Listeners turn out for future of public radio station
More than 200 people gathered at Salisbury University in Maryland recently to participate in an open meeting that could help determine the future of Public Radio Delmarva, and particularly its public radio station WDSL/90.7-FM.
Public Radio Delmarva (PRD) came to Salisbury University a quarter-century ago and has resided in Caruthers Hall since then, initially operating classical music station WSCL and, starting in 1998, WSDL, as well as recording studio, AMI Seagull Studios. Now, the university is planning to demolish the building, and the radio stations are in need of a new home.
Aside from that, there have reportedly been some financial difficulties, and those factors together could mean a total change to the format of WSDL, which currently offers a variety of news and feature programs from various public radio syndicates, along with some local news and feature programming.
Dennis Hamilton, a consultant from Public Radio Capital (PRC), a national nonprofit organization that “provides comprehensive consulting services for strengthening, expanding and financing public media in communities nationwide,” according to their Web site, attended the meeting to give his report and recommendations for the stations’ future.
Hamilton reviewed his report and said that the public radio station needs to become sustainable and show potential for growth in order to ensure that it stays on the airwaves.
“In this area, you have only one classical radio station, and then you have three radio stations right on top of each other, broadcasting almost directly on top of each other, competing for the same listeners,” he explained, referencing WSDL, WAMU and WYPR, all of which currently offer public radio programming, though WAMU and WYPR are “repeater” stations, simulcast from the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Md., areas, respectively.
Hamilton said the average age of those who listen to the PRD classical music station, WSCL, is 65, while those who listen to public radio have an average age of 55.
“There is little to no potential for growth in existing audience and revenue base,” Hamilton said of WSDL. He added that the capital costs, which include the relocation and a new transmitter, would drown the station.
His report gave a number of suggested options, including having the station become a repeater station or transferring the station to a nonprofit organization, but he said his recommendation was for the station to enter into a public service operating agreement (PSOA).
“Such an agreement will substantially reduce operating costs to the licensee and, as WSDL-FM will be reformatted as an AAA [adult album alternative] public radio station, this scenario will deliver a new audience and therefore increase Salisbury University branding,” reads the report.
“PSOA does not necessary come at the expense of local programming,” explained Hamilton of the recommendation. But, he warned, “More local programming does not mean more listening. High-quality programming does add to listening and revenue.”
If the scenario Hamilton recommended is accepted by the Public Radio Delmarva board, WSCL would air canned classical music selections from “Classical 24,” and WSDL would air prepackaged music.
Attorney Mike Pretl, speaking on behalf of Friends of Delmarva Public Radio, said that his nonprofit group is unsure if PRC has Public Radio Delmarva’s best interests at heart.
“We feel the consultant labors under a rather obvious conflict of interest,” said Pretl of Hamilton. “I called a fellow Georgetown Law graduate who practices in FCC law, and I asked him if he had ever heard of this company called Public Radio Capital. He said, ‘Oh, yeah — they’re a broker. They take over all of these small community stations and sell them, mostly to religious broadcasters.’ That bothered me. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I was told by someone who has been practicing FCC law for 50 years; that caused me concern.”
Pretl said that there is also concern about an option agreement that comes along with the PSOA that would permit the new operator to purchase the public station for an unspecified price.
“I don’t know whether they would insist on that or not, but it’s a little troublesome that they put that in the report.”
Pretl’s concerns are mirrored by criticism of PRC in an article on the Web site KeepPublicRadioPublic.com (http://keeppublicradiopublic.com/2011/08/26/public-radio-capital-money-f...), which details PRC’s involvement in the reformatting and sale of several college radio stations in recent years.
Pretl also said there are questions about whether the university has lived up to its commitment to Public Radio Delmarva. He said the Friends group has been poring over documents and the archives related to the station and its home.
“They found a statement from the university president back in January of 1985, declaring that Salisbury University — then Salisbury State College — would donate studio space to the station for as long as it continued in existence,” he said, noting that it was a commitment made not only to the public but to the FCC, as well.
“It doesn’t appear to us that there is a commitment by the board in recent years that they are committed to making this radio station work,” he added.
Pretl went on to state that he had received a letter from former station manager Fred Marino in which Marino said he believes that the report stating that the station has operated under a heavy deficit is grossly inaccurate.
“He says, not during his tenure, it didn’t,” said Pretl of Marino. “He says, ‘It has been claimed that, over 17 years of the station’s 25-year history, there were crippling deficits and the station hemorrhaged money. The fact is that, in the first 19 years of station operations, there were no significant year-end deficits.’”
Pretl said that the Friends group would like to set up a nonprofit corporation to oversee the station and would take on the task of trying to raise the money needed to keep the station alive.
“We would like to suggest that there be a consideration of the option of turning the license over to a nonprofit corporation that we would set up in the community. I don’t know whether we can do it or not, but I think we deserve the chance before they go off and sell it to some religious broadcaster.”
Pretl asked that the Friends group be allowed to bring in a new consultant who can review and assess the station’s current situation and give the board other options.
“We would like to bring in another consultant to secure whatever data is necessary. The focus should be on the future. We suggest not rushing to judgment but considering if there are other viable scenarios,” he said. “I think those of us who care about these stations, listen to these stations, should have the opportunity to look beyond that scenario.”
More than 20 people spoke in favor of keeping Delmarva Public Radio program exactly as it is today and urged the board to recognize that the station is what it is because of local programming.
“What we need, after the last four years of a recession — we need to strengthen this station,” said Walk Barcus, who noted he has worked in the broadcasting industry for 38 years. “It needs more local programming. It needs more community programming. That’s what it needs.”
“Preserving local programming and local news is really what this station is all about. It must be preserved,” added Lewes resident Rosario Calvachi-Mateyko, who also serves on the Delaware Hispanic Commission.
Pamela Andrews, former program director for the station, said that without WSCL and WSDL, local residents would no longer have local radio programming.
“My concern is there are many areas of Delmarva that many, many folks won’t have access to it,” she said. Andrews added that the report’s notion that the audience is projected to decline doesn’t seem plausible, as Delmarva is one of the fastest-growing areas on the East Coast.
Listener Anne Dyke also disagreed with PRC’s report, noting that she believes the listening base will be increasing, not decreasing.
“Last I heard, the Baby Boomers are getting ready to retire. Where are they retiring? To the Eastern Shore. The 65-year-olds are definitely not a fading, dead-end market,” she said, adding that many are financially sound and willing to donate funds to what they believe is worthwhile. “We are looking for good places to give, to be generous to.”
Salisbury University Communications Department professors Darrell Newton and Jody Morrison said they wished to keep the station for the benefit of the university’s students.
“We are here to advocate for the students. Our department sends students to WSCL and to do internships where they can learn to do broadcasting in the real world,” said Newton. “Will the new management — can they promise our students will have the same opportunity?”
“There’s a very strong academic tie between the radio station and the university. Our students get hands-on experience that helps make them marketable in this community and beyond for jobs,” added Morrison, noting that the internship program has been put on an indefinite “hiatus” until the future of the station is clear.
SU philosophy professor Richard English said that he believes the station is an integral part of the university experience, for students and staff to continue to be better educated.
“Listeners are critical thinkers, and that’s what we’re trying to get our students to be,” he said. “There is a direct connection between how educated I am because of DPR and what I bring into the classroom.”
SU student Rob White, who is a communications major, said that he cannot fathom the school without the station.
“Public Radio Delmarva is the only radio station on campus I’m proud of.”
A Wicomico High School student also spoke in favor of keeping the station and even offered to help raise funds to do so.
“I’m 17 years old, and I listen to public radio. And I heard about this meeting and I heard about what was happening, and I was deeply distressed. Education is really important to me, so listening to public radio is a good way to do that,” she said. “I am willing to do whatever I can to raise money. It might not be much, but I’ll do my best.”
University professor Kel Nagel questioned why the public wasn’t kept aware of the station’s alleged troubles.
“It seems to me that the first time I heard of this brewing controversy was about a month ago. Why was that?” he asked. “If you let these stations go, you will have committed a sin.”
Tom Latimer, who said he has owned and sold a number of private radio stations throughout his career, argued that it is possible for the station to be viable, through selling advertising.
“There’s a way, somehow, to sell advertising to generate revenue that is not offensive to the audience that is listening,” he said, adding that it will benefit the university’s students, as well. “Figure out a way to sell advertising and teach some of these students how to sell it.”
Caroline County resident Chip Winters said he had driven nearly 100 miles to speak at the meeting, in favor of maintaining the station.
“I think some things in life are too rarified to put a price tag on it, and I know the value of a dollar. I urge the university to maintain, if not increase, the funding for this rare homegrown station that enhances and complements the university every day.”
To read Hamilton’s full report, visit http://www.salisbury.edu/foundation/docs/SUF-DPR-Report-8-30-2012.pdf. To send questions or comments, email email@example.com.