Frederick station sold to WYPR

Deal means having wider reach in Md.

January 13, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

WYPR-FM has reached an agreement to purchase the broadcasting license of a religious station that operates on the same frequency in Frederick. The $1.2 million acquisition would greatly enhance the ability of the Baltimore-based National Public Radio station to reach Maryland listeners beyond the city's immediate limits.

"I make no secret about my ambition toward making WYPR a statewide network," said Anthony Brandon, president of the station. "This is the first obvious step toward reaching Montgomery County, Howard County, and clarifying our signal toward Carroll County and Frederick County."

Brandon said he was leaning toward simply rebroadcasting the Baltimore station's programming on the Frederick station, WJTM. Both can be found at 88.1 FM.

The agreement between Your Public Radio Corp. and Joy Public Broadcasting Corp. was filed with the Federal Communications Commission on Friday. The agency's approval is required before the sale can be consummated.

WYPR was created from WJHU after a community group led by talk show host Marc Steiner purchased it for $5 million from the Johns Hopkins University. In its first full year of independence - from July 2002 to June 2003 - WYPR raised its private donations, membership levels and underwriting subsidies markedly above levels at WJHU. The station took on debt to finance the purchase from Hopkins. Brandon said that Mercantile Bank & Trust had agreed to loan the money to the station to make the Frederick purchase.

The station has continued the news and information format, playing well-known NPR news programs, such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as other popular shows, such as Prairie Home Companion, This American Life and Car Talk. In addition, it has created a local news desk and established several recurring features on Baltimore life, including a show centering on performances by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and shorter features on such topics as state politics and sports.

Steiner and WYPR have been eager to extend the station's reach, though an exploratory effort to purchase a public station from Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore came up short last year after it prompted criticism from some local activists. A previous run at the Frederick station was rebuffed when the station's owner, a conservative Christian evangelist, expressed reservations about doing business with an NPR station.

Indeed, Lowell Bush, the 75-year-old president of Joy Public Broadcasting in Lancaster, Wis., said he would oppose the sale of the Frederick station that his own company's corporate board had already approved.

"I don't like NPR. I don't like the homosexual content," Bush said. "I shouldn't have let it go this far, but I've got a son pushing this thing.

"I've felt all along that we needed to be there because we're a conservative Christian station."

Thomas Bush, Lowell Bush's 38-year-old son, sits on Joy Public Broadcasting's board with his father. He acknowledges that listeners of WJTM may be surprised by the sharp change in programming after the sale is finalized. But he says the money for the Frederick station is needed to shore up the finances of the not-for-profit religious broadcaster, which owns five other stations.

"All things being equal, if we did not find an interested Christian station, we were open to selling it to a public radio station," said Thomas Bush. He said the board authorized seeking the sale in early fall, and then, in mid-December approved a letter of intent by a 6-to-1 vote, with his father the sole dissenter. The contract was signed on New Year's Eve, and the application filed last week with the FCC.

WAMU (88.5 FM), owned by American University in Washington, enjoys a stronger signal than WYPR and reaches listeners as far away as north Baltimore County. But Brandon said the purchase of the Frederick signal would not be the last move to strengthen the status of WYPR as a Maryland-based broadcaster.

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