When WUNC education reporter Liz Schlemmer went through new employee orientation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a few years ago, participants went around to introduce themselves and their roles. Her response: “Part of my job is to hold the university accountable.”
WUNC is owned by the university, and is a significant news outlet that sometimes covers it. That can make for at least the appearance of interference, but current and former journalists and station leaders, along with UNC-Chapel Hill leaders, say the university stays out of news decisions.
Beyond news coverage, independence is a more complicated question.
Born as a student station (future broadcasting legends Charles Kuralt and Carl Kasell were on the staff when it moved to FM in 1953), WUNC became an NPR affiliate in 1976 when it returned after being off the air for several years.
Around 1992, WUNC stopped getting direct legislative funding and, as it grew, became mostly self-supporting through listener donations and corporate underwriting (which make up more than 90 percent of revenue). The station now pays the university for some services.
It also began expanding, adding stations or translators in Rocky Mount, the Outer Banks, Davidson County and, most recently, Fayetteville. WUNC’s broadcast is now carried from the central Piedmont to the coast over seven stations or translators.
In 2015, UNC-Chapel Hill trustees set up a new governance structure. Instead of operating as part of the university’s communications division, the station would be managed by a university-affiliated nonprofit company, WUNC Public Radio LLC, with its own board of directors.
The move was led by Haywood Cochrane, a retired executive who was vice-chair of the UNC trustee board at the time (he later became chair). In an interview with The Assembly, Cochrane said the station’s cash reserve (then $7.75 million) had caught his eye.
Looking at WUNC’s growing reserve, Cochrane said he worried that the money “would attract a lot of people. And the objectivity which we sought to protect would have been jeopardized.”
While the LLC would be owned by UNC-Chapel Hill, Cochrane said, the new structure offered a way to provide stronger management and “protect the objectivity, the independence of the station.”
Cochrane, a Republican, turned to former radio executive Hannah Gage, a Democrat and former chair of the UNC Board of Governors, to be the founding head of the new LLC board. Gage recalls asking him, “Are you planning on messing with the station? He was very firm: ‘I’m not planning to.’ He kept his word.”
To a person, everyone The Assembly asked about UNC’s relationship with WUNC said the same thing: The university doesn’t interfere with coverage.
Schlemmer, who covers UNC as part of a broader statewide education beat, said her reporting hasn’t run into limits. Recently, she reported on concerns about UNC’s provost search and on a dispute over UNC’s cancellation of a photo exhibit by a Black artist. The story included a footnote: “WUNC maintains editorial independence in all news coverage, including stories involving UNC.”
Cochrane said the main question he heard from trustees about the station was why Duke seemed to get more coverage than UNC—“and I’m not saying that facetiously. Did we try to change it? No. WUNC was its own independent entity.”
Current BOT Chair David Boliek Jr. likened the WUNC LLC to the Rams Club and other “affiliated entities” set up to carry out certain specific functions for the university. He said the station’s coverage had never come up in trustee board meetings.
“The one conversation that I’ve had about WUNC is about how great they’ve done in finding their niche in what many sort of media experts say is a dying industry, and that is radio,” Boliek said.
A 2019 operating agreement for the LLC says it was formed to hold WUNC’s FCC licenses and to operate its stations “in the public interest of the citizens of the State of North Carolina.”
A nine-member board, with seven members appointed by UNC-Chapel Hill trustees, meets quarterly, and works with the station’s president on strategy and major decisions such as acquiring other signals or filing legal action. One seat is designated for the university’s vice chancellor for communications.
The first chair of the board was Gage, whose family company once ran radio stations in southeastern North Carolina. Her successor, Michael Schoenfeld, is a former Corporation for Public Broadcasting senior executive and Duke University’s vice president for public affairs and government relations.
Other WUNC board members include current UNC-CH Trustee Teresa Artis Neal, a former general counsel at WRAL’s parent company Capitol Broadcasting Co., and two recent arrivals known for conservative positions: John Hood, former president of the John Locke Foundation and a columnist who has editorialized against federal funding for public broadcasting; and Clinton business owner Allie Ray McCullen, the longest-serving trustee on UNC-CH’s current board.
Hood declined to be interviewed, and McCullen didn’t respond to emails and phone messages.
Gage, a veteran of public board service, said that “the more voices you have at the table, the better the decisions are, the healthier the conversation is.”
The WUNC board’s next major decision will be its choice of a new president and general manager, a search under way now. University trustees will then vote on final approval.
WUNC does feel the university’s hand in other ways, mostly in terms of bureaucracy.
Almost everyone The Assembly spoke with mentioned how long hiring takes. Terry Gildea applied more than a year before he started work as program director. And even as people within the station spoke about the need for leadership at a moment of change, the president’s position wasn’t posted until January, almost eight months after former leader Connie Walker died.
Even when WUNC has money to fill jobs, university hiring freezes and personnel processes bog things down (the station’s staff are UNC-Chapel Hill employees), and the process can resemble faculty recruiting with search committees and long timelines.
WUNC News Director Brent Wolfe hopes that will change. “Especially as the media world gets faster and faster and new things are popping up, being able to try things more quickly and being more nimble is something I hope we’ll get better at.”
Melanie Sill is a Triangle-based independent journalist and former top editor of The News & Observer, Sacramento Bee, and Southern California Public Radio-KPCC. She was founding executive director of the NC Local News Workshop at Elon University.
This is part of a larger exploration of WUNC, which you can read in full here.