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Friday, January 14, 2011

WDUQ sold, for much less than its owner sought

Posted By on Fri, Jan 14, 2011 at 8:05 PM

Well, it could have been a worse. A lot worse. Duquesne University could have sold WDUQ-FM -- which it put on the block last year -- to a bunch of religious nuts, as some people feared.

Instead, the school announced today that the station will be sold -- for $6 million -- to a joint venture consisting of another local public station, WYEP, and a spin-off from a Colorado-based non-profit, Public Radio Capital. Parties to the sale held a press conference this afternoon, and here's what we know:

At least some of WDUQ's jazz format seems likely to survive, for better or worse. And the station's would-be owners -- they hope to acquire the station within the next six months, pending FCC approval -- are signalling that they will preserve, and even ramp up, the station's commitment to local journalism.

If the sale goes through, WDUQ will lose its call letters, and the station will be relocated to the South Side, where it will share space with WYEP in that station's Community Broadcast Center. NPR programming will remain, assured WYEP board chair Marco Cardamone at the press conference. What's more, he said, "We are committed to honoring the tradition of jazz."

But the buyers said it was "way too soon" to get into specifics. So it remains unclear whether the new station will be as committed to jazz as WDUQ is.

My guess is that the new station won't be. As we've reported before, there's always been some tension between WDUQ's role as a purveyor of mainstream jazz, and its role as a purveyor of local journalism. Local foundations, which early on expressed a great deal of concern about the WDUQ sale, have also gone on record as being especially concerned about the plight of journalism in Pittsburgh.

And tell me if you hear the sound of priorities shifting in this statement, from WYEP General Manager Lee Feraro: 

"While local journalism, reflecting the diversity of voices and issues in our community, is a high priority for EPM, we look forward to working with the community of jazz lovers in Pittsburgh as well."

Cardamone was even more explicit, touting "the amazing opportunity to transform local journalism, offer reliable news and information, spark civic conversation and shed light on important issues." But I dunno. I'm not a huge fan of the jazz format. (Backers of WDUQ programming note that it has a larger audience than WYEP and classical WQED-FM. But so what? 'DVE kicks everyone's ass. I still wouldn't call it a public service.) But if it were easy for public broadcasters to do local journalism, we'd still be watching On Q.

And when you consider Pittsburgh already has two daily papers -- each held by independent owners willing to sacrifice profit margins that corporate owners would insist in -- I'm not sure that the problem with journalism here is insufficient supply. It may be a lack of demand.

But that's a topic for another day. For now I'll just note a minor irony in today's transaction -- which is that while Duquesne is cashing in, the sale it proves the univesrity has been wrong all this time, and everyone else has been right. 

That $6 million Duquesne earned? It's roughly half of what the school expected. When the station was first put on the block, some estimates put the value of WDUQ at as much as $12 million. Others estimated a sum close to half of that -- and they turned out to be exactly right. But as the public-broadcasting trade journal Current reported

Duquesne University is standing firm behind an asking price of $10 million, an amount that far exceeds the value of commercial and noncommercial properties in Pittsburgh ...

"We do not believe it’s worth anywhere near that," Langner said.

"Langer" is Erik Langer, of Public Radio Capital. If that name sounds familiar, it should: That's the non-profit that is helping launch the current effort to buy the station. At the time, though, PRC was advising another bidder -- Pittsburgh Public Media, a group of WDUQ staffers and volunteers interested in buying the station. 

The PPM bid failed. But today, Langner's colleagues closed the deal with another buyer -- at a price in the range they'd been seeking all along. 

In this afternoon's press conference, Duquesne University President Charles Dougherty was asked about why the station had come down so far from its initial asking price. Dougherty acknowledged it was "a market issue." Like any would-be seller, he said, "We started on the high side." In the end, though, "It turned out after a year of conversation, the $6 million number is [a] reasonable price."

Actually, it turns out you didn't even need the year of conversation. 

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