WILL weather cuts 'break my heart,' says general manager
A reorganization at Illinois Public Media will bring to an end its weather forecasting services and eliminate nine positions at the more than 50-year-old public broadcasting service based at the University of Illinois.
Facing six-figure losses in state funding and an uncertain funding outlook from the university, Illinois Public Media announced several changes on Thursday.
Among the most significant of those changes is the elimination of its weather department.
Meteorologist Ed Kieser and weather producer Mike Sola have been responsible for forecasting East Central Illinois weather for WILL’s radio and television stations. They also take calls weekly from listeners who are traveling and seeking specific weather outlooks.
“It truly does break my heart to see it go,” said Illinois Public Media General Manager Mark Leonard on Thursday. “During the time of a tornado, Ed Kieser is a voice of comfort for many,” he said. And the “Talk to Ed” and “Talk to Mike” call-in segments on Fridays have been “very unique services in public broadcasting,” he said.
But weather information now is available from many sources, including online sites, and providing the weather service costs Illinois Public Media about $140,000 annually, with about $40,000 of that underwritten by businesses, Leonard said. The station has not been able to find any external funding to help support the weather service, he said.
On-air weather forecasting, which is broadcast on WILL-TV and its AM and FM radio stations, will end April 1.
The plan is for announcers to share weather information gathered from reports provided by the National Weather Service. During severe weather, announcers will keep people apprised of any developments, he said.
Employees of Illinois Public Media, which includes WILL-AM 580 and WILL-FM 90.9/101.1 and WILL-TV, were notified of the decision on Thursday. Nine positions were eliminated, including those in the weather department, art department, radio and TV producers and programmers and other positions. However, Leonard said he planned to add three additional positions, including a Web developer, in the coming year.
The savings from the closing of the weather department and the staff reductions will not be realized immediately, since university employees with five years of employment receive one year’s notice of their nonreappointment, Leonard said.
He said he hopes they have made enough cuts so that they won’t have to make any more staff reductions in the future.
“We don’t want to go through this again,” he said.
Last fall, Illinois Public Media learned it had lost $110,000 in funding from the Illinois Arts Council due to state budget cuts. Its annual arts council funding has declined by more than $280,000 since 2006, according to Leonard.
State grants from the Illinois Arts Council accounted for about 7 percent of the public broadcasting organization’s $9.6 million annual budget for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2009. Other funding comes from listener and viewer donations, federal grants, program underwriting and other sources.
Nationwide, membership at public stations has been shrinking, but at WILL, it has grown, Leonard said. There are currently about 13,000 members. Membership contributions total about $2.1 million and account for about 40 percent of Illinois Public Media’s budget. If it were not for those donations, the radio and TV stations’ budget situations could be worse, he said. Illinois Public Media is not currently carrying any debt, he said.
University funding accounts for 23 percent of its budget, and federal grants such as from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting account for 19 percent of the budget.
“University funding so far has remained stable,” Leonard said. But the organization is planning for reductions in funding from the UI, and exactly how much that amount will decline is not known. Since Illinois Public Media started planning for a reorganization last fall, however, “the news from the university and the state continues to deteriorate,” Leonard said.
Over the years, the organization has been cutting costs by reducing staff by attrition and by some involuntary separations. In the spring of 2008, it employed 68 people, not including hourly employees. That number has steadily shrunk and is now at about 50.
And yet, Leonard said, Illinois Public Media’s reorganization “is not just about cost-saving measures, it’s about making critical investments to build audiences.”
WILL-FM will become a dual-format station on April 1 as news shows such as National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” will be added. WILL-FM’s weekday morning music show host Vic Di Geronimo will move from early morning to a 9 a.m. to noon slot to accommodate the addition of “Morning Edition.” Other FM shows, including “Live and Local with Kevin Kelly,” “Prairie Performances,” “Afternoon at the Opera,” “Classics by Request” and “Classics of the Phonograph” will continue at their current times. The amount of classical music broadcast on WILL-FM will be about the same, but it will be played at different times, with more classical music being played on Friday evenings and weekends.
With the FM format change, listeners west of Champaign, to Decatur and toward Springfield will be able to listen to news shows like “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” Both of those shows include WILL-AM newscasts. WILL’s AM signal reaches north to Chicago, but not that far to the west when the signal powers down in the evening.
“One year from now, we will have grown our audience base,” Leonard said.
WILL-AM hosts David Inge and Celeste Quinn will continue to host their weekday local talk and news shows. Inge’s “Focus 580” morning show from 10 a.m. to noon will be renamed “Focus.” “The Afternoon Magazine” will be shortened to a one-hour show, to be aired from noon to 1 p.m. That show will be followed by NPR’s “Fresh Air,” which will also air at 7 p.m. weekdays. At 2 p.m., WILL-AM will air a one-hour agriculture and business program hosted by Illinois Public Media agriculture director Dave Dickey and “Closing Market Report” host Todd Gleason.
Also as part of the reorganization, WILL-AM staff will focus more on in-depth coverage of local issues, Leonard said.
More information, including a list of frequently asked questions, is available on WILL’s Web site at http://will.illinois.edu/realignment
Leonard will appear on WILL-AM’s “Focus 580” at 11:06 a.m. Monday to talk with listeners about the changes planned.