Trustees have second thoughts as KPCC approaches the altar

Originally published in Current, June 7, 1999
By Jacqueline Conciatore

Though negotiations to create a nonprofit operator for KPCC-FM were fairly far along last month--Pasadena City College was discussing contract terms with suitor Minnesota Public Radio--college trustees ultimately blanched at the prospect of handing over the license.

The MPR deal could still happen, but the trustees' May 19 [1999] vote to seek proposals for a time-brokered news/information service does open the field to others eager to reach and be in the Los Angeles radio market. Two have been in the wings--C-SPAN, the public affairs cable channel that two years ago bought Washington's WDCU for $13 million and which just signed on with direct satellite providers XM Radio and CD Radio; and public TV station KCET, Los Angeles. C-SPAN sent Pasadena City College a letter of introduction in March, says executive v.p. Rob Kennedy. "The idea of marrying [C-SPAN's public affairs] with local programming in a state that after all does include over 10 percent of the nation's population is exciting," he says. KCET also has been talking with college officials for several months, says Barbara Goen, v.p. for communications. "Our market is incredibly diverse--ethnically, geographically. There would be a huge benefit to having a second resource."

The trustees are looking for proposals to lease KPCC's air on a full-time, or 24-hour basis, for news and information including local. They won't consider offers from religious groups, as the college is public, said President James Kossler.

By all accounts, the trustees don't want to sell KPCC. But one of the committee members advising trustees on KPCC, Geoff Baum, did call C-SPAN managers and request contacts involved in the WDCU sale, hoping to consult with them, says C-SPAN's Kennedy. Says Baum, who used to work for C-SPAN: "Nobody wants to sell the station outright -- but we understand the need for change and the burdens the college is facing."

What Minnesota proposes

MPR's proposal would establish a nonprofit, Southern California Public Radio, to strengthen a station that many think is severely underutilized. MPR would invest $2.5 million, according to spokesperson Will Haddeland. The money would: build a news department staffed by at least 10 people, fully equip digital facilities, and fill out the station's meager development department.

MPR's plan also called for a student training center, a piece that strongly appealed to the college (which requires a resentful KPCC to take dozens of interns per year). MPR has presented an "incredible opportunity to train people in ways that haven't been done before in facilities" that the college hasn't had, says Dean of Communications Mike Bloebaum.

Also part of the deal: after a year, if all is well, the college would assign the license to Southern California Public Radio.

MPR President Bill Kling says he has two primary interests in the project. First, he wants to establish a model for institutional licensees, who often put stations in service to the school or impose a narrower vision of service than stations almost universally hold. "[We] want to create ... one of the most successful public radio stations in our system, with the hope that it will stimulate other institutions to do the same," Kling says. Secondly, Kling has his eye on delivery opportunities in satellite and Internet, and wants to find and develop West Coast talent for new national shows. "We're looking for more Ira Glasses, more writers and people who listen to public radio," he says. Much of the creative community of Los Angeles--writers, producers, others--are pubradio fans, "yet that community is not engaged with public radio."

Empty-nest anxieties

Kling first broached the idea to KPCC after seeing August 1998 news reports that trustees had removed KPCC G.M. Rod Foster, citing a $170,000 deficit. Kling wrote a letter to Kossler, and phone conversations and meetings followed. By late spring, college trustees and Kling were talking contract, and KPCC's elated staff thought the deal was in the bag, when rumors arose that the negotiations had stumbled.

"This is the great mystery," says KPCC Program Director and afternoon host Larry Mantle. "What happened? How did we go from something that was 80 percent a done deal, to a situation where the votes were not there to pass this?"

John Gregory, a recently retired communications professor who ran KPCC for 20 years, thinks trustees started to ask: "What's in this for Pasadena City College?" The station is no financial burden, so why give away a license that some estimate is worth $10-$20 million? Says Kossler: "The station has been with the college a couple of decades. We've invested a lot of money in it. It's close to being self-sufficient. It has a large listener base. It's raising $1.3 million per year. [Trustees] don't want to just give that away."

Kling says the college wouldn't give it away. As he's proposed it, Southern California Public Radio would be contractually obligated to meet performance standards related to budget, staff size, and any other benchmarks set by MPR and the college. If it failed to meet those standards, MPR would lose its majority (seven to six) representation on the SCPR board. (Kling proposes that all but one or two of SCPR's board members be Californians.) The clause didn't satisfy trustees. "There's a lot of language written in [the contract] that the license would return to the college, [but] there's no guarantee the FCC would honor that," says Kossler. ®MDBU¯

Why did the license issue arise so late in the day? The board simply evolved in its thinking, says Kossler. "We were sort of nibbling around the edges of other issues, and we got those worked out. I think Minnesota Public Radio and the college have great respect for each other and still see [the deal] as a viable option. But what it finally came down to is, somebody said at one meeting or another, 'You need to realize, what you're about to do is give away the license. You're giving it away.'"

It was during a meeting with the advisory committee--which includes community members from the commercial entertainment world--that the matter of license control became pressing, he says. But by the time trustees decided to put out an RFP, any number of people had contributed to the discussion. Trustees had met with a consultant familiar with time-brokering arrangements, according to Kossler. C-SPAN and KCET had at least introductory conversations with Kossler. Former KPCC head Gregory was "very vocal, questioning the contract," according to Bloebaum, although Gregory says he hasn't told trustees he's opposed. Gregory also arranged for two trustees visiting Washington, D.C. to discuss the proposal with Frank Mankiewicz, who headed NPR when Kling helped found rival distributor American Public Radio (now PRI). (Gregory had been on the NPR board under Mankiewicz.) California Public Radio, the state association of stations, had offered to consult with the trustees on the future of KPCC, but didn't come out against the MPR plan. (Though some onlookers might expect that Ruth Seymour, head of rival KCRW, would be openly critical of MPR's entry into the market, she jokes that she's been "like a good nun"--not contacting trustees or saying anything publicly.) And, of course, all the while MPR was lobbying on its own behalf.

Talk host endorses MPR

KPCC's Mantle believed MPR opponents were energetically discrediting the plan and decided to discuss the issue on the air--a difficult decision, he says. In his afternoon-drive talk show, he strongly endorsed the Minnesota plan, saying KPCC needed to be set loose. He told listeners the college hampered KPCC's success by forcing it to keep niche programming that appeals to small audiences. (KPCC airs, for example, a Sunday European music program entirely in German. But Gregory says it's one of the station's biggest non-network fundraisers.)

Mantle also said KPCC is severely understaffed and underfunded. An example he offered: staff must share a computer that has Internet access, and the university allows only one print-out per day. With his staff literally behind him during the two-hour broadcast, Mantle said that if KPCC didn't see significant change soon, he "didn't see a place" for him at KPCC. Though it sounds like an ultimatum, he says it's not--it's just fact. "I think we can't support five hours a day of local talk," he says. "We can't keep up the momentum. We either grow or die."

Mantle argued that the Pasadena City College trustees, as elected officials, are foremost concerned about not alienating voters. They feel responsive to their relatively small Pasadena constituency, when the FCC license obligates them to serve virtually Southern California, he said.

Bloebaum says it's difficult for the seven-member board of trustees--"good people" being asked to think of the broader community when they're not accustomed to it. "Educational institutions tend to be conservative by nature, and anytime anything is pushing the envelope new territory-wise, it's a difficult decision for them. They hesitate to make decisions that commit public monies or public trust."

Kossler agrees that the board is cautious. "The board is elected to run a college, and doesn't know a lot about running a radio station, and we're all quick to admit that. But we want to be sure what we do is due diligence, so we don't find ourselves five years from now, saying, 'Why didn't we think of that?'"

Some suspect the board is ultimately interested in using KPCC to generate a revenue stream. Consultants tend to "turn the heads of board members" by pointing out the worth of a license, Kling says. Too often licensees seek to use stations as cash cows, "totally inappropriate for a public service station."

Kling suggests CPB should play a role. "If I were in CPB management ... I would raise that in Congress. My proposal would be that institutions may not sell their noncommerical license for more than the asset value of the license and may not lease it for more than the direct costs of the operation of the station."

Baum and Kossler both say the trustees aren't interested in using KPCC to generate cash.

What happens next? Kossler and Kling are still talking, weekly. Kossler says the next move is Kling's. "The difficult decision is with MPR at this point. They have met everything else the college wants. Now the issue is, can the national model he's thinking about operate in a time-brokered environment?"

Kling says no; SCPR must have both hands firmly on the license to give confidence to funders. He also says that if the college were to keep control of the license, it could reclaim the license anytime, despite MPR's investment.

"I think they understand our proposal well," he says. It's still on the table. "We will leave it there while they explore comparisons."



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Minnesota Public Radio proposes new nonprofit to run KPCC in Pasadena, 1998.

Later news: Trustees return to MPR for negotiations on KPCC, September 1999.

Outside link: KPCC's web site.



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