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The "Crisis of Confidence" series is a multi-year effort by the Tri States Public Radio to document the impact the two-year state budget impasse had on Western Illinois University and the ongoing recovery efforts at WIU. State support for public higher education institutions has been steadily declining in Illinois for more than a decade. But the issue was compounded, during the state's historic two-year budget impasse during Fiscal Years '16 and '17 which left public colleges and universities with little state financial support. At Western Illinois University, that drastic cut in state appropriations resulted in significant budget cuts, employee furloughs, and layoffs.

WIU Eliminates Funding for Tri States Public Radio

After his State of the University speech, Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas told reporters, "We have made cuts and we will have to continue to make those cuts and we will do the necessary things that we have to do."

Some of those cuts will directly affect Tri States Public Radio, as per a message emailed from University Spokesperson Darcie Shinberger:

Hi Rich.

Dr. Thomas asked that I share this information with you. Like WQPT, the Quad Cities Public Broadcasting station that is housed on the WIU-QC campus, Tri States Public Radio on the Macomb campus, will become a self-supported organization. When WQPT transferred to WIU from Black Hawk College in 2010, WQPT was required to identify and obtain operating funds for the station, including personnel expenditures. 

Similar to the WQPT partnership with the University, the WIU Foundation will provide nonprofit status for Tri States Public Radio. The radio station will become a self-funded department within the University structure and will be responsible for generating its revenue needs, including personnel expenditures, effective March 1, 2019.

The radio story

The email was sent around six hours after TSPR questioned President Thomas about the rationale behind the decision:

TSPR:  What about services? Programs and services? How do you decide which ones you’re investing in and which one you’re going to zero out or reduce funding for?

Thomas:  We want to save as many faculty and staff as possible and that’s what we have been doing. And we’ve been trying not to cut in terms of the nucleus, in terms of the academic programs and so forth. A rule of thumb is that you cut as many services as you can if you have to. But that’s just the rule of thumb and how we do. But decisions are being made and we continue to review.

TSPR:  I’m going to ask you about a particular program or service. It’s the one that’s on this mic flag.  What goes into the decision to zero fund that?

Thomas:  We have had various discussions and looking at various services, as I stated. And we just looked at those things that are not as part of the nucleus of the education. We know that everything is important to us. But when we get to a situation we have to make those tough decisions.

TSPR:  Do you look at all at reducing the funding and trying to keep a service like that going or why the decision to just completely ax it?

Thomas: Rich, you are directly affected by this and I don’t want to continue this discussion.  Because it’s getting personal.

TSPR: I’m just asking – I think the audience would want to know what goes into that decision making process. 

Thomas:  We all sit down and we make decisions based on what’s best for the institution.

But TSPR General Manager Jonathan Ahl said no one from the administration or Board of Trustees ever met with him.

“I was not allowed to attend any meetings with the provost, the president, or the Board of Trustees on this matter.  All of my communications were directly with my supervisor, Dean (Billy) Clow, the Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, who then passed it up the chain,” said Ahl.

Ahl said he worked with Dean Billy Clow to develop a plan that would have included significant savings for the university and yet kept TSPR functioning mostly as it does right now. But, Ahl said it was never considered. “We were not allowed to present that alternative to the provost, the president, or the Board of Trustees,” Ahl said.

Ahl said he understands the financial pressures facing WIU, and he respects the work done by WQPT, but added that comparing TSPR to WQPT is a false equivalency.

“WQPT is a television station in a metropolitan area, the Quad Cities. And their signal reaches about a million people.  We are a radio station in an incredibly rural area. And even with four different signals, we get to less than a quarter of a million people,” Ahl said.

“So to think that we can, with the media market that we operate in, be an equivalent to them is simply not true.”

Ahl said TSPR will continue to exist but significant changes will be made to the programming and the staffing unless the decision is undone. 

“We are exploring many different options for what the future may bring.  Since we weren’t in the discussion process for very long, a lot of this is still very new to us so we are trying to figure out what’s next.

The university’s appropriations to TSPR most notably fund the full time salaries for nine of the 12 staff positions. The university also provides space on its Macomb campus for TSPR’s main broadcast studios. TSPR has additional bureaus in Galesburg, IL and Keokuk, IA.

“There is a strong resolve among the people who work here and our advisory board that we need to work incredibly hard (and) very quickly, to see what options are possible to make this service be as viable and as vibrant as it can be for a long time,” Ahl said.

Tri States Public Radio is the NPR-affiliate at WIU providing locally produced news and music for west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.