Rhode Island declares independence (again)

The four-year struggle to establish WRNI in Providence, R.I., as an independent public radio service for the state crossed a long-awaited threshold last month, when its aspiring licensee announced the station’s independence from Boston’s WBUR, the NPR News powerhouse that partnered with local pubradio supporters to establish WRNI a decade ago.

Rhode Island Public Radio, the station’s licensee-to-be, began operating WRNI-AM Sept. 1 under a management contract with Boston University’s WBUR Group. The agreement anticipates state approval of the $2 million sale under loan terms covered by WBUR and its university licensee.

“We don’t anticipate difficulty in getting a favorable ruling,” said RIPR Chairman Jim Marsh. Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch, who stipulated some conditions before signing off on the deal, requested approval last month from the Rhode Island Superior Court.

RIPR already owns and operates WRNI’s FM sister station in Narragansett, purchased for nearly $2.4 million last year to strengthen and extend the public radio signal to southern Rhode Island. RIPR borrowed the funds from the Rhode Island Foundation and is now in the home stretch of a capital campaign to pay off the loan, Marsh said.

The future licensee’s first pledge drive last month, which paid operating bills, stoked hopes for strong support in the future. Playing up WRNI’s “declaration of independence,” the on-air campaign raised $200,000, far beyond the station’s previous record of $60,000.

Donors answered a simultaneous direct-mail appeal with an additional $44,000, Marsh said.

“We were thrilled, obviously,” he said. “We had not known for sure how well Rhode Island would support the station if we owned it, and we stuck our necks out a bit when we offered to buy it.”

“Rhode Islanders clearly want the station here, and they want it to be independent,” Marsh said. “That’s a huge source of encouragement to us.”

“There is a whole new excitement here,” said Joe O’Connor, a former producer for WBUR’s On Point and ABC News’s Nightline who became WRNI g.m. in 2006. On top of the fundraising success, ratings and underwriting income are growing by double digits, he said.

The positive developments contrast sharply with WRNI’s situation four years ago, when financial problems at WBUR prompted then-President Jane Christo to suddenly put the main station in Providence and its southern repeater, WXNI in Westerly, up for sale. Rhode Island donors who had invested heavily in WNRI’s startup since 1998 rallied to prevent the sale.

“Part of the argument here was how to protect the millions that Rhode Island citizens have put into this,” said Eugene Mihaly, who was then chair of the station’s local fundraising entity. Mihaly led the fight for local ownership and later chaired RIPR. “If the sale to a commercial party had gone through the way it was originally proposed, that money would have been completely lost,” he said.

The state legislature blocked the 2004 sale by passing the Public Radio Conversion Act, which empowered the state attorney general to regulate the sale of any public radio service. The law, which Mihaly described as “a kind of poison pill” to thwart the sale, succeeded at saving WRNI from sale to a commercial broadcaster but has delayed the station’s independence from WBUR more than anyone anticipated.

The attorney general granted conditional approval Sept. 25, six months after his office received paperwork proposing the sale. Lynch imposed several conditions. Three pertain to governance-related issues that WRNI leaders plan to address. Another requires Boston University to obtain the court declaration that RIPR will operate the stations with the same charitable intention as the university.

These interventions have made winning approval for the sale into a “crazy, endless, exhausting and costly process,” says WBUR President Paul La Camera, who inherited the struggle over WRNI when he succeeded Christo in 2006. “We thought it would end with the attorney general, and now it has to go to the court,” La Camera said.

Part of La Camera’s frustration with the lengthy approval process, he said, is his deep belief that Rhode Island’s public radio service is “best in the hands of local people.”“

“As idealistic as it sounds, if public radio is ever to achieve full potential in Rhode Island, it needed the day-to-day oversight and commitment of local control,” La Camera said.

“We disagreed with the need to get the courts to sign off on this,” Mihaly said. “It is an unnecessary step, but people of good will can disagree.” The attorney general’s office is “understandably cautious” about applying the Public Radio Conversion Act for the first time, Mihaly noted.

Terms of the sale make clear that the seller and buyer have jointly adopted the cause of strengthening Rhode Island’s public radio service. WBUR is lending RIPR $2 million to finance the Rhode Island licensee’s purchase of WRNI-AM and will knock $350,000 off the debt when it collects proceeds from the pending sale of the Westerly repeater, WXNI. The loan payment schedule extends over 10 years.

“We are very happy with the terms under which Boston University is willing to sell it,” Marsh said. “They are really very, very generous terms.”

“We didn’t want to financially handicap them,” La Camera said. “We didn’t want this to fail from the outset by obligations to Boston University.”

In addition to the favorable loan terms, WBUR will provide engineering, underwriting and programming support to WRNI under a five-year agreement. The $55,000 annual contract also pays WRNI’s program dues, providing a substantial discount in the fees it will pay to NPR, Public Radio International and American Public Media, O’Connor said. He credits the networks for giving his startup operation breathing room until it can afford full program fees.

Web page posted Oct. 29, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC

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