Lawyers prepare to oppose sale of D.C. station

Originally published in Current, July 21, 1997

By Jacqueline Conciatore

If NPR's talks with the buyer of jazz station WDCU don't satisfy the network that the new WDCU will be a true public outlet, NPR says it will challenge the pending FCC license transfer. Meanwhile, the Media Access Project, a public-interest advocacy group, is planning its own challenge.

CPB, too, has weighed in, demanding the sellers reimburse pubcasting $1 million for past grants.

To eliminate its $10 million deficit for the year, the University of the District of Columbia last month sold WDCU for $13 million to a nonprofit associate of a major religious broadcasting chain.

Neither NPR nor the Media Access Project would discuss strategy. But opponents of the sale generally question the buyer's nonprofit credentials. They fear that religious broadcasters with plenty of money from commercial operations can and will pay high prices for reserved stations, even though those stations are limited to noncommercial operation.

"Our principal concern is the breaching of the firewall between the reserved noncommercial sector and the commercial band," said Tom Thomas of the Station Resource Group, which met with NPR and others last week to discuss stopping the sale. "The areas we're most carefully looking at are whether UDC is transferring its station to a bone fide noncommercial broadcaster," he said.

FCC records show the buyer is Community Resource Educational Association, Camarillo, Calif. The chair and vice chair of its four-person board are Stuart Epperson and Edward Atsinger respectively; each owns half of Salem Communications, the country's largest religious station group.

"Salem has created a shell nonprofit corporation to acquire the license," says Kim Hodgson, NPR chairman and g.m. of WAMU, Washington. "Clearly, on paper [they're] maneuvering for Salem. It may be perfectly legal. . . but it's a shame."

But Eric Halvorson, Salem's v.p. and secretary, says it's a misperception that the buyer is a Salem subsidiary: "It's completely inaccurate. It is a California nonstock, non-profit corporation."

NPR has been talking to Salem about its plans for the new WDCU, but intentions are still a mystery. Halvorson says the board itself is still deciding what to air on the station which, according to CPB, serves the fourth largest African-American audience in the U.S.

In its FCC application, the company says it will employ fewer than five full-time people, which raises questions about how truly local the station will be. Salem distributes religious programs and some political shows such as Oliver North's talker. Its 40-plus station holdings include talk station WAVA in Washington. Candy Shannon, WDCU's p.d., says WDCU had eight full-time staff even after severe budget cuts.

But Halvorson dismissed early judgments. "What it comes down to is, will Community Resource provide programming in the public interest ... appropriate for a noncommercial station? If they do, it will be up to the community to evaluate the job they're doing."

FCC staffers do not offer public radio much hope that this sale will falter. There are too many religious broadcasters already operating noncoms, and taking on the religious lobby is an unappealing prospect, one source said.

MAP has hopes of delaying the transfer, which could kill the sale, since UDC is under orders to close its deficit by Sept. 30. C-SPAN is a ready suitor; it bid $10.5 million and has offered to increase the amount, but UDC said it was too late, according to Rob Kennedy, C-SPAN's c.o.o.

Hodgson argues the FCC should restrict the cash amounts station sales can net. Stations should be worth the value of physical assets and transaction costs covered, but any extra profits must benefit pubcasting, he says. He's uneasy with a policy that suggests, "If you can get $20 million, you can go spend it on new basketball uniforms."

The FCC does not restrict pricing right now, and probably wouldn't of its own accord. But it could take up a rulemaking procedure if there is a "groundswell," said one FCC source.

For its part, CPB has written UDC and the city's financial control board demanding a return of the $1 million it has given WDCU in grants since 1991. "CPB grants are not simply gifts," spokesperson Jeannie Bunton told Current. They're provided to support the growth of a station and to enrich public broadcasting. "And they're provided with the implicit understanding that the funds, or the proceeds from the sale of assets acquired with those funds, are to be used to benefit public broadcasting," she said.

CPB has also demanded reimbursement of $2 million from Liggett Broadcasting, which recently bought WFBE, a nonreserved public station in Flint, Mich.


To Current's home page

Earlier news: An affiliate of Salem Communications bid far more for WDCU than public radio or C-SPAN could afford.


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