WJHU sale details are set

Radio: Both Hopkins and the station's buyer say that the remaining elements are loose ends.

September 20, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The Johns Hopkins University has formalized details of a deal it struck two months ago to sell its public radio station for $5 million to a Baltimore-based group led by its signature voice, Marc Steiner.

The community broadcast group still has to obtain federal approval, which could take months, and financing for the sale. Both sides say they consider these elements merely to be loose ends.

Hopkins officials say the deal finalized yesterday achieved all of their top priorities.

"We wanted to sell the station to a group with local roots who was committed to the news and information format," said Frederick W. Puddester, the university's chief budget officer. The Steiner group also "had the radio experience and financial wherewithal to take the station to the next level," he said.

Two months ago, the university declared that Steiner's group, called Maryland Public Radio Inc., was the winner of a ragged process that included the withdrawal of all but one other potential bidder. Hopkins had rejected a bid from Maryland Public Television offering $2 million in cash and $2.5 million in "underwriting credits" - effectively advertisements on the air.

But Maryland Public Radio needed more time to secure the money needed to complete the deal, so the timeline was extended several times. Even now, the group still has 15 days to nail down financing. It's likely to be achieved either through bank loans, or by floating new bond-like devices.

Under terms of the agreement signed yesterday, Maryland Public Radio has deposited $250,000 in an escrow account held by the university, Puddester said. In the meantime, Hopkins will file papers in the next few days with the Federal Communications Commission asking the agency to transfer ownership of the license to MPR. At that point, the group would hand over the rest of the money.

The actual transfer could take several months. So Baltimorean Anthony Brandon, president of a company that controls more than 40 stations in western states, has agreed to serve as a consultant to the university until Steiner's group formally gets the license. After it does, Brandon will become the station's general manager.

Some details emerged about the structure of Maryland Public Radio: Steiner is the group's president, Brandon its vice president, and WJHU marketing director Martha Rudzki is its secretary and treasurer. Additionally, Steiner confirmed yesterday that he would oversee programming decisions, although he would not serve as the new station's programming director.

"We certainly intend to make the station more visible, more efficient and more active in the community," Brandon said. Steiner reiterated that the station would maintain its format of news and talk, although he says he intends to enhance significantly how much locally generated content gets on the air.

Once Steiner's group assumes control, the station, broadcast at 88.1 FM, no longer will be known as WJHU. Brandon would not say what call letters the station intended to seek from the Federal Communications Commission. It's unlikely to be based on the initials for Maryland Public Radio because the state broadcasting commission says it would legally contest the use of that term. Steiner has suggested to associates the possibility of using the initials WYPR - for "your public radio."

Brandon and Steiner were cagey during a joint interview yesterday at Hopkins' Garland Hall. They refused to disclose how the deal is being financed, saying it was "confidential," although acknowledging some information would be available in public documents.

The two men said that wealthy Baltimore figures had stepped forward to guarantee any loans toward the deal. Those people have been named to a new advisory board for Maryland Public Radio, Brandon and Steiner said.

The group's advisory board includes Charles Salisbury, Barbara Bozzuto, Jane Daniels, Ann Daniels, Jonathan Melnick, Jack Heyerman, Gary Levine, William Clarke and Marilyn Powell. But it's not clear which board members are the loan guarantors.

"Hopkins set the bar fairly high, and I feel we've met those standards," Brandon said, stressing that his remarks should assure current WJHU listeners of the new group's financial viability.

The financing of the purchase has stirred some concern in public broadcasting circles. Not only will the new community-based group take on major debts, but those few improvements Steiner has spelled out - like a local news staff - could also prove expensive.

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