Hopkins intends to sell WJHU

University official says station is not a `money-maker'

March 17, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Johns Hopkins University officials intend to sell WJHU, the city's primary public radio news station, after concluding that the cash-strapped station would fare better with an owner willing to spend more money on its future.

"The radio station has never been a money-maker for Hopkins, nor perhaps was it ever set up to be one," said James McGill, the university's senior vice president for finance and administration.

No price estimates have been made by Hopkins or potential purchasers. If no buyer emerges, Hopkins could decide to enter a partnership allowing another outlet to run the station.

The potential sale puts nearly everything about WJHU in question, from the station's affiliation with National Public Radio to the nature of its local programming to its heavy emphasis on talk and news shows.

A search for a general manager has been placed on hold, while plans to create a new local news operation have also been suspended.

But McGill stressed that any suitor - almost assuredly from the world of public broadcasting - would have to persuade the university that it would highlight issues and events specific to the Greater Baltimore region.

Along with a heavy dose of programming from NPR, the 15-year-old university station airs four local shows, including "The Marc Steiner Show," a daily two-hour program, as well as shows on wine and beer, jazz and media criticism.

(Other NPR stations can be heard in the Baltimore region. WEAA 88.9 FM, owned by Morgan State University, tends to run a smattering of the network's programs, largely jazz offerings but not NPR news programs. Two Washington affiliates can also be heard here. )

New York University media scholar Mark Crispin Miller, a former Hopkins professor who once served as a political analyst on WJHU, said the decision to sell the station did not come as a surprise.

"The university never seemed to appreciate the cultural value of what they had," said Miller, who battled Hopkins administrators for years over the station's direction.

"Here is a university with invaluable intellectual resources, yet they never used the station to make that wealth available to the public. Nor did they allow the students to take advantage of that asset."

`Deeper pockets'

Timothy D. Armbruster, chairman of a Hopkins advisory panel on WJHU, said the station could prosper under different ownership.

"To the extent that the university can sell it in a thoughtful way that retains local programming, I think it suggests good things ahead," Armbruster said.

"Ideally, if the station is sold, it will be to somebody with a commitment to quality programming, a commitment to continue local programming - and substantially deeper pockets."

The station started in 1986 with a news desk, and over the years it initiated local talk and music shows. But in the mid-1990s, seeking a greater audience, WJHU dropped its classical music shows and moved to a talk format much more reliant on syndicated programming.

In the years since then, the switch appeared to help the station attain a solid financial footing. WJHU maintains 13 full-time employees, 11,000 members and a $2 million annual budget. And, while it's still paying back a long-term loan from the university, the station recently began running budget surpluses after many years of deficits.

But visions of digital technology and the desire to swap the station's 10,000-watt transmitter for a 50,000-watt transmitter suggested a need for greater investments than the university wants to make.

Interest from MPT

While it's unclear who approached whom - each side says the other initiated discussions - Maryland Public Television expressed strong interest in acquiring WJHU this winter.

MPT officials envision a purchase as a way of extending their system's reach to a new medium, while finding additional ways to promote their television operations.

"As we look at the coming convergence of media, radio is an important component," said Jeffrey D. Hankin, MPT's vice president of marketing.

"If service to citizens of Maryland is our mission, acquiring a Baltimore radio station would certainly be a step along that path."

Any agreement by MPT to buy the Hopkins radio license would likely require several levels of state review.

Hopkins has decided, however, to solicit offers from as many potential purchasers as possible, McGill said.

Hopkins officials also said they have spoken to the parent company of Minnesota Public Radio. But Tony Bol, a spokesman for the Minnesota system, said any speculation that it might buy WJHU is premature.

"It's really just a conversation at this point," Bol said. "We are astounded that such early conversations are newsworthy."

A surprise

The behind-the-scenes maneuvering took employees at WJHU by surprise, several staffers there said.

The university had scheduled interviews in Baltimore this week and next for four finalists for the vacant general manager's post. Those interviews were canceled.

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