Want to buy a public TV station?

With state looking for budget cuts, maybe it should sell the struggling MPT. That's what New Jersey is doing

March 19, 2011|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

With the state of Maryland looking hard for budget cuts, and Maryland Public Television looking for new leadership as it loses audience, membership and funding, the time seems right to seriously consider whether Annapolis should be in the television business.

It might seem like an unconventional idea. But if Maryland can't do better than it has in recent years, it should sell the license or lease operational control of MPT to a local nonprofit group. That is not as bold and unprecedented a move as it might seem; New Jersey is trying to do just that with NJN, its public broadcasting operation.

Closer to home, in 2002, the Johns Hopkins University sold the license of WJHU (88.1 FM) to a nonprofit local group headed by Anthony Brandon. WYPR, as the station is now named, is thriving as the primary provider of National Public Radio programming in Baltimore — and just last week concluded its most successful fundraising drive in history. The model is in place, and it appears to be successful.

From a viewer's point of view, think about the problems some are having with MPT reception since the switch to digital, or the lack of a daily on-the-street news presence by the broadcaster. Or consider the conflict of interest in a state-run TV channel trying to cover state government — and all of those prime-time fundraisers with famous-long-ago doo-wop groups. It costs money to make and buy top programs, and that's getting harder and harder to come by, especially for state-run, cash-strapped public TV stations.

Sale or lease of the station would give the state (and its taxpayers) a break of about $8.5 million a year in budget relief — the amount of money Annapolis is providing this fiscal year to keep MPT running. Plus, with a sale, Maryland's coffers would enjoy a major infusion of cash — at a time when headlines are telling us day in and day out how much such revenue is needed.

A valuation of $51.2 million has been put on New Jersey's offer of operational control of its public TV operation, along with ownership of the licenses of several public radio stations in the state. No such valuation has yet been done on MPT, but its real estate in Owings Mills alone would surely carry a multimillion-dollar price tag. And outright ownership of the Maryland TV license, with its six transmitters, would be worth far more than what amounts to a lease-management agreement being offered by Republican Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has been earning good grades in media and economics for bringing two HBO productions and hundreds of related jobs to Maryland in recent weeks, could also come out looking like a winner in troubled times by making a serious dent in the budget without having to lay off state workers or trying to roll back union benefits as is the case in states like Wisconsin.

And what does the state really lose, except a steady cash drain? MPT is in the process of hiring a new CEO to replace Robert Schuman, who retires in June. But it is not likely to get better with less money, no matter who's running the station.

The biggest winners could be the residents of Maryland who might get a public TV system with the resources to compete with stations like Washington's WETA, for example, which is run by a nonprofit community group rather than a government agency. Such a community group in Maryland might include one or more of the state's large foundations with an interest in media.

"Basically, any radio or TV station can be sold, and they're sold all the time," says WYPR's Brandon. "I don't know if the state has anybody who has the creativity to make MPT self-supporting. I just don't honestly know, because I'm not an expert in television. I know how to do that in radio."

Brandon says that when his community group bought what became WYPR, the station was running a $250,000-a-year deficit for Hopkins.

"On top of that, we borrowed the $5 million" purchase price, he says, "and the interest bill was going to be $150,000 [a year] on that. So we had to make up that deficit in the first year. And we did."

Indicative of the strong financial footing the station now enjoys: "When we bought WYPR in 2002, the total revenue from all sources was $1.8 million," Brandon says. "And this year, we'll do $4.6 million."

And that allows it to buy NPR programs like "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition" at a cost of $600,000 a year as well as produce its own shows like "The Signal" and "Mid-Day" and "Maryland Morning."

The sale has proved to be a benefit for Hopkins, too, says Dennis O'Shea, who as executive director of communications and public affairs at the university ran WJHU during the transition to WYPR.

At the time, Hopkins felt that the station no longer fit with its mission and that even as it was losing money, far more was going to have to be invested in equipment to keep pace with the predicted digital change.

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