Minnesota wins tentative nod to operate KPCC
Originally published in Current, Sept. 20, 1999
By Steve Behrens
He may have an odd, out-of-town accent, but the suitor with the best financial prospects is now negotiating a prenuptual agreement for the hand of KPCC, Pasadena.
The tentative parental consent went to Minnesota Public Radio, which proposes to build something called Southern California Public Radio--"the flagship news-and-information station in the most important state in the country," said Will Haddeland, senior v.p. and spokesman at MPR.
"The thing that was persuasive about the MPR proposal was that they have the resources to guarantee the revenue stream they were forecasting," says James Kossler, president of Pasadena City College.
MPR, which is seeking to lease the underperforming station for 15 years, proposes to triple its present operating budget, guaranteeing an additional $12.8 million over five years, said Haddeland. The station's operating budget is now $1.2 million a year, he said. MPR expects to break-even within five years, he said.
Minnesota is also talking with the University of Southern California about taking a role in USC's Marketplace Productions, producer of Marketplace and Savvy Traveler, Haddeland confirmed.
The combination of the Marketplace unit and an expanded news operation at the proposed Southern California Public Radio would have attractive synergies for MPR, which wants to tap creative talent in the L.A. area, observers said.
But the Minnesota spokesman, USC Radio President Martha Harris and Marketplace chief Jim Russell denied newspaper reports that a deal had been made. A task force of USC administrators is talking about various options, Harris told Current. Talks with MPR are coincidental with the KPCC developments, she said, and are not "on the same track."
Two other suitors lacked cash
Trustees of Pasadena's community college district voted Sept. 1 to authorize Kossler to negotiate an arrangement with the Minnesota Public Radio or its offshoot, Southern California Public Radio, according to the college.
The two unsuccessful suitors, Kossler said, were San Diego's KPBS-FM/TV and Fresno's Radio Bilingue, a chain of largely rural Spanish-language pubradio stations that is seeking an urban outlet. They were the only other applicants that responded formally to the college district's request for proposals.
"In both cases they suggested a ramp-up period in which they would have to do some fundraising to even get started."
The trustees also rejected Radio Bilingue's proposal because "we wanted to make sure our radio station would reach the diversity of the Los Angeles area listening population," Kossler told Current.
"Radio Bilingue "made a very persuasive argument about the place KPCC might have in the Spanish-speaking audience," Kossler said, so he will refer the point to Minnesota Public Radio for its consideration.
Radio Bilingue Executive Director Hugo Morales did not reply to a request for comment.
Among the details to be negotiated with Minnesota are the length of the agreement and the location of KPCC's production facilities, Kossler said. The station's present quarters aren't big enough for an expanded staff, but the college hopes the new facility will be close to campus so that students can work and train there.
MPR's proposal last month closely resembled its offer earlier this year, but no longer asked for transfer of the KPCC license--a sticking point for the trustees, who decided May 19 to see if other broadcasters would offer a better deal for running a news/information station that would still be licensed to the college district.
C-SPAN and public TV station KCET had shown interest in the offer but didn't follow through with proposals, Kossler said. KCET decided not to pursue KPCC, it remained "very interested in radio," said station spokeswoman Barbara Goen.
MPR spokesman Haddeland said Southern California Public Radio would "keep the 'intelligent talk' format that already exists and expand upon it," adding 10 positions to its news department.
What the station produces locally won't just stay there. "Hopefully we will produce such high-quality news and information service that others in California will be interested in carrying that coverage," Haddeland said.
KPCC staffers including news chief Larry Mantle have supported Minnesota's proposal.
The station has had limited funding and a small audience for the size of its market, and was one of the largest stations threatened with loss of federal aid in 1997 after CPB adopted minimum audience/fundraising performance standards for grantees. The station's average-quarter-hour audience this spring still hovered around 11,000 while pubradio stations KCRW and KUSC had about 20,000.
Responding to CPB alerts about its small audience, KPCC dropped its Big Band/"Classic American Music" format in 1997 and moved to news/talk.
The station also suffered a $170,000 deficit, leading the college to transfer Rod Foster out of the general manager position last summer.
By MPR's usual economics, its confident guarantees for KPCC make sense. MPR now serves an audience of 4.5 million people with 32 stations and a budget of $23 million, Haddeland said. "Suddenly we have the opportunity to create a new entity with an audience, for one station, of 13 million people."
Why is MPR taking on this challenge? "Part of our ongoing mission always has been to strengthen public radio nationwide," says Haddeland. "We think we can found a new entity that can strengthen public radio in California and, by doing so, can strengthen public radio nationwide."
Across Los Angeles from KPCC, Ruth Seymour of competing KCRW-FM quipped, "It's a big town. We welcome Minnesota into it. In fact, we're thinking of putting up a transmitter in St. Paul."
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