WDUQ supporters organize independent bid for license
The future of Pittsburgh’s WDUQ is in a state of play as its parent for 60 years, Duquesne University, presses ahead with plans to sell the station.
A group of WDUQ supporters have established a nonprofit to buy the license and continue its news and jazz service. General Manager Scott Hanley and his 23 full-time university employees would become employees of the would-be independent licensee Pittsburgh Public Media. Public Radio Capital, the Colorado-based consulting group, is representing PPM in the quest.
WDUQ supporters recently learned of a new complication in their bid for independence. The university’s board approved plans to demolish the building that houses WDUQ’s studios and offices this fall.
“There’s a certain level of absurdity here,” said Joseph Kelly, chairman of Pittsburgh Public Media’s advisory board. “In October they want to tear the building down where the station is now. We have to create a nonprofit, build a board, launch a capital campaign, find a location to move the station, and stay on the air.” Kelly, owner of a furniture design and manufacturing company, has a background in community redevelopment and he is working his contacts in search of a new home for WDUQ.
Meanwhile, the broker representing Duquesne in the sale, Roger Rafson of CMS Station Brokerage, says the station is worth $12 million, an asking price that’s probably beyond the reach of the new nonprofit. Rafson referred Current’s interview request to university spokeswoman Bridget Fare, who declined to comment.
Rafson’s confidential appraisal of WDUQ for the university was leaked to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which reported that “some civic leaders” believed the station is worth roughly $5 million.
Values of broadcast properties plummeted during the recession and now are particularly tricky to determine for noncommercial outlets, said Richard Austin, a Florida-based media appraiser not involved in the WDUQ transaction. The station’s authorized power level is among the most important factors, he said. Considerations such as a noncom station’s audience and financial performance may or may not add to the value: It largely depends on whether the license holder will sell only to a buyer planning to operate it as a public radio station or would consider other bidders, such as religious broadcasters.
A 2009 transaction — the sale of Sheridan Broadcasting’s WMAO-FM to religious broadcaster St. Joseph’s Missions — gives a sense of commercial media values in the nation’s 25th largest radio market. The hip-hop/R&B station, which broadcast with 37 kW power at 106.7 MHz, was sold along with two AM outlets for $8.9 million.
WDUQ has 25 kW power on 90.5 MHz and extends its service regionally via four repeaters. The station has the largest audience of three public radio stations in Pittsburgh, according to Arbitron PPM MSA data from January. Its 3.3 average share is nearly double that of classical WQED-FM (at 1.7) and five times that of contemporary music WYEP (.7).
“WDUQ is so important to our city, in that it is the most powerful, most listened-to, most supported public radio station in Pittsburgh,” Kelly said. “Our listenership is over 20 percent African American—I challenge any station to beat that. We blow the other two public radio stations out of the water with the strength of our signal.”
Indeed, WQED General Manager Deborah Acklin has been talking up the opportunities for WQED to provide NPR News programming if Pittsburgh Public Media’s bid fails. “In that case we’re interested in knowing where the NPR content lands, and we are putting out a welcoming mat for that content,” she told the Post-Gazette. She expressed interest in sharing services and space with PPM.
Erik Langner, director of acquisitions for Public Radio Capital, said the PPM group is “open to exploring relationships with other nonprofit organizations,” but WQED’s offer didn’t sit well with Kelly, whose goal is to establish a new home for WDUQ’s staff to continue programming news and jazz.
“The best scenario for all of us is to continue to exist,” Kelly said. He sees better potential in a partner such as the Pittburgh Cultural Trust, an arts agency and economic development catalyst started in 1984 by the late Jack Heinz, former chair of H.J. Heinz. A meeting with the trust is scheduled this week, Kelly said. “I think that is going to work out.”
Uncertainties over WDUQ’s future have prompted supporters from various corners to speak out. In January the university’s Faculty Senate Assembly endorsed a resolution “strongly supporting the continuation of WDUQ as part of the tradition of Duquesne University,” said Nick Cafardi, a law professor and president-elect of the assembly.
“WDUQ is an icon and important part of the university community,” Cafardi said. “It’s been part of the university since 1947.” University administrators haven’t explained their decision to sell it, nor have they responded to the resolution.
“Realistically, they have the legal authority to make this decision,” Cafardi said. “But it causes an unnecessary rift in the university community.”
During WDUQ’s February pledge drive, listeners expressed their support by opening their wallets. WDUQ raised $525,893 in 10 days, including $84,183 given in the final hour, the station’s Facebook page said. The drive more than doubled WDUQ pledge results from either of its past two drives.
Pre-recorded appeals by top public radio personalities helped to keep the phones ringing. Ira Glass of This American Life told listeners that the station’s future “depends on your generosity. . . . Consider this pledge drive to be a referendum on how important it is to you and other listeners that WDUQ stay a public radio station serving southwestern Pennsylvania.”
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Web page posted March 30, 2010
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