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Mugged: The deal for WDUQ could leave employees and jazz fans feeling robbed 

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When Duquesne University officials announced that the school would sell WDUQ-FM on Jan. 14, its buyers hailed it as a win for the community.

The station will, after all, be sold not to a religious broadcaster -- as some feared -- but to a joint venture of WYEP-FM and Public Media Company, a nonprofit born out of an organization that specializes in expanding public-radio licenses. And in a statement, WYEP board chair Marco Cardamone said the new venture, Essential Public Media, offered "an amazing opportunity to transform local journalism, offer reliable news and information, spark civic conversation and shed light on important issues."

So far, though, there's been little light shed on the station's future. And no one has been more in the dark than WDUQ employees.

Once WDUQ officially changes hands later this year, the station will lose its call letters and be relocated to WYEP's South Side headquarters. It also seems likely to downplay jazz programming in favor of stepped-up local-news coverage.  

WDUQ fans and staffers -- who hoped to preserve the station's current format of jazz, NPR and local news -- formed their own non-profit to purchase the station. Their $6.5 million offer was larger than EPM's $6 million bid, but the school rejected it. Adding insult to injury, a consultant they'd brought to Pittsburgh ended up on the winning team. 

 

click to enlarge Michael Marcotte
  • Michael Marcotte

Pittsburgh Public Media, the nonprofit WDUQ staffers formed to purchase the station, saw little need to fix what isn't broken. December rankings released by Arbitron, a media research firm, show that WDUQ leads its public-radio counterparts, WQED-FM and WYEP, in listeners. The gap is widest during the hours when WDUQ broadcasts NPR. 

To negotiate the bidding process, PPM hired Colorado-based Public Radio Capital in December 2009, shortly after Duquesne put the station up for sale. 

PRC, which served as PPM's broker, worked on a contingency basis, getting paid only if a deal is made. But in 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.

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."

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."

Harmon says her group didn't start talking with WYEP until six weeks after the consulting job with Kelly's group ended. WYEP initiated the talks, she says, and PRC wouldn't have considered the offer had its contract still been in effect. "We're clear about our business dealings," she says.

 

Less clear is what WDUQ's new owner plans to broadcast.

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.

WDUQ's local news coverage, which airs between NPR broadcasts during the morning and afternoon rush hours, primarily reports the day's major headlines, including news about election campaigns and city-council meetings. On occasion, the station airs more in-depth stories, such as last year's week-long series on autism, titled "Autism Through the Lifespan."

The station's news operation makes up a large chunk of the station's budget. In a May blog post, WDUQ General Manager Scott Hanley said "WDUQ spends about 70 [percent] of its programming budget on news [local and NPR], about 20 [percent] on Jazz."

But around the country, "The big shift has been toward local journalism," says Marcotte, the Knight fellow. "Those stations that have [created] strong local-news departments have proven very cost-effective. If they can be like NPR in tone, quality, production, depth, then ... that makes for a very valuable local-news station."

Pittsburgh's foundations were thinking along those lines last year. 

"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."

In fact, Humphrey and Oliphant are proceeding with their own plans to fund local journalism. On Feb. 17 -- just weeks after the sale of WDUQ was announced -- The Pittsburgh Foundation announced plans to launch an online news initiative this summer that will focus on in-depth reporting about regional issues. Modeled after ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism website, the venture will be funded with a $253,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, of Miami, and $325,000 from the Pittsburgh Foundation.

The fate of WDUQ's programming and employees, meanwhile, remain uncertain. Cardamone has assured the staff, "We know that all of you are anxious for more information about our plans." What they've already learned, however, is that they won't be charting them. 

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