Delmarva Public Radio gets potential new lease on life from Salisbury University

By Ben Mook

Maryland’s Salisbury University  is backing away from a consultant’s plan to farm out operations of its two Delmarva Public Radio stations.

A proposal unveiled Feb. 14 would provide funding to WSDL in Ocean City, Md., and WSCL in Salisbury for at least three years.

The proposal calls for the Salisbury University Foundation, Delmarva Public Radio’s license holder, to transfer the license to the school, said Salisbury University President Janet Dudley-Eshbach in a statement.  Salisbury would maintain current operations  for three years,  but would require that WSCL and WSDL hew even closer to the school’s agenda. At the end of three years, the university would reassess the situation.

“In recent years a number of universities, including those with endowments and resources far larger than Salisbury University’s, have chosen to sell their station licenses because of fiscal pressures,” said Dudley-Eshbach. “We, too, are feeling those same pressures. SU’s first commitment is the education of its students and the adequate funding of academic programs.  If the stations are to succeed and to enjoy continued campus support, they must become more closely aligned with the mission of the University.  Such collaborations would include, for example, increasing the number of internships with academic departments such as communication arts, business and music.”

The proposal is similar to a December 2012 proposal from Friends of Delmarva Public Radio, which called for the university to continue providing studio space and funding for the stations for the next few years.

The Salisbury University Foundation has been holding hearings and weighing options for the two stations after years of covering  mounting financial losses.  Last year, it commissioned a study from Public Radio Capital, the consultancy specializing in public radio signal expansion and preservation. PRC recommended a format change for WSCL, the Delmarva station broadcasting NPR News and talk programming. WSCL, which programs classical music, was to go on automation by picking up American Public Media’s Classical 24 service. To retain ownership of the stations without the expense of subsidizing them, PRC advised that the university negotiate a  public service operating agreement with another public broadcaster.

According to PRC’s projections, if the foundation continued to operate the stations as it is now — a so-called “status quo” scenario — by 2022 its operating deficits could reach as high as $240,000 a year.

Under the university’s new proposal, which must be approved by the foundation, WSDL would continue airing NPR news programs while exploring partnerships with other NPR news stations.  WSCL will continue airing locally-programmed classical music. The stations would also move to a new facility on campus.

Having been hit by a barrage of criticism from the stations’ listeners for pursuing plans to end the local service orientation of Delmarva Public Radio, university officials are now looking to the stations’ boosters to grow audience and raise the funds necessary to cover operations. The university anticipates the friends group would be able to raise $250,000 a year to support operations.

“As a long-time fan of public radio, I am excited by the new possibilities arising from closer cooperation between the University and DPR,” said Rick Holloway, chair of the foundation’s Public Radio Committee, in a prepared statement. “Financially, the stations need to alter course. With renewed support from the campus and community, we think WSCL and WSDL can succeed. The transfer of the licenses is an important step in helping operations move to the next level.”

The stations’ supporters face an uphill battle to recover audiences that have dwindled as more public radio operators began broadcasting on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.   Delmarva Public Radio had the market largely to itself until 2007, when Baltimore’s WYPR and then WAMU in Washington, D.C., extended their signals to the region.  The university cited recent Arbitron ratings that show Delmarva Public Radio’s audience has dropped 20,000 between 2009 and 2011.

“If the stations are to survive, let alone prosper, this downward trend must reverse and public financial support for the stations must grow,” Holloway said.

The university’s announcement was some good news for job seekers. Dudley-Eschbach announced that the university seeks  “an individual experienced in successful public radio operations to assist the University with developing a business plan, exploring partnership options for WSDL and hiring a new station manager with the experience and track record to lead DPR into a more sustainable future.”

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