cost of paying for those services individually,” Sweat said. “KSTK does not have the funding to hire employees to fill all of the services CoastAlaska provides; therefore, the station would not be able to serve our community without CoastAlaska services.”
Public funding for collaborative public radio
Revenue for CoastAlaska also comes from grants through other governmental bodies beyond CPB. However, this has not proven to be a reliable revenue stream. In 2019, Alaska’s governor vetoed funding for the state’s Public Broadcasting Commission, which distributed grants to the state’s public TV and radio stations. The total of these grants, $2.7 million, was not life-threatening, Kabler said, but it was devastating.
According to recent financial documents, most funding for CoastAlaska comes from membership revenue, followed by CPB grants and revenue from underwriting.
CoastAlaska’s future — and what other collaboratives can learn
Kabler credits some key factors for CoastAlaska’s longevity. One is a dedicated leader who can nurture the collaboration without the competing demands or affiliation of another job. The value of the collaboration also needs to be made clear.
“If it’s just what is in it for me, that will be a hard road,” Kabler said. “It has to benefit everyone.”
Value can come from a variety of places, Kabler said. It can happen when a collaborative coalesces around a specific beat, an idea for coverage, or a type of funding that supports it. Once you work with people and organizations that are willing and supportive of the collaborative, trust will build, Kabler said.
Successful collaboration takes time and energy to keep up communication and sort out problems or changes, she said.
“You need to bring your problems forward and put them on the table,” Kabler said. “If you can put them there and work together, that’s how you can move forward.”
Sweat, general manager of KSTK in Wrangell, said CoastAlaska continues to fine-tune how it communicates with member stations as it grows. Collaborative organizations like CoastAlaska that aim to persist in the long run must also plan for staff turnover, she said — a reality for many small news organizations and for CoastAlaska, too.
When CoastAlaska works best, Kabler said, it helps stations grow capacity, not just create efficiencies and save money. Ultimately, the mission is about robust support for local news not just in Alaska’s cities, but in the communities in between and far away.