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Public Radio Says Thanks a Million — and a Half

4 min read

So just how does the biggest cash donation in the history of Little Rock public radio come in on the last day of a call-in fund drive?

I have this scenario in mind:

“Hello, thank you for supporting public radio. How much would you like to give?”

“One million, five hundred thousand dollars,” comes the reply. And in my head, at least, the phone volunteer hangs up in disbelief and has to be called back.

This almost certainly isn’t how it happened this month when an anonymous benefactor gave a record $1.5 million to University of Arkansas at Little Rock Public Radio, home to central Arkansas’ NPR station, KUAR-FM, 98.1, and the state’s only classical music FM station, KLRE Classical 90.5.

“You know, the details about how it came to be have to be as closely guarded as the name of the individual who made the donation,” said Christian O’Neal, UA Little Rock’s vice chancellor for university advancement, whose office handled receipt of the gift. “I’ll just say this is somebody who loves public radio, loves what public radio means for central Arkansas, and wants to encourage other people to do just what they’ve done. It was a chance to let other people know that public radio is a wonderful choice for private philanthropy.”

The gift amounted to 10 times the full goal of the fall fund drive, $150,000, and will fund an endowment expected to yield $60,000 a year for the stations’ operating budgets.

Nathan Vandiver, general manager of UA Little Rock Public Radio, noted that KUAR/KLRE is funded by the university, underwriting from businesses that reap the PR benefits from sponsoring public radio programming, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and “listeners like you,” individuals targeted in fund drives.

“This specific gift will create an endowment, and that’ll provide us with an additional $60,000 per year, roughly, that we can budget,” said Vandiver, who became interim general manager in 2016 and was named to the permanent post three years later. “This is going to make a big difference for us. The university funding is fairly steady, but individual giving and underwriting giving fluctuate a little bit each year, so any amount that we can add that we can plan for and be certain about is really helpful.”

Vandiver said he would use the money to bolster programming at KUAR, who according to audience sweeps reaches about 65,000 listeners per week. KLRE, with its classical format, reaches another 15,000 listeners. UA Little Rock Public Radio operates on a budget of about $1.4 million a year, with total operating expenses in fiscal year 2020, the latest for which figures are available, of $1,389,832. That year, individual giving provided 46% of revenue, $669,000. Underwriting provided $338,995, about 22%, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting and federal coronavirus aid grants kicked in nearly $197,000, or 13%. The remainder came from operating fund transfers from the university, $336,437, or 21% of the total.

UA Little Rock Public Radio has seven full-time employees and is set to hire three more. “We have four part-time employees who do a mix of news and programming, and then we’re working with five interns from the university this semester,” Vandiver said.

KUAR is known for the depth of its local news reporting, as well as listener favorites from NPR and other sources like “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered” and “This American Life.” “The TED Radio Hour” is another NPR feature attracting listeners. NPR programming costs the stations $200,000 to $250,000 a year, Vandiver said.

Largely because of COVID, individual contributions were down by nearly $20,000 in 2020 compared to 2019 as the pandemic prevented a full spring funding drive last year. Operating revenues were $1,204,922 for fiscal year 2020 compared with $1,387,704 in 2019, and underwriting was down $199,432 from 2019.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, public events just went away, and underwriting took a bit of a hit,” Vandiver said. “But on the other hand, individual giving has increased.” The fall drive was doing well before the big $1.5 million announcement, he said. “That was unprecedented for us.”

O’Neal said the endowed donation “will only gain in value, and it locks in the future of the public radio station.” He hopes it will also “plant the seed for other individuals who would like to make a difference to invest in the future of public radio here in Little Rock.”

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