4 seek WJHU control

Bid: A group of suitors led by talk show host Marc Steiner wants to keep the station local.

April 30, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

As today's deadline for bids arrives, at least four groups are seeking control of WJHU (88.1 FM), the public radio station owned by the Johns Hopkins University.

According to participants, the suitors include Maryland Public Television; WAMU (American University's public radio station); WBUR (Boston University's public radio station); and an independent group that includes WJHU talk show host Marc Steiner.

Steiner's effort, called Maryland Public Radio, has raised more than $160,000 in pledges from WJHU listeners. While Steiner, the station's most distinctive presence, has reached out widely to the city's philanthropic and business circles, he does not appear to have clinched enough major donations to pay the likely millions of dollars in asking price.

The university is not asking for suitors to show their money up front or even to make their bids binding. So Steiner says that gives him the opportunity to come up with the necessary funds. "We're going to make an absolutely viable offer to buy the station," Steiner said.

His group's strengths lie in its roots in the Baltimore community and its argument that the station should be kept under local control. Maryland Public Television officials are making a similar appeal. Robert J. Shuman, the president and CEO of MPT, says he sees WJHU and MPT complementing each other, allowing additional outlets for shared programs. He said MPT would pay for the station from private donations raised by its foundation rather than from tax dollars.

On the air and in private conversations, Hopkins officials have been criticized for their willingness to turn over the 15-year-old National Public Radio affiliate to an out-of-town outfit. But officials at WBUR and WAMU say they respect the need for WJHU's programming to remain locally focused.

"We don't see them as just a transmitter for us," said Chris Naylor, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based WAMU. "Half of our listeners are in Maryland. [But] Baltimore has a different identity. It's not an offshoot of Washington."

WAMU airs a mix of NPR news shows, talk programs (including its own Diane Rehm) and bluegrass music shows. WBUR, which also features a heavy diet of news, is the creator of the popular "Car Talk" show as well as "The Connection." That cerebral talk show's host, Christopher Lydon, recently left the station after a messy spat over compensation from syndication rights. Many shows from both those stations are already on the air on WJHU.

Because the bids are not binding, WBUR spokeswoman Mary Stone said her station was making an offer as part of an "investigative process." She said WBUR's proposal would suggest an alliance between Hopkins and Boston University, not an outright sale -- a prospect the university is entertaining.

Hopkins officials will sort through the proposals and reply within a few weeks, said university spokesman Dennis O'Shea, who emphasized that Hopkins has not conclusively decided to relinquish control of the station. If attractive bids emerge, Hopkins would undertake more serious negotiations with finalists, he said.

O'Shea said the university will consider how the takeover would be structured; what programming would be heard; the level of community involvement; and the price.

University administrators said they first considered selling the station after receiving inquiries from officials at MPT and the parent company of Minnesota Public Radio. While the station's change in format several years ago as a center for news and talk appears to have put it on sound financial basis, the university has balked at making major new investments to strengthen WJHU's signal and prepare it for the digital age.

The Minnesota group has decided not to make a play for the Baltimore station, MPR spokesman Tony Bol said. WETA, a public broadcaster outside Washington, also declined to submit a bid.

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