The Watchdog and the Cougar

The Texas Watchdog turned up some interesting facts about the sale of KTRU, Rice University’s student station, to the University of Houston in a post entitled “KTRU broker cost University of Houston $200K; deal inked within months of U of H furloughs, other cuts.” The following just points out the discrepancy between the motives of those seeking to do service in the “public interest” and their actions to achieve same. As we’ve noted, college radio seems to be nothing more than collateral damage in the battle for the non-comm radio airwaves between NPR and religious programming:

The University of Houston agreed to pay $200,000 plus expenses to the non-profit firm Public Radio Capital for serving as a broker in the $9.5 million deal to acquire Rice University’s student radio station KTRU, according to a contract for the deal obtained by Texas Watchdog.

The contract was included in more than 250 pages of e-mails and other records released by UH, following a January state Attorney General’s ruling that determined the records were open. UH had fought their disclosure and succeeded in withholding some information.

The deal securing Public Radio Capital was finalized in June 2009, with the purchase approved last August — all within months of the U of H instituting furloughs, a hiring freeze and pay freeze as the state struggled with declining revenue and projected budget shortfalls….

One donor, whose name was withheld, e-mailed Grover Campbell, VP of government relations at U of H, and referred to a report that found classical programming would lose money. KTRU was meant to complement U of H’s NPR affiliate KUHF; the university planned to use the additional frequency to broadcast classical music around the clock and turn KUHF into an all-news channel.

“I did speak with Ed and he basically confirmed what was in the report – classical is expected to lose $1M/year for the university plus the cost of acquisition and financing,” the donor wrote. “Hard for me to understand how to justify that for a university that is laying people off.”

The Watchdog piece by Steve Miller, referred to us yesterday by curlydan’s comment, is an excellent bit of investigative reporting, worthy of extensive excerpting:

SIGNAL ‘LESS THAN IDEAL’

Much of the new correspondence involves John Proffitt, the CEO at KUHF, U of H’s public radio affiliate who was a chief advocate of the acquisition. His e-mails show officials knew there would be challenges with the KTRU signal.

“KTRU has – I will be charitable – less than ideal coverage in the southern half of our 88.7 range. An important consideration,” Proffitt told Erik Langner, PRC’s director of acquisitions in an email on June 15, 2009.

Langner responded that he was aware of the problem, saying in a missive the next day that KTRU’s signal to the south has “shortcomings” but that he was intent on proving that the station’s non-commercial, education signal is “one of the best” in Houston.

As the deal moved forward, U of H officials worried about how the idea would be received publicly. Previously released messages showed a concerted effort to conceal the transaction from the public.

Rice ensured administrators were kept in the dark about the deal, too. In a June 2009 e-mail to Proffitt, Langner cautioned against making any contact with Rice.

“No one at Rice, other than the president and a select number of advisers, knows that this is happening,” Langner wrote. “It is critical at this stage that no one at Rice is contacted with regard to this transaction.”

By April 2010, Langner was promising UH officials that any public consternation and protest would fall on Rice, not U of H.

KEEPING CALL LETTERS OFF PUBLIC NOTICE

The released records detail the behind-the-scenes plotting to keep the call letters KTRU off the agenda for the Aug. 17 U of H Board of Regents meeting to approve the purchase — a move that open government advocates have criticized.

Seeing those call letters on the agenda would no doubt attract public attention. U of H public relations official Karen Clarke fired off an e-mail on Aug. 10, a week before the meeting, to Langner and demanded to know who decided to include the KTRU call letters on the publicly-posted agenda:

“Can you please tell me who is going to make this public on the UH website? As chief info officer at UH, I was not aware that KTRU would be specifically named. If you can let me know how you expect this will happen, I can take steps to manage it to a better outcome for all concerned.”

Langner, too, appeared worried about including the call letters:

“When I spoke with John Proffitt yesterday afternoon, I was informed by him that the agenda would include the KTRU call letters. I have no other source for this information and no other reason to believe that this would be the case. So it seems that there was simply a misunderstanding with respect to this topic. If the board materials and website are not going to list the KTRU call letters, then I have no idea how this would become public.”

The letters were eventually left off the online posting for the meeting, as well as the backup material for the item regarding the sale.

In doing so, the board and university may have violated the state’s Open Meetings Act, a point that the group Friends of KTRU has brought before the Federal Communications Commission.

A ruling from the FCC may take months, though its performance to date as a lapdog to consolidators’ interests doesn’t give rise to much optimism in regards to the public interest. The material released to the Watchdog pursuant to the open records request can be found here. Way to go, Steve and the Dawg.

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