JHU knocks off joint effort

Radio: MPT and NPR were ready to join hands to market and develop WJHU.

May 18, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Officials at Maryland Public Television thought they had an ace to play in their failed bid for Baltimore's National Public Radio news affiliate: NPR itself.

NPR had agreed to join the state television broadcaster in an unprecedented partnership at WJHU that could have served as a model for how it would operate elsewhere. That commitment included a pledge to send reporters and other staffers to Baltimore, and to develop a six-figure plan to market the station aggressively next year.

Ken Stern, NPR's executive vice president, said his organization became involved to assure WJHU's continued status as the city's primary public radio news station. "That makes the stakes, in the abstract, fairly high," he said.

Johns Hopkins University, the owner of WJHU (88.1 FM), has courted offers for the station this spring in hopes of selling it. Earlier this week, Hopkins officials narrowed the field to a local group whose leadership includes WJHU talk show host Marc Steiner and two public radio stations owned by Boston and American universities.

Both university-based stations already are significant NPR members. Absent from that list of finalists: Maryland Public Television.

"I thought our ability to grow the relationship between public radio and public TV" would make the state system an appealing bidder for the station, said Robert J. Shuman, president and CEO of MPT. "We hoped to take locally developed programs national and develop national support for it."

Shuman and Larry D. Unger, a senior vice president at MPT, approached NPR about a possible alliance. In an April 23 letter in support of MPT's bid, Stern pledged NPR to a new kind of partnership in running the station. Among the promises:

NPR would contribute $100,000 toward developing a joint advertising campaign to promote both the national radio network and the local station.

NPR would rotate one of its younger reporters through an enhanced WJHU news staff. The radio giant would also periodically lend other news and radio professionals to the station.

NPR would give WJHU first use of new products and services, such as fund-raising tools and online offerings, and help the station develop new programs and sources of revenue.

Baltimore would become one of only a handful of markets in which NPR would launch and fine-tune some new national programs.

While Washington-based NPR recently has created greater links with a few local affiliates, the joint project with MPT would have been the public radio system's greatest involvement in any single station. "This would be a unique relationship between NPR and one of its member stations," Stern wrote in his letter.

But the university rejected that offer, along with a less specific statement of interest from Washington-area public broadcaster WETA. Hopkins refused to comment on its rationale.

"We're not interested in talking about the people that have not been invited into the next round," said Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea. He said all three finalists "very strongly assert that it is their intention to continue as an NPR station, in addition to enhancing local programming."

In an interview, Stern stressed that NPR hopes to forge similarly close relationships with whomever becomes the ultimate owner of WJHU.

Two finalists - WAMU in Washington and WBUR in Boston - are influential NPR news stations that produce many shows aired nationally over the public radio system. But NPR did not submit similar proposals on behalf of the other outlets.

Officials at one station said the NPR plan had taken them by surprise. "We are not aware of the memo," said Chris Naylor, a spokeswoman for WAMU. She added, "It does not change our position. We are moving forward very seriously to acquire the station."

Other than MPT's offer, which proposed to pay Hopkins $4 million to $5 million in privately raised money, no bid contained an explicit endorsement from NPR. Steiner has said he would be interested in creating a partnership with Minnesota Public Radio, an NPR rival that also has generated successful programming and news shows.

The university has asked the three finalists for WJHU to develop more detailed proposals by the end of the month.

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