WJHU's future remains unknown

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Station: A Hopkins spokesman says the decision to sell isn't final, but potential buyers seem to be in the picture.

March 21, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Maneuvering continues over the future of WJHU, the Johns Hopkins University-owned NPR news affiliate.

Sensitive about last weekend's story disclosing that the university is taking steps to put the station on the market, a spokesman emphasizes that Hopkins has not conclusively decided to sell WJHU (88.1 FM).

The university could enter a partnership allowing a different broadcaster to run the station, notes Dennis O'Shea. Or the university could retreat from the brink and hang onto WJHU.

By its own account, however, the university is not willing to make the major investments needed by the station. And Hopkins has commissioned a broker to solicit bids over the next few months to take the station off its hands.

The establishment of WJHU in 1986 is best seen as part of the drive of then-Hopkins President Steven Muller to expand the university's empire, much like the creation of scholarly centers in Bologna, Italy and Nanking, China, and an earlier affiliation with the financially ailing Peabody Institute. Setting these things up was the easy part. Finding the money to keep them going - even as part of an institution with a $1.6 billion annual budget - proved tougher.

Under Muller's money-minded successors, each part of the university is supposed to be self-reliant. The radio station, while paying off past debts to Hopkins, is in the black. But there's no extra Hopkins money for a new radio signal or digital equipment. Hence, the search for deep pockets.

An official at WETA, outside Washington, says his company is aware of WJHU's situation but has not made any proposals. Maryland Public Television is itching to take command of the station to help promote its own offerings in the greater Baltimore area. Minnesota Public Radio is coy.

Each possibility has its drawbacks.

"I think it's important for stations like ours to remain locally controlled," says Marc Steiner, the station's signature voice as the host of its primary local talk show. "It's important to have media outlets that are beholden only to the people in our community."

The chief spokesman for Maryland Public Television made the same point last week. "We'd like to see it remain not only a public radio station but a Maryland-owned station," says Jeffrey D. Hankin, vice president for marketing. "There is concern that an organization coming from out of the area and trying to run a local operation would not have an understanding of the market. I'm not sure Washington understands Baltimore. The people of Baltimore are entitled to have something that's not a franchise operation."

But there is also some apprehension about MPT as a potential owner. While tight-lipped about it now, Steiner has previously expressed misgivings about his brief stint on MPT several years ago. And others involved with the station argue that PBS and MPT are not up to the same level of quality as their radio counterparts.

There is another model for change. Earlier this month, a group of citizens around Greeley, Colo., made a deal with the University of Northern Colorado to purchase KUNC, an FM station owned by the campus. University officials had planned to sell the station to Colorado Public Radio for $2.6 million but relented after a public campaign and sold its license instead for $2 million to a hastily arranged civic association led by the station's employees.

KUNC bears a certain resemblance to WJHU. The Colorado station is an NPR affiliate with 9,000 members, a $1 million annual budget, a distinctive eclectic mix of music and a small news desk. (WJHU has 11,000 members, a $2 million budget and has suspended its plans to create a similarly sized news desk.)

Colorado Public Radio wanted to turn KUNC into a second NPR affiliate emphasizing classical music but would have eliminated an independent voice for that part of the state.

"It became a real issue for our listeners, the homogenization of modern media," says Neil Best, station manager for KUNC. "What we heard from listeners is that they want us to remain locally oriented."

Steiner and others at the station are trying to arrange funds for a similar private group. Hopkins officials say they would be open to such an appeal.

More election news

Last fall, Hearst-Argyle, CBS and Scripps Howard - the parent companies of WBAL, WJZ and WMAR - adopted the call of a national panel to devote at least five minutes a night to "candidate-centered" political coverage in the 30 days before Election Day.

One recent report finds most stations failed miserably.

In conjunction with the Alliance for Better Campaigns, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California studied 74 television stations. Volunteers tallied cumulative minutes starting at 5 p.m. and ending at 11:35 p.m. nightly for each channel.

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