When I was growing up in West Texas my father used to say, “Son, money doesn’t fall from the sky.” As a kid I never really questioned that; it seemed obvious enough. Later though I realized that there is money up there—it’s floating magically through the ether on radio waves. And it’s possible to get that money to rain down on you. The trick though is in getting it to rain down on you, not on that poor sap standing next to you.
Legend (and Wikipedia ) has it that the first paid radio commercial was on station WEAF in NYC, a spot advertising an apartment complex. That first search for tenants started big money raining into the radio world, and soon people were scrambling to catch their share. Ad men and jingle writers filled the airwaves with their ditties, while musicians and actors provided entertainment to keep listeners tuned in. Station owners raked in the money and so did the merchants. Fortunes were made, families were fed, and the profits went round and round.
But even when profit was not the primary goal, the money was still there. In 1967 Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act, and in 1970 NPR was founded as a privately and publicly funded nonprofit organization. But “nonprofit” doesn’t mean “non-money.” Currently NPR shows an endowment of $258 million, revenue of $159 million, and a net income of $18.9 million (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NPR). So, profit or not, it’s not bubble gum and marbles being passed around over there; that’s a bunch of nonprofit dollars.
And it didn’t take long for all those nonprofit dollars to attract a new breed of radio cats, professionals with a whole new purpose. Back when that first ad for tenants was running, things were fairly simple: An average Joe could grasp who was getting paid for what. Ad men got paid for the spots they sold to the merchants, copy men and jingle writers got paid for their snappy 30-second spots, and entertainers were paid to attract and hold listeners. There was work performed and revenue earned, however disparate it might have seemed to some. But with all those nonprofit dollars floating around, there were now people who contributed nothing to what went out over the airwaves. Some call them Money Men, but my favorite term has always been Rainmakers. In honor of my father’s old advice.
And in the past year or so, I have been hearing more and more about a particular group of Rainmakers, a group working the radio dial nationwide, looking for those dollars to fall out of the sky. This is a group I first heard of as Public Radio Capital (PRC), but they have recently branched out with new ventures such as Public Media Company and Classical SF LLC (we’ll look at those shortly). But the original PRC group has been around for some time. According to their website they were formed in 2001 and so far have facilitated more than $260 million in radio transactions. Quoting from their website: “We help public media to buy and finance new channels, preserve existing public radio outlets and strengthen their organizations and services” (http://publicradiocapital.org/about/index.php). Those are admirable goals, and I am sure they are taken to heart and pursued whenever possible. I know for instance that in the past PRC has worked with the Prometheus Radio Project, a group we here at this site have high regard for. But for some time now it has seemed that PRC is having serious PR problems, primarily from their involvement in brokering the sale of college radio stations around the country.
To provide some background I am going to highlight their involvement with four college stations from across the country. These are WDUQ at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, KTRU at Rice University in Houston, KUSF at the University of San Francisco in California, as well as WRVU at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Unfortunately, I have to add that WDUQ and KTRU are actually “formerly with” their respected schools, as those sales were made final and those stations no longer exist. So how does an organization such as PRC, with a stated goal to “preserve existing public radio outlets,” justify such activities? Well, the devil is always supposed to be in the details, so I suppose he must be in there somewhere. So let’s take a look. . . .
We will start back in early 2010 when Duquesne University decided to sell its station. WDUQ was first founded in 1949 and was one of the charter stations when NPR was founded in 1970. When university officials decided to sell, they first hoped to get $10-12 million for the station, and a local group, Pittsburgh Public Media, brought in PRC to assist in negotiating that purchase. But after PPM had secured a 60-day option on the station, PRC decided that their best bet was to drop out of the agreement and pursue purchasing the station themselves. To do so they created that offshoot company mentioned above, Public Media Company. PMC then entered into an agreement with another local public station, WYEP, to purchase the station at the rock-bottom price of $6 million. With their Rainmakers now working the other side, the good folks at PPM suddenly had no backers and had to drop out of the bidding. And Duquesne U found themselves having to accept $6 million for a station that PPM had originally offered $6.5 mil for. And PRC was now in the business of acquiring stations for themselves. All of this was chronicled in an excellent story by Chris Young of the Pittsburgh City Paper (http://www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws//gyrobase/Content?oid=91437) and noted on our site here (http://keeppublicradiopublic.com/2011/02/27/duquesne-double-cross/).
Next stop is Rice University in Houston, station KTRU. While down in the Lone Star State the folks at PRC seemed to revert back to Rainmaker mode, more of a cash-flow deal than an asset acquisition. Per an article on the Texas Watchdog, PRC received $200,000 for brokering the deal (http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2011/01/ktru-broker-cost-university-of-houston-200k/1296158955.column). And as The Watchdog noted, this was during a time of furloughs and pay freezes at Rice, something that didn’t sit well with many alums. But you would have had to be one of those clued in to the sale in order to get upset—there was a well documented effort to keep news of the sale to a minimal few, from University officials (http://www.scribd.com/doc/47667467/KTRU-email-Rice-secrecy) and from the general public (http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2010/11/university-of-houston-practiced-deception-over-Rice-University-KTRU-sale/1289434596.story). And of course there was never any mention of PRC’s involvement in President David Leebron’s communications about the sale (http://matthewwettergreen.com/2010/08/18/updates-on-kuhfs-purchase-of-ktru/). As for the students, they put up a long and well documented fight to save the station, but in the long run the Rainmakers collected their Money From The Sky and in April KTRU passed into history.
But, in an interesting side note, in March PRC’s Susan Harmon made a little trip over to Austin to participate in a South by Southwest panel “How to Save College Radio.” You can listen to it here : (http://schedule.sxsw.com/events/event_MP990206). Most of what I have heard of that panel has been pretty positive, and there was good representation from both KTRU and KUSF, but there were no breakthroughs and certainly nothing came out of it to change the fate of KTRU. After that panel PRC decided to make another panel appearance, this one titled “Saving College Stations,” at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters on June 16th. An article on that panel can be seen here (http://www.radiosurvivor.com/2011/06/16/saving-college-radio-stations-panel-at-nfcb-offered-tips-for-stations-in-peril/0/). This time PRC was represented by managing director and co-founder Marc Hand, and for his part he recommended having proactive discussions with the license holders as a pre-emptive strike against any potential sale. But he also made another comment that still strikes me as, well, weird. In referring to PRC’s involvement in these deals, he offered the opinion that if it wasn’t for PRC, “almost all of these stations would be sold to religious broadcasters.” Maybe I’m missing something, but when students are facing the loss of their college station I really doubt it’s much of a comfort that the new owners will be playing classical music rather than preaching the gospel.
And his mention of classical music programming isn’t an idle one. For some reason, whether by design or by coincidence, a lot of the stations that PRC gets involved with seem to end up with classical programming. That was the case at WDUQ, that was the case at KTRU, and it is the intended case at our next destination, KUSF in San Francisco. And some of the hardest fighting groups that we have run across, Radio Survivor (http://www.radiosurvivor.com/) and the Facebook group Save KUSF (http://www.facebook.com/#!/SaveKUSF), are still fighting to this day. That determination is very much needed in this case, because from here out things get absolutely byzantine.
In fact, it is so twisty-turvy that even though I have been following the story for months now, it is still hard to keep track of just who is doing what and where. Fortunately, Jennifer Waits & Co at Radio Survivor have been doing a bang-up job of tracking it all. For me to list all of the wrinkles they’ve uncovered would push this article out to War and Peace length, so I will just point out the basics and PRC’s involvement to this point.
The story starts January 18th, when the University of San Francisco shut down its transmitter on 90.3FM without notice. Later that day they came back on the air with a simulcast from commercial classical station KDFC at 102.1. Later still there was an announcement that KUSF had been sold to Classical Public Radio Network. This new entity was in turn owned by the University of Southern California and Classical SF LLC, the offshoot of Public Radio Capital mentioned above. So it seems that the folks over at PRC are once again dabbling their toes in station ownership rather than settling for being a facilitator of sales. But the students at USF weren’t about to take this lying down and went immediately into counterattack mode. Much of the story of that fight can be tracked here (http://www.radiosurvivor.com/2011/01/23/kusf-djs-and-fans-gear-up-to-fight-proposed-college-radio-station-sale-while-ownership-details-for-classical-public-radio-emerge/) and here (http://www.radiosurvivor.com/2011/03/28/friends-of-kusf-respond-to-cprn-and-usf-in-latest-phase-of-fcc-battle/). For any student group facing these types of issues, the KUSF saga is maybe the best place to look for the way to fight the good fight.
But at the bottom of all this was an apparent new twist to Public Radio Capital’s modus operandi. At WDUQ they started as Rainmakers, switched alliances and instead became purchasers. At KTRU they blew into town, collected their six-figure fee (http://www.scribd.com/doc/47670184/PRC-contract-KTRU-purchase), then left town on the next figurative train. But with KUSF they seem to have come up with a new wrinkle entirely—in fact there is some question if PRC was involved in the financial aspect of the transaction at all, other than as a purchaser. As near as anyone can tell, the sale was actually brokered by Patrick Communications, and this is where things get twisty again. The purchaser, Classical Public Radio Network, actually shows being owned 90% by USC and 10% by Classical SF LLC. But Classical SF is a shell corporation, owned 100% by PRC. But, per Radio Survivor, PRC employees have also been involved in the logistics of the sale, so there are really some murky waters out in the Bay Area these days. And a lot of that turmoil seems to be generated by PRC, the company that officially purports to preserve existing public radio outlets.
Which brings us around to Nashville, home of Vanderbilt University and WRVU. And once again PRC seems to have morphed their tactics into something new, something deep in the shadows. Sharon Vegas Selby and the Facebook group Save WRVU (currently showing over 6,500 “likes”) have been doing a tremendous amount of research looking into how the station was taken from them, and they have uncovered some interesting elements. In Nashville, PRC did not come in as an “above the board” facilitator; they are not shown to have brokered the deal at all. But their presence is definitely there, or at least one of their board members is. PRC’s website shows one William King of Nashville as a board member (http://publicradiocapital.org/about/board.php), but he is also shown as a board member for Nashville Public Radio (http://wpln.org/?p=131), the proposed purchaser of WRVU. I say “proposed” purchaser due to the fact that even though Vanderbilt Student Communications (VSC) has surrendered the call letters WRVU, and that classical music is now being broadcast over the 91.1 frequency, the sale is far from final. At this point NPR/WPLN still has to raise $3.35 million from its members and investors, as well as secure the approval of Vanderbilt University, the Tennessee Attorney General, and the FCC. And if they do get the needed approvals, there is still the matter of raising that 3.35 million. Having a PRC board member sitting on the board of the purchaser could be coincidence, but it seems a very lucky coincidence indeed.
And this would not be the first such lucky coincidence for PRC; in fact their board members seem to have a real knack for popping up in some very fortunate locations. Remember our friends at KUSF? Out there we find PRC board member Leo Martinez of San Francisco, CA, former Academic Dean at the University of California, Hastings. And while our friends at Save KUSF have not been able to find a direct correlation, his appointment to the board just as PRC was first anticipating getting into the San Francisco market has raised some eyebrows, much as did Mr. King’s appointment in Nashville. But this is nothing new: PRC board members popping up in other capacities seems almost commonplace in their acquisitions. In fact one could almost come up with a variation of the classic kid’s game “Where’s Elmo?”—only this would be “Where’s PRC?” Can you find them at Public Media Company? Absolutely! How about in the Classical Public Radio Network? You bet! And can you find William King over in Nashville? There he is, on the board of purchaser Nashville Public Radio! And who knows what a fortuitous place that might turn out for him to be. Here Mr. King is on the board of a group that is needing to come up with millions of dollars to purchase a radio station while also sitting on the board of a company that specializes in coming up with millions of dollars to purchase radio stations! We should all be so lucky. . . .
So there you have it. We’ve been to the east coast, the west coast, the third coast, and into the heartland. And everywhere we’ve gone we’ve seen the footsteps and fingerprints of PRC, its board members, and its offshoots. And the trail is littered with the loss of college stations all around the country. How all of this will play out in the coming months is still very much in question, at least for our friends at KUSF and WRVU. The student groups at those fine universities still refuse to be intimidated by such multimillion-dollar entities and are continuing to fight to this day. It seems unfortunate that a lot of their hopes now depend on the FCC, a group that has been basically toothless for some time. But with all of the publicity, and with the canny filing of the correct protests, the FCC may yet wake up and take a look at the harm that these sales are bringing to their respective communities. We wish these groups the best of luck, and will continue to chronicle their fights. At the same time we lament the loss of such stations as WDUQ and KTRU; sometimes even the strongest of fighters don’t prevail. But I believe that their experiences added fire and knowledge to the groups that are still fighting, so the spirit of those stations lingers in San Francisco, Nashville, and at every other college facing the loss of student-run radio.
In the end I wish that I could offer a sure-fire way of fighting PRC, but even after months of watching their moves across the country I really don’t see one. At best, what I ran into was some good advice from Ken Freedman, General Manager of campus/community station WFMU. Mr. Freedman had been able to extricate WFMU from Upsala College after that school filed bankruptcy, and he has developed ten tips on “How To Save Your College Radio Station.” Aand he shared those at the NFCR panel he worked with Marc Hand (http://www.radiosurvivor.com/2011/06/16/saving-college-radio-stations-panel-at-nfcb-offered-tips-for-stations-in-peril/0/). Unfortunately, these tips are mainly to be used prior to a station coming up for sale. And when the proposed sale is kept under wraps, as it was with KTRU, such tips are of little use. And once Public Radio Capital is actively involved, then such advice is mainly just out the window. PRC’s website may say that their goal is to preserve existing public radio outlets, but time and again their only interest has been in that ol’ bottom line. Student concerns do not figure into their actions. Mr. Freedman’s 10 tips are :
1. Make the College a happy licensee so that they don’t want to sell the station.
2. With the College’s permission, incorporate in your state as a not-for-profit corporation for the purpose of keeping in touch with station/college alumni, e.g. “Friends of WFMU.”
3. Populate the board of your Friends group with College staff and faculty, station people, lawyers and business fundraising people.
4. Develop a mailing list for your “Friends” group, and utilize them in positive ways that will not be a threat to the college
5. If the College is OK with . . . your Friends group raising money for the station, contact a (free) lawyer to apply . . . for 501c3 tax exempt status.
6. Identify a person or people from the station or Friends group who can cultivate a strong personal relationship with a key station decision-maker at the College.
7. Negotiate an “option to buy” or a “right of first refusal” contract so that IF the College decides to sell the station, the Friends group will be the first in line to buy it.
8. Start fundraising, either on behalf of the College licensee, or on behalf of the Friends group . . .
9. IF (and only if) your College is selling the station, negotiate a “sell it but keep it” contract with the College, under which the license is sold to the Friends group, but the College continues to enjoy all benefits of having an affiliated station.
10. Develop a contingency plan for how the station would remain intact (programming-wise) if the College were to suddenly change all the locks on the station doors.
Good advice all around. If taken in time. But by now the Rainmakers over at PRC have become totally adept at getting it to rain Money From The Sky. And they are quite good at having it rain only on them, not those saps standing next to them. So if things have gotten to the point where Public Radio Capital or Public Media Company or Classical SF LLC or whatever offshoot PRC might come up with next is shown to be involved with your station, I have only one bit of advice. And it comes from the 1992 re-make of the movie The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum:
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Reverend’s Note: I need to say a special thanks to the people who contributed knowledge and guidance on this piece. There is a large community of radio activists who have been looking at PRC for some time. Their research was much needed, and I have tried to give proper thanks and links to their sites when possible. But I want to give a special shout out to Jennifer Waits, Sharon Scott, Kenya Lewis, and Sharon Vegas Selby. Their correspondence was vital, and I only wished I had more time and space to show the full extent of their work. But our site has links to all of their groups, so please show them the support they much deserve. And I also want to say thanks to Jim Ellinger of Austin Airwaves, who first suggested looking into this some months ago. It’s been a daunting project, and hopefully I was able to shine some light on the issues at hand.
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