When Rich Homberg took over as president of Detroit Public Television in 2008, after working many years for CBS, he knew that the souring economy and profound changes in the media industry would force him to change how the station raised money.
In particular, corporate underwriting, once a mainstay of the station’s budget, was rapidly disappearing, so Mr. Homberg decided to lay off four full-time employees who solicited such support. Those layoffs were just a few of many that cut the station’s staff from 90 people to 65.
To replace corporate underwriting, Mr. Homberg created a “content development” department, charged with finding local organizations to help pay for and lend their expertise to new programs by the station.
To appeal to new supporters, such as local family foundations and government agencies, the station narrowed its programs to focus on just five issues, chosen because they were seen as very important to Detroit’s residents. Now, all programs must focus on children, cultural resources, public affairs, health, or the environment.
The new programs meet a need, Mr. Homberg says, largely because newspapers and television stations have been shrinking the amount of local coverage they provide.
“We have to move hard against these trends” that make it harder for people to be informed about issues affecting the places they live, he says.
He adds that he hopes public broadcasting stations will increasingly see themselves as “a content hub connected to the community.”
One example of the station’s new approach is “Great Lakes Now,” 25 hours’ worth of sessions and speakers filmed at a weeklong annual conference about restoring the lakes. Mr. Homberg describes it as “C-span like coverage,” which other organizations can broadcast free on their Web sites or distribute through other means.
The Great Lakes program attracted $200,000 in new grants and sponsorship dollars from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.
“We opened up government funding, and more traditional foundations could respond to us since we were addressing community needs,” Mr. Homberg says. “This has really turned out to be a good investment.”
Detroit Public Television has also shored up its revenue by increasing efforts to seek gifts of $1,000 or more from individuals. Such donors now give $300,000 more annually than they did three years ago.
These days, Mr. Homberg is no longer worried, as he once was, that the station might go under, but he is concerned about all the extra work his employees are doing.
“Senior management is out on the street every day, working to meet people in the community. This is absolutely critical,” he says. “We are smaller but producing more content than we have in a decade. We are really working our people very hard.”