During Hurricane Irma in September, the reporters and producers at WGCU, the Southwest Florida public TV and radio station, were never far from their desks, even in the middle of the night. In fact, they were probably directly under them. Camped out on air mattresses, catching a few hours of sleep if they were lucky, before going back on the air.
During the storm and its aftermath, there were about 12 staffers, plus 10 of their family members and a few pets, staying in the offices, on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University.
This is part of the mission of the station, says General Manager Rick Johnson, to keep listeners informed during a severe weather event. And the staff did an impressive job—so good that the Washington Post even made a video about their continuous storm coverage. Like all public radio stations statewide, WGCU-FM is connected to the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network, to ensure that all residents have access to necessary emergency information. The network includes a state-of-the-art storm center at WUFT-FM, the station at University of Florida in Gainesville. During the storm, their meteorologists cut into the broadcasts of WGCU and other stations round the state, with weather updates. Their equipment is so accurate, says Johnson, that they can pinpoint block-specific forecasts for areas of Naples, for example, out of Gainesville. Acting News Director Julie Glenn says, “We filled in the blanks with live reports from our reporters,” one of whom was located at the Lee County emergency operations center and another at the Collier County EOC.
The Irma coverage is a great example of the significant role WGCU performs in the area. For those of us who were in the area and had no power or cell service (so no TV or Internet), a battery-operated radio tuned to WGCU was an indispensable link to the outside world and a critical source of information.
In addition to emergency situations, of course, the station has a regular broadcasting schedule each day.
Glenn joined the station about a year ago, after spending the early years of her career in TV. She says she was attracted to public radio because she didn’t like how other news outlets were becoming “like reality TV.” She elaborates: “[At WGCU,] we don’t have to fill six or seven hours of airtime with news. We fill meaningful airtime. So we focus on the quality of our reporting. Instead of having to turn five stories in one day, the reporters can take their time and really get to the sources and get to the bottom of things. We can spend time—which is a luxury in news—to get the story and get it right and look at it from all different angles.” Glenn is also the host of Gulf Coast Live, a one-hour live call-in show that expanded this year from one day a week to five. It covers topics of local interest, ranging from autism training for Florida law enforcement to how Everglades pythons may be contributing to an epidemic. It is, among other things, a chance for a WGCU reporter to expand on a shorter news story.
“This is an opportunity for us to say, ‘here’s how we put this story together,’” says Glenn. “The climate right now is to not believe in the news and to think that reporters put things together because it’s their opinion and they have an agenda. I think that telling the story of journalism is another important part of what we’re able to do.”
Another part of her job, says Glenn, is to develop the talent of the younger staffers at WGCU. Southwest Florida is a smaller media market, so it tends to attract people who are just beginning their careers.
“They’re awesome; they’re really good. They all showed what they had during that hurricane. I think they may have surprised themselves with what they were capable of doing. They’re tenacious.”
The audience agrees. Kim Dye, associate general manager for development and community relations, says that the station garners 100,000 listeners a week and 500,000 TV viewers a week. “We’re consistently in the top 10 for PBS markets—where we’re up against LA, D.C., New York,” she says. “Several times a month, we are the number one PBS station in the country. Little Fort Myers!”
Dye tells a story that illustrates why she believes the audience sticks with NPR and PBS: “When the Boston Marathon bombing happened, we were on the air fundraising,” she says. “The first thing I did was tell everyone to stop asking for money.” Then she watched and listened. “I had the NPR Twitter feed on my phone. I was watching MSNBC on TV and I was listening to NPR news.” She saw a young TV reporter proclaim that the bomber was hiding in a boat parked in a residential neighborhood. The reporter had heard this third or fourth hand, Dye says. “She was making herself part of the news and making it very sensationalistic.”
Dye kept watching and listening. “It was about an hour and a half later when NPR independently confirmed and then reported that he was indeed in the boat. It took longer. But I knew I could believe it. And there was no sensationalism. And I thought, this is why I work for an NPR station.”
Changing the Ask
The station’s financial status has been equally solid. Since 2012, funds raised have increased 70 percent—from $2.8 million to $4 million, says Dye. The additional $2 million in the station’s budget comes from grants and some support in cash and in-kind from Florida Gulf Coast University. (WGCU is a licensee of FGCU, and the university provides its building among other in-kind support.)
To drum up the $4 million, though, the station has been changing its ways. “For years, the model for fundraising was, you call in, you make a gift and you get a coffee mug or a tote bag. Very transactional giving,” says Dye, who has been at the station since 2012. “A lot of people were giving $60 and $75 and $100 a year who had the wealth to give much, much more.” The station was asking for $100 and offering a DVD of a concert, says Dye. And then it occurred to her and her colleagues that they could ask, ‘Could you do a thousand?’ They would say, ‘Of course I can do a thousand. But nobody ever asked me before.’”
They’ve begun to take the time to foster relationships with donors, through events, a phone call, a handwritten note, special seating at concerts or early ticketing opportunities.
“We’re doing everything that a traditional nonprofit does to cultivate relationships with donors,” says Dye. “But we had just never done it.”
Dye says she spent years developing a relationship with philanthropist Myra Janco Daniels, who gave $3 million in 2016—the largest gift in the station’s history. She listened to Daniels’s suggestions—10 pages of them—and worked to address them one by one, to improve the station.
“We have 15,000 donors and we are listening to them,” Dye says. “We’re adjusting things, changing programming, trying to do what they want of us, versus us telling them what they should want. And it’s not just WGCU, it’s PBS and NPR across the country.”
An example of the station listening to listeners and viewers is a new series called Curious Gulf Coast. Viewers and listeners submit questions (such as, “Why is the flamingo the symbol of Florida when we don’t have flamingos?” or “Why is there so much rage and disrespect on Southwest Florida’s roads?”). Audience members vote on which ones they’d most like answered, and then the WGCU reporters go get answers. The questions will generate short TV documentaries as well as call-in segments on the radio show Gulf Coast Live.
Other innovations are percolating in the building with giant satellite dishes outside too. Staffers are cooking up something called the Center for Civic Engagement and Media Innovation. Although it’s still in the idea stage, Dye says she envisions it as a place for civil discourse and discussion. It may start as a virtual space and grow into a physical one and an on-air presence. She hopes to see a place where people can come and talk about issues that are important to them, and where world leaders can come and lecture, and the station can then broadcast those talks. For his part, Johnson sees it as an opportunity to become more fully integrated into FGCU, so that students can get more hands-on broadcasting experience, faculty can experiment and the community can become more fully engaged. “We want to be media innovators,” says Dye.
Given the strong trajectory WGCU is on, it seems likely that the station will innovate and continue to be indispensable. “I always say, we don’t cure cancer; we don’t feed the hungry; we don’t clothe the poor. But we tell the stories of the people who do. We raise awareness,” says Dye. “Our educational programming teaches young kids to read and write and spell,” and documentaries educate older viewers. “From cradle to grave, we serve everybody in this region.