WDCU broker is trying again "to pry something loose"
Originally published in Current, Aug. 4, 1997
By Jacqueline Conciatore
First Washington, D.C., now Cleveland? The firm that recently brokered the stunning $13-million sale of WDCU has offered its services to Kent State University (KSU) and other institutional licensees.
In a July 15 letter to Kent State President Carol Cartwright, Richard Blackburn of the Virginia-based Blackburn & Co. outlined his firm's role in winning $13 million for WDCU's cash-strapped licensee, the University of the District of Columbia. He notes that the entire sale process, from bid to contract signing, took about two months.
Kent State isn't interested in selling WKSU, according to the university and Blackburn. "The radio station is definitely a jewel of our university and not up for sale or on an auction block," said Kent State spokesperson Paula Slimak. A financially successful operation with two 50,000-watt outlets and two smaller ones, WKSU has a significant presence in the Cleveland market.
The broker's solicitation fuels anger and fear in public radio that well-financed commercial religious broadcasters will threaten the franchise by winning stations away from institutional licensees who are oftentimes hungry and sometimes desperate for cash. Public radio managers say they just can't match the buying power of commercial broadcasters. In the case of WDCU's sale, nearby public radio station WETA was able to bid only $1.5 million.
About Blackburn's solicitation, WKSU General Manager John Perry says: "I've never seen a more blatant attempt to destroy a national treasure."
In the letter, Blackburn says his 50-year-old company has "developed and refined a process from which other universities and educational owners can benefit immensely. . . ." With the WDCU sale and a more recent, $6.8 million sale of an unreserved WFBE in Flint, Michigan, "we were able to more than wipe out multimillion dollar budget deficits that were crippling the university and the Flint School System," Blackburn said.
Kent State is not experiencing any sort of fiscal crisis, Slimak says.
Blackburn told Current that a prospective buyer asked him to investigate the potential for a sale in Kent. "Somebody had seen what we did [with WDCU] and asked if there were a way to pry something loose," he said. He said he doesn't know how many other solicitations his firm sent out, but that the number probably doesn't total five.
Perry says, however, that Blackburn told him otherwise in a recent conversation. "He did indicate he sent out quite a few [letters]," Perry says. "And he said there would be a number of stations whose licensees would take him up on it."
Blackburn says pubcasters' fears are unwarranted. The WDCU deal was unique because Washington is such an attractive market, he said. "You can't translate that very much from Washington to almost anywhere else," he said. "You might get exciting things happening in some big markets. But I don't think anybody in Richmond or Pensacola or any such place [would bite]."
"I wouldn't give great worry to where all this is going to go," he says. "I don't think it's going to amount to anything." His own firm is not set on targeting other public radio outlets, he said. "It's not a productive use of our time."
WDCU, currently a mainstream jazz station, went for $13 million to a nonprofit organization whose chair and vice chair are the two owners of Salem Communications, the nation's biggest Christian radio station chain. According to the organization's FCC application for a WDCU license transfer, the nonprofit--Community Resource Educational Association, Camarillo, Calif.--has no other radio stations.
Pubcasters are guessing that Salem wants to transfer to programming from its commercial Christian talk station, WAVA, to WDCU, and then sell WAVA for $50 million or more. But James Blackburn, Richard's older brother in the family-owned brokerage firm--has said the Salem principals "are not historically sellers."
The unreserved WFBE in Flint went for $6.8 million to Liggett Broadcasting, a nonreligious commercial radio owner.
In both caes, the sales are being opposed by citizens' groups, and CPB has asked for a return of its grants over the years.
NPR says it may file a FCC challenge to the WDCU license transfer. But it will do so only if talks with the buyer don't bear out that the new WDCU will be a true public radio outlet. NPR President Delano Lewis say he is arranging for a discussion with the nonprofit heads. It is possible NPR would arrange a deal to sell its programming to the new station, but Lewis' primary goal is to preserve the outlet for public radio, he says.
Some question whether the new station will air religious programs that are heard on commercial stations. In its FCC application, the company says it wil employ fewer than five full-time people, which raises questions about how truly local the station will be. Salem Communications distributes religious programs and some political shows such as Oliver North's talker.
WDCU and WFBE both serve heavily African-American audiences--WDCU has had the nation's fourth-largest African-American audience, according to CPB.
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Earlier news: Pubcasters consider legal action to protect reserved frequencies like WDCU's.
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