|The lay of the land: Boston and Providence are separated by 40 miles and a few disputes. Map adapted from U.S. Geological Survey source.|
Rhode Islanders delay station sale, denounce WBUR
Requests from Rhode Island’s elected officials have held off the sale of the state’s only public radio station, but its future remains uncertain.
Boston University, licensee of Boston’s WBUR-FM, said last week it would postpone the sale of two AM frequencies in the adjoining state — WRNI in Providence and its repeater in Westerly.
Meanwhile, angry supporters of WRNI criticized its parent station and questioned
its stated reasons for selling it.
WBUR has reported deficits totaling $14.1 million between 1999 and 2003, the Providence Journal reported last week, based on public records. Almost $9.4 million of that sum was from the WRNI Foundation, which operates the Rhode Island station. In WRNI’s first five years the foundation spent $14 million but raised only $4.6 million.
The Boston station denies it’s selling WRNI for financial reasons. Will Keyser, WBUR spokesman, says WRNI should be close to breaking even this year due to recent cuts in staff and local programming. WBUR simply wants to leave the station’s future in the hands of the community, Keyser says.
[Boston University confirmed to the Boston Herald Oct. 1 that it was investigating anonymous allegations of fiscal mismanagement against WBUR management.]
Jane Christo, WBUR’s g.m., announced plans to sell the stations Sept. 17 [earlier article] in a meeting with WRNI supporters in Providence, and the station was up for sale three days later.
The sudden announcement shocked and outraged the supporters, who raised millions for the powerhouse Boston station to launch WRNI in 1998 [article on startup]. They started working to save the station, getting help from elected officials.
“The disposition of Rhode Island’s public radio stations is a matter of great public concern in Rhode Island,” wrote Gov. Donald Carcieri to Aram Chobanian, interim president of Boston University. “I believe that Boston University has an obligation to work with members of this community to ensure that any transfer of the stations preserves their public nature and protects the substantial investment made by the citizens of Rhode Island.”
Patrick Lynch, the state’s attorney general, also pressed for postponement and asked WBUR to provide documents relating to WRNI including bylaws, donor lists, tax returns and audited financial statements.
Boston University announced Sept. 28 that it would cooperate with Lynch’s requests and delay the sale. But the school still intends to sell WRNI, and the station’s backers are seething.
“We felt it was a betrayal, and that WBUR’s behavior was unethical, if not worse,” says Eugene Mihaly, president of the Foundation for Ocean State Public Radio. Mihaly’s group first approached WBUR about starting a Rhode Island station and helped raise more than $3 million to put it on the air.
“If the WRNI backers buy the station, it will mean, in effect, buying it twice,” said the Providence Journal in an editorial.
Keyser says WBUR always intended to develop a self-sustaining service and never planned to operate WRNI over the long term.
“That is total bullshit,” Mihaly responded. “If we had gone to the big financial heavy hitters in this community . . . and said, ‘We’d like you to give a lot of money so that WBUR can run a station for a while and then turn around and sell it to us,’ they would have looked at us as if we’d had three heads.”
The decision to sell WRNI is “almost inexplicable,” says Rick Schwartz, spokesman for the Rhode Island Foundation. The funder contributed $450,000 to the founding of WRNI and provides studio space in Providence at reduced rent, Schwartz says.
“Given the way they did things, we can only assume they have needs up in Boston that just don’t include Rhode Island,” Schwartz says.
WRNI supporters expect they will be unable to purchase the station on their own and are seeking a possible partner among colleges, media outlets and production companies. Mihaly declined to name collaborators under consideration, but Attorney General Lynch said Brown University had contacted him.
Choosing a buyer ultimately rests with WBUR. The broadcaster would prefer to sell to a noncommercial entity, Keyser says. But WBUR makes no promises that will happen.
Rhode Island stands to lose its only public radio stations with the possible sale of WRNI in Providence and WXNI in Westerly. Boston University’s WBUR said last week it would put them on the market Monday.
WBUR bought the two AM stations in 1998 for $2.5 million and expanded the main signal, built and staffed new studios and created local programming. But last month the station transferred two employees to WBUR and shuttered Focus: Rhode Island, a weekly public affairs show.
WBUR would not disclose the Rhode Island stations’ annual operating costs, but spokesman Will Keyser said financial concerns aren’t motivating WBUR. The broadcaster never intended to run the stations over the long term but aimed to establish a service that could sustain itself.
“Now it seems like the appropriate time for the community to take control and make the decision about the future of public radio in Rhode Island,” Keyser says.
Originally published in Current, Dec. 21, 1998
By Steve Behrens
Rhode Island's new public radio station, operated by Boston's WBUR, will get its second AM news outlet Jan. 1  with the sign-on of WXNI at Westerly, near the Connecticut border.
An additional translator is planned to fill in service to the Newport area on the state's southern coast, according to WBUR President Jane Christo.
Both signals will repeat WRNI, "Rhode Island's NPR news station" — an AM outlet in Providence that WBUR launched in April  covering the eastern half of the state as far north as Woonsocket.
Boston University's WBUR invested about $2 million in buying the Providence station (formerly WRCP) from Neto Communications and about $500,000 in buying the Westerly station (formerly WERI), said Christo.
"It's a leap of faith, isn't it?" said Christo about the expectation that Rhode Island listeners will cover the purchase and operating costs. But WBUR can be heard in parts of Rhode Island, and she knew that various listeners had asked for better coverage in the state — most recently a volunteer fundraising group called the Foundation for Ocean State Public Radio.
The Rhode Islanders wanted not only the news programming that WBUR carries but also to hear their own state news and to have it turn up in NPR programming around the country, Christo said.
The Providence station carries WBUR's programming, plus Rhode Island news inserts during Morning Edition every half-hour and will add a two-hour evening talk show in July , Christo said. The Rhode Island network will develop its own full schedule by January 2001, according to WBUR.
All but one of the six Rhode Island news staffers are working out of WBUR's Boston offices while studios are renovated in Providence. Underwriting sales staffers are also assigned to the state.
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