Two pubcasting stations in Minnesota have joined the slow procession of stations leaving the shelter of universities, colleges and school systems, often where licensees face fiscal pressures and competing priorities.
St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., surprised the Twin Cities Aug. 10 with news that it agreed to sell WCAL, a classical music station with roots going back 82 years, to Minnesota Public Radio. The college plans to add MPR’s $10.1 million payment to the endowment that helps maintain its academic competitiveness.
Across the state, the public school system in little Austin, Minn., voted Aug. 9 to relinquish ownership of public TV station KSMQ to a new freestanding nonprofit, Southern Minnesota Quality Broadcasting Inc.
In the past two years, educational licensees in Los Angeles, Detroit, Seattle/Tacoma, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Portland, Ore., and a number of smaller markets have sold or transferred control of pubcasting stations.
Greg Guy, v.p. of Patrick Communications, the Maryland broker that handled the sale of WCAL, says his firm is paying special attention to noncommercial channels, whose selling prices have not yet been “maximized.” The company is working on several sales of noncom stations in large markets, he says.
Educators are selling stations because of their budget woes—to get station subsidies off their backs and/or gain an influx of capital, Guy says. The latter reason seems to have tipped the decision at St. Olaf.
WCAL, Northfield, Minn.
“We did not need this money to pay our bills,” says college spokeswoman Amy Gage. Nor will it save on a subsidy for WCAL, which has operated without aid since June. But St. Olaf faces competition from other schools and could use a larger endowment to boost faculty pay and retention, she says. The trustees decided to consider selling WCAL last fall after MPR expressed interest.
The sale of WCAL, with a strong signal and a tower 16 miles south of downtown Minneapolis, prompted controversy in the Twin Cities, including familiar outcries about the undeniable bigness of MPR, which already has 35 stations, including two in the Twin Cities. One now competes with WCAL for the classical music audience—prompting a new guessing game: What will MPR use the frequency for?
MPR President Bill Kling said in a statement that MPR will consider program options not available in Twin Cities and use WCAL for a third program stream there. Tom Kigin, executive v.p. of MPR, defers speculation until the network consults the community.
MPR itself grew out of a college licensee — St. John’s University in Collegeville. The network built a station initiated by Concordia College in Moorhead, Kigin says, and saved one at Michigan Technological University in Houghton. MPR talked periodically with St. Olaf since the 1970s about buying WCAL, Kigin says.
MPR made its offer in a blind bidding process run by Patrick Communications, expecting but not knowing that a religious broadcaster was also bidding, Kigin says.
There were other “highly interested parties,” Guy says, but the college considered who would operate the station in its hometown as well as the amount offered.
KSMQ, Austin, Minn.
There was no sale price in the case of KSMQ in the small southwestern Minnesota city of Austin. Station revenues had been falling for several years and the school board realized it could not afford to bail out KSMQ if the station needed it, says Don Thigpen, consultant to the school board and a retired g.m. from WCEU-TV in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Transition advocates want the station to rebuild local production and a staff that has shrunk to 11 fulltime, Thigpen says. They want KSMQ to draw more aid from neighboring communities, including the larger city of Rochester, he says. He expects the new licensee will revive KSMQ’s underwriting sales and production-for-hire business.
Contributing partners represented on the new licensee board will include a major local meatpacker, Hormel, and other businesses and nonprofits. The school system will still aid the station by handling administrative tasks—its main contribution now—and Riverland Community College will continue providing facilities.
Recent sales across the country hardly dent the large number of pubradio stations licensed to colleges and universities—about half the total licensees—and many educators remain committed to pubcasting as part of their missions. But the following institutions have sold in recent months:
Detroit’s school board received bids this month from six suitors including two religious broadcasters and the University of Michigan’s Michigan Public Media in Ann Arbor, for pubradio station WRCJ, formerly known as WDTR. [Earlier story below.]
Northern Michigan University in Marquette is moving toward divesting its WNMU-FM/TV combo and seeking proposals from its staff and Michigan Public Media. [Earlier stories about decision to sell, one-year reprieve and board's latest plan.]
Butler University in Indianapolis announced in June that it would sell public TV station WTBU to Daystar Television Network, a large religious broadcaster, for $4 million. It was the smaller of two public TV stations in the city.
On March 26, Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky., transferred ownership of WRVG to a religious broadcaster, Educational Media Foundation, which changed the call letters to WKVO and airs the K-LOVE Radio (“Positive & Encouraging!”) satellite network. [Earlier story.]
Bates Technical College in Tacoma, Wash., sold FM station KBTC for $5 million to nonprofit Public Radio Capital, which is leasing it to the University of Washington to extend the range of its KEXP. The repeater went on air in March.
In Orange County, Calif., Coast Community College District agreed in October to sell its public TV station, KOCE, to a nonprofit affiliated with the station, though a religious broadcaster says it bid higher and should get the license. [Earlier story.]
Milwaukee Public Schools approved transferring management of WYMS-FM to a local nonprofit, Radio for Milwaukee in September 2003, but transfer was delayed for because of school deficits. The nonprofit now expects to begin operating the station in October 2004. The financially hard-pressed school system laid off the station’s staff in fiscal 2002 and put a satellite-fed jazz network on the air.
The public schools in Portland, Ore., sold all-classical KBPS-FM for $5.5 million to a nonprofit connected to the station in June 2003. [Earlier story.]
Cincinnati’s WXVU, owned by Xavier University, sold money-losing repeater WVXG-FM in Mount Gilead, Ohio, to local company HON Broadcasting last year.
Detroit Public Television and the University of Michigan’s Michigan Public Media in Ann Arbor are among six groups seeking a contract to manage WRCJ-FM. The Detroit Public Schools have decided to end subsidy of the station, formerly known as WDTR.
The school system also received proposals last week from two religious broadcast chains — Educational Media Foundation of Rocklin, Calif., and Family Life Communications Inc. of Tucson, Ariz. — and two local groups, a talent agency called The Right Productions and SCI Global Communications LLC.
Managers of nearby pubradio stations WDET in Detroit and WEMU in Ypsilanti told Current they lost interest after hearing the school system’s terms. WDET’s Caryn Mathes said school officials refused to clarify financial and staffing questions.
Meanwhile in Marquette, in the state’s remote Upper Peninsula, Ann Arbor’s Michigan Public Media is the top candidate to take over two other stations being shed by a fiscally distressed educational institution.
The University of Northern Michigan has asked it to flesh out its offer to take over WNMU-FM and TV. The university board, which will meet again Oct. 7-8, also has asked WNMU’s management to lay out its own proposal, including datacasting of distance-learning courses to home computers in the rural region, says General Manager Eric Smith.
Kentucky’s Georgetown College is negotiating the sale of public radio station WRVG to a prospective buyer outside of public broadcasting.
An agreement of intent barred Michael Dawahare, v.p. for institutional advancement at the Baptist-affiliated college near Lexington, from disclosing the buyer’s identity. But he said the buyer will not “continue public broadcasting in its true sense.” He expects to close the deal in a few weeks.
The college wanted to focus on its core mission of education, Dawahare said. It spent about $45,000 annually on WRVG.
College officials had talked with WRVG members who wanted to purchase the station, which Dawahare says the school would have preferred. “We pulled every stop trying to make sure the listeners had a real shot at this, and we just couldn’t make numbers work,” he said. Debt service was one obstacle, he said.
He blamed WRVG’s loss on systemic problems in public radio. “I would like for the sale of WRVG to be recognized as just one more lost public station, because public broadcasters live in a business model that doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Dawahare urged pubcasters to act as “stewards of the left-hand end of the dial.” He said NPR must reduce programming fees and CPB should make Community Service Grants more widely available to fledgling stations. He also advised public radio to follow the example of stations in Philadelphia and Louisville, Ky., that have divvied up programming formats to provide diverse public service and avoid competing head to head. His station competes with Lexington’s WUKY, a public station that, like WRVG, airs Adult Album Alternative music.
The school board in Portland, Ore., agreed June 16 to sell KBPS-FM for $5.5 million to a foundation connected to the station.
The KBPS Foundation will pay $750,000 up front for the all-classical station and raise the remainder with a five-year capital campaign. The foundation has wholly supported the FM station without school funds since 1995.
Portland’s school system faces severe budget cuts due to Oregon’s grave fiscal crisis. Earlier this year, school officials told the KBPS Foundation they were considering selling, says foundation officer Johanna Steinmetz.
Public Radio Capital represented the foundation in the negotiations. The sale is the first transfer of a school board station since 1990, when WBEZ went independent from Chicago’s school board, says PRC Managing Director Marc Hand.
Portland schools will retain KBPS-AM, which it uses to teach broadcasting
to high school students. The KPBS Foundation will continue to provide the
school system with engineering and instructional support for KBPS-AM.
Web page posted Aug. 25, 2004, updated April 4, 2008
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee