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Don Wirth

Don Wirth is director of finance and administration for Iowa Public Radio. He also serves as manager of the WOI station group housed in ISU's Communications Building. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Nov. 2, 2007

Public radio that's Wirth it

by Anne Krapfl

It's not as if he hasn't help marshal a group of employees through a significant change before ... about 20 years ago, to be exact. In 1987, when WOI-TV split off from the WOI radio stations to become a for-profit television company, then-business manager Don Wirth learned - and quickly - a lot about creating systems for purchasing, employee payroll, health insurance and other employee benefits.

As the history goes, WOI-TV was sold to Capital Communications in 1994, and Wirth returned full-time to the radio stations. He was serving as associate general manager for finance and operations in December 2004 when the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, made the final decision to merge the public radio stations at the three regent universities into one entity, Iowa Public Radio.

By some accounts, it's been a tumultuous almost-three years of changes - in leadership, on-air programming, job responsibilities and direction. Since August 2006, Wirth has served as director of finance and administration for Iowa Public Radio and as one of three station group managers.

Some kind of change -- including the possibility of a merger -- was inevitable, Wirth said.

"Radio is not part of a university's core mission. That became very clear over the last 15 years, as university funding dwindled and private fund raising became critical," he said. "We were hitting the ceiling with where we were so, financially, we couldn't continue as we were."

Still, every transition period has its moments.

"Like a lot of people, I've got a sense of loss, personally," Wirth said. "I can't walk away from all we did to develop WOI Radio without feeling some loss."

And then the game face goes back on.

"The board of regents directed this, but we can have an impact on where the change happens," he said.

So, what's different?

Management agreement

Incorporated in February 2006, Iowa Public Radio is a non-profit organization with an office in Des Moines. IPR has six employees: an executive director, directors for development and on-air content, and three station group managers, whose jobs were restructured to include IPR-wide responsibilities (see box). The corporation's task is to manage the day-to-day operations of the radio groups and coordinate all fund-raising efforts. Wirth said this doesn't sever the ISU Foundation's ability to receive gifts designated for the WOI radio stations. It does remove the foundation from the annual giving drives.

The board of regents pays a management fee to IPR for these services, this year $300,000. The fee is paid from fund-raising proceeds.

Radio station employees remain employees of their respective universities.

"This is not about creating a super-sized organization," Wirth said. "Our understanding of the management agreement is that the majority of the positions will stay at the universities."

For example, the membership departments of the three radio groups are beginning to coordinate their efforts, under a single membership manager who started in late September. The administrative team made the decision to anchor that function in Ames, so Todd Behrends became an ISU employee. And a new underwriting manager for IPR, Connie Grauerholz, also became an ISU employee, but works out of IPR's Des Moines office.


On Jan. 1, Iowa Public Radio launched its statewide "news and information" service, which affected mostly AM station schedules. And its "classical network" was inaugurated Sept. 10 on WOI-FM, KSUI-FM and KHKE-FM. During any given hour, it's the same program with the same host heard across the state, not two or three people serving as local hosts for the same national program.

The statewide schedule frees up former program hosts -- such as Rob Dillard and Rick Fredericksen from WOI Radio -- to cover more news stories or develop new program concepts, Wirth said. A key example is IPR coverage of presidential candidates barraging the state since late spring.

"By bringing the three radio groups together, the extent of coverage of the candidates is far above what any station could have done on its own," he said. "Rob Dillard interviews a candidate and provides a report for [Morning Edition Iowa host] Al Kern's news report."

The new structure has changed the meaning of "local," Wirth noted. "It's Iowa-focused now. What's important to all Iowans?" he said. "'Local' probably is more regional now, and there is some loss in that, but listeners are receiving greater insight into Iowa in general."

He cited the evolving Symphonies of Iowa series on the FM stations as a non-news example. Listeners statewide will hear performances by the Cedar Rapids, Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Quad City and Des Moines symphonies as that program gets off the ground.

Membership drive

Two weeks ago, Iowa Public Radio completed its first statewide, on-air membership drive, and for the first time in nearly 15 years, there were no member volunteers staffing phone banks on behalf of "their" station. Pledge calls went to a call center in California.

"Did we have to pay for that service and did we hear about it? Yes," Wirth said. "But logistically, there weren't many options. Our pledges were jumping from 2,200 to 5,000, and we didn't have the expanded computer or phone system, much less a room, to accommodate that.

"At peak times, we would have needed up to 30 phone room volunteers," he said.

Wirth said he's satisfied with the results of the semi-annual drive, noting it's just one slice of IPR's fund-raising pie. Pledges and gifts exceeded $631,000.

"Over eight days, we had as much listener response, if not greater, as when we were three stations," he said. "Listeners are moving to the concept of Iowa Public Radio."

Still, the volunteers were missed.

"One of our big lessons learned is that we have to find a way to connect with our volunteers," he said. "Everyone has acknowledged what they brought to the drives -- their enthusiasm, their morale boost to the staff, their hard work. We really missed that."

What's next

Iowa Public Radio expects to bring two more repeater stations (essentially unstaffed stations that are fed a signal for rebroadcast) online in January or February, Wirth said. In March, the Federal Communications Commission issued construction permits to Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa for the stations, both of which will serve the Ottumwa area. When they're operational, Wirth said another 70,000 Iowans will have a clear signal for public radio. A $450,000 grant from the federal government will cover 75 percent of the cost of the infrastructure and equipment needed.

During this fiscal year, the three regent universities will spend a total of $2.5 million for campus improvements that benefit Iowa Public Radio. In addition to opening the Ottumwa stations, Wirth said Iowa Public Radio is in the process of converting three FM stations (WOI-FM, KHKE and KTPR) to HD (hybrid digital) radio. IPR also will upgrade the automation systems at its stations and double the capacity of the communications infrastructure that links the three station sites and enables them to share programming.


Iowa Public Radio employees (6)

  • Cindy Browne, executive director
  • Robin Fraser, director of development
  • Todd Mundt, director of content and media
  • Three station group managers:
    • Wayne Jarvis, director of network operations and KUNI/KHKE station group manager
    • Joan Kjaer, deputy director and KSUI/WSUI station group manager
    • Don Wirth, director of finance and administration and WOI station group manager


"Over eight days, we had as much listener response, if not greater, as when we were three stations. Listeners are moving to the concept of Iowa Public Radio."

Don Wirth