Getting one step closer to a WJHU purchase

Radio: After some time on the market, three finalists remain for the grand prize.

May 15, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Three finalists have emerged in the bidding to take over WJHU, the NPR-affiliate owned by the Johns Hopkins University.

They include a local group headed by its most recognizable voice, and two stations owned by major private universities elsewhere.

"There's no question in my mind that any of the three will retain the [station's] commitment to public radio and to local programming," said James T. McGill, Hopkins' senior vice president for finance and administration.

The finalists included Maryland Public Radio, a recently formed initiative led by WJHU talk show host Marc Steiner and several others involved with the station who are seeking backers to help purchase the station.

The other candidates, Boston University's WBUR and American University's WAMU in Washington, already are considered powerful forces in the world of public broadcasting.

Maryland Public Television, a suitor that first signaled its desire to buy WJHU last year, was not among those invited by the university to offer a more detailed proposal by the end of May.

"This evaluation seems to feel that we lack the radio expertise we need to operate WJHU, irrespective of our 31 years as a broadcaster," said Robert J. Shuman, MPT's president.

"That says to me this selection process may focus primarily on a money issue. If outside interests drive up that price to the extent that we're not in the ballpark, there's nothing we can do." MPT offered $4 million to $5 million for the station, he said.

Hopkins officials decided earlier this year to seek suitors for the station after blanching at the costs of converting WJHU's equipment to digital technology and strengthening the reach of its 10,000-watt antenna.

Each could require seven-figure investments that the university was unwilling to make.

Others flirted with the notion of buying WJHU. WETA, a public broadcaster outside Washington, had sent the university a letter indicating its interest in the station but did not submit a detailed bid. The parent company of Minnesota Public Radio, which had informally talked with Hopkins officials about the station, has said it decided not to enter the process.

Hopkins officials agreed to talk about the three final suitors to share the rationale for selecting them.

In presentations, the three groups stressed they wanted public broadcasting groups with a proven dedication to local news and community involvement.

"WAMU offers some possible synergy," McGill said yesterday. "They have a substantial number of people dedicated to local news. And they have the ability to cover live events." (Many Baltimore-area listeners can hear the station on 88.5 FM.)

McGill described WBUR as "a marvelously successful public radio station" that had proven its interest in local affairs after its purchase of stations serving Cape Cod, Providence, R.I., and part of Connecticut.

But when asked about a possible purchase, WBUR sounded a tentative note. "This is still an exploration or investigation for us," WBUR spokeswoman Mary Stone said. "We have a lot more to learn."

The local appeal of Steiner's Maryland Public Radio group has been combined with a serious financial proposal, McGill said. Now, the effort has to land the major donors to make the estimated $5 million or more feasible.

`Newsnight Maryland' to go off the air June 29

Maryland Public Television (Channels 22 and 67) announced yesterday that it would stop broadcasting its weekday half-hour news program "Newsnight Maryland" on June 29. While MPT's president declined to explain the reasons for the move, officials at the network said in a news release that the show would be replaced this fall by a live, "interactive," issues-oriented program.

"With very few exceptions, television programs lead finite lives," John Potthast, an MPT vice president, said in the release. "To remain viable, a production needs to achieve the right balance of audience, revenues and expenses. "Newsnight Maryland" has been a terrific show for us while it's been on the air."

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