SJR Column: WUIS, February 2014

Since its founding 40-plus years ago as Sangamon State University, the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois has sunk its roots deep into the Springfield area.  The university and its growing alumni community contributes in countless ways to the economic, social and cultural advancement of the region at the same time that UIS students benefit from the university’s location in Springfield and central Illinois.   This intentional connection between campus and community is what the Carnegie Foundation defines as community engagement  –   “…collaboration between universities and their communities for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.”

So where might U.S. President Lyndon Johnson fit into this discussion?  Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, establishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and opening the way for colleges across the country  (including then SSU in Springfield) to develop a new way to serve their educational mission in the community – public radio.  Since its 1975 launch at 91.9 on the FM dial, WUIS public radio, an NPR affiliate, has grown to become an important daily presence in the lives of thousands of Illinois residents and one of the most important ways that UIS is engaged in the community.  According to station General Manager Randy Eccles WUIS touches more than 30,000 unique listeners and several thousand visitors to the WUIS website each week.

And what’s so special about public radio and WUIS?  As every loyal member of the public radio community knows, it starts with the content.  The NPR brand, according to Eccles, is amazingly strong because it respects the listener – providing thoughtful coverage of issues, ideas and events and unique musical programming that is simply not available anywhere else.  NPR’s most popular news broadcasts, the drive-time flagships Morning Edition and All Things Considered are the two most popular programs on the WUIS station – which is part of a network of more than 1,000 public radio stations across the U.S. that reaches nearly 33 million listeners.

Besides the popular NPR programming, a much-valued aspect of WUIS is, of course, its unique focus on Illinois government.  Taking full advantage of UIS’s strengths in public affairs and our location in the state capital, WUIS operates a Statehouse Bureau that is a respected presence in all aspects of Illinois government.   The station’s Illinois Public Radio Network feeds content to NPR stations throughout Illinois, extending the station’s reach and engagement statewide.

One of the things I appreciate the most about WUIS’s focus on state government is that it provides an exceptional training ground for students.  Amanda Vinicky is a great example.  A native of LaGrange, Illinois, Amanda honed her public affairs reporting skills as a WUIS intern while pursuing her masters degree in UIS’s nationally known Public Affairs Reporting program.   She is now the Statehouse Bureau Chief for WUIS and her news stories are heard all around the state and sometimes nationwide.  WUIS News Director Sean Crawford and reporters Brian Mackey and Rachel Otwell are also PAR graduates who developed their craft interning at the station.   Current UIS student and Springfield resident Dan LoGrasso is another example.  After serving a year of military service in Iraq, Dan started as a volunteer at WUIS and is now working as an intern while pursuing his degree.

One of the many dedicated supporters of WUIS and a member of the UIS Chancellor’s Circle (a leadership-level donor group) is Springfield resident David Farrell who appreciates how WUIS has strengthened its local and regional coverage with the addition of the Harvest Desk, the Health Desk and a soon to open Education Desk, as well as Illinois Edition, the local daily news program at noon. “WUIS provides a wonderful smorgasbord of thoughtful and unique commentary about all aspects of modern life,” says Farrell.  “I support WUIS because it serves a very valuable purpose in our community –  reaching far and deep to provide real content that genuinely meets the needs and interests of its listeners.”

Now that’s what I call community engagement!