Duquesne Double-Cross

This post on pittsburghcitypaper.ws outlined some of the details of the move by Duquesne U. to divest itself of its radio station, WDUQ, a move that’s engendered protest over the fate of jazz programming and the very employees that have made the station the success that it is. As the article notes, “December rankings released by Arbitron, a media research firm, show that WDUQ leads its public-radio counterparts, WQED-FM and WYEP, in listeners.”

The article, entitled “Mugged: The deal for WDUQ could leave employees and jazz fans feeling robbed, ” by Chris Young, reveals the duplicitous role played by perennial co-conspirator Public Radio Capital. Originally brought in by a local group seeking to buy the station — Pittsburgh Public Media — PRC subsequently turned coat and conspired with WYEP, in cahoots, apparently, with some local moneyed interests:

[I]n early May, the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation had purchased a 60-day option on the station, freezing the bidding process so they could determine the best use of the station. And PRC terminated the contract soon after.

In a June 2 letter to PPM, PRC managing director Marc Hand wrote, “PRC must be able to work with the local foundations and public broadcasters outside the confines” of its existing agreement.

“[T]he only viable strategy for acquiring WDUQ is to work with Pittsburgh’s foundation community,” Hand added.

News that PRC was involved with other bidders, however, came as a surprise to WDUQ staff, which learned of it only at the Jan. 14 announcement. That’s when they discovered PRC had created a new operating arm, Public Media Company, that teamed with WYEP to purchase their station.

In fact, PPM had offered $6.5 million for the station, as opposed to the $6 million selling price, but was turned down by the university. “PRC managing director Marc Hand wrote, ‘PRC must be able to work with the local foundations and public broadcasters outside the confines’ of its existing agreement.” Not surprisingly, current staff members remain mum on the situation, with their job prospects up in the air, the management squeeze in operation at all radio stations.

WDUQ’s staff of 50 — 21 of whom are full time — have not been promised employment once the station is sold. Current staffers were wary of speaking on the record for fear of jeopardizing job prospects. But sources within the station say PRC’s move is widely perceived as a betrayal.

Joe Kelly is not a WDUQ employee, but as chair of PPM he declined to speak with City Paper for this story. In a prepared statement, however, Kelly notes that “we are proud of the fact that PPM operated in a very open and transparent way. . . . We wish the best for WYEP and its partners, and we hope that they recognize and see the value of the talented and dedicated staff of the existing 90.5 FM.”

Technically, Public Media Company is an independent entity. Susan Harmon, a PRC co-founder and board member, says the two organizations have “complementary and clear roles.”

“Clear” as far as she says it is, as this Public Media Company is a brand-new entity dreamed up for this deal.

But they also share three of each group’s seven board members. And some observers question the propriety of the relationship.

“How can Public Radio Capital be in the business of consulting and helping finance stations in public radio if it’s also going to have this other entity . . . in the takeover and management business?” says Michael Marcotte, a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University who closely follows reforms at local NPR affiliates. “It seems pretty darn convenient to be the guy you call when you need help . . . and then suddenly [there is] this other self that can then take advantage of that situation.”

Indeed. And the landed gentry of Pittsburgh are all well on board with the fixation nowadays for talk-talk:

“We didn’t make any formal conclusions during the option period,” says Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. But they suspected Pittsburgh “could be a very good market for a station that was more heavily news than WDUQ is right now.” (The foundations seemed less sure about the future of jazz: At the time, Oliphant expressed uncertainty about whether jazz was “the best use of philanthropic dollars.”)

With struggling newspapers less able to do labor-intensive, in-depth stories, Oliphant says, “that void is to some extent now beginning to be filled by nonprofit journalism.”

“I don’t think there’s any question [an expanded news operation] would succeed here in Pittsburgh,” agrees Charlie Humphrey, executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, who acted as a liaison for the foundations during the time. “It’s succeeding everywhere it’s being done.”

So the fate of local jazz seems none too clear at this point:

Harmon says it’s too early to say specifically what programming will be offered. “But three things are on our mind: the role of jazz, NPR and local journalism.”

Some fans suspect only the last two have any future.

“My gut feeling is that the new owner is not especially strong for jazz,” says Joe Negri, a local jazz guitarist.

Fans of the current WDUQ format say it honors Pittsburgh’s jazz history: Such greats as Earl “Fatha” Hines, Art Blakely and Lena Horne had ties here. “To not have jazz on the airwaves in a significant way is unfathomable,” says Marty Ashby, executive producer of Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Jazz.

Ashby wonders why the owners would give up a programming niche they have cornered. “Why go to more journalism and more talk when there are 15 other stations that have a lot of talk? It seems like a bad business move.”

Pittsburgh has two daily newspapers — unusual in a city this size. Additionally, there are three commercial-TV news operations, two commercial news-radio stations, and a number of other outlets, including City Paper.

And journalism isn’t cheap. Robert Bellamy, a journalism professor at Duquesne University, says news operations are costly to run — and their stories can upset funders.

“The obvious default for so many stations is to run a jukebox,” Bellamy says.

And whether that jukebox plays canned music or news all depends on the turn of the cards.

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3 Responses

  1. […] 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 (https://keeppublicradiopublic.com/2011/02/27/duquesne-double-cross/). […]

  2. […] up the station over a higher bid from the locals (see story, “Duquesne Double-Cross,” here). For now, anyway, some of the comments from jazz loyalists can be found on the Essential Public […]

  3. […] Here is the original post: Duquesne Double-Cross « Keeping the Public in Public Radio […]

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