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Eyes on Detroit: FM spectrum now in play

Originally published in Current, Aug. 21, 2000
By Mike Janssen

Public radio executives are closely monitoring events in Detroit, where the arrival of a new public schools superintendent has fueled speculation about the future of WDTR, the school board's neglected noncommercial station with a much-coveted FM license.

Kenneth Burnley, the new school system c.e.o., took charge last month and began a sweeping management assessment of the school district. In the next three months, an outside consultant will evaluate every department under Burnley's watch, including WDTR. Burnley will then decide on the station's future, possibly keeping it, selling it or contracting another broadcaster to run it.

If Detroit Public Schools sold the station, it would be following a recent pattern of educational institutions bailing out of the broadcasting business. WFBE in Flint, Mich., and WDCU in Washington, D.C., changed hands under similar circumstances.

Leading the queue of broadcasters interested in WDTR is Don Crawford of Crawford Broadcasting, who offered Detroit Public Schools $13.5 million for the station. Most of the Blue Bell, Pa., company's stations are religious.

Disgruntled classical music fans still mourning the recent demise of Detroit's commercial classical station are also eyeing WDTR as a last-ditch hope for fine arts programming. And WDET, the Detroit NPR affiliate licensed to Wayne State University, has offered to buy or manage the station.

Critics call WDTR a waste of spectrum, and Detroit Public Schools has done little to make the 47,000-watt asset a top-notch operation. But that could change if the school system decides to keep hold of WDTR's license. "In my opinion, I think it's an asset that Dr. Burnley really feels we want to keep our hands on," says Paul Piper, Burnley's executive assistant.

"Unutilized asset"

Founded in 1948, WDTR is Michigan's oldest educational FM station, but five decades of broadcasting have failed to ensure a loyal audience or a school system devoted to aiding its growth. In 1992, the FCC reprimanded WDTR for payola violations and for restricting access to its public file. To make matters worse, the beleaguered Detroit public school system has weathered a state takeover and gone through four superintendents in less than three years.

In 1997, WDTR earned a meager weekly cume of just 4,000 listeners. It's also flatlined in the Arbitron books at times with a 0.0 share. And with a $500,000 yearly budget, the station is "woefully lacking" and burdened with ancient equipment, says General Manager Cliff Russell. WDTR has never attempted on-air fundraising, partly because the school board has said the funds would have to go into the school system's general fund, according to Russell.

Since arriving at WDTR, Russell has tweaked the format in an effort to boost ratings. Staff, high school students and community volunteers host an eclectic assortment of talk shows and music programs. Weekdays, old-school rap, hip-hop and R&B anchors the music mix, with tunes by Kool Moe Dee, Slick Rick, Michael Jackson and New Edition. Weekends feature jazz, reggae, gospel, rockabilly and world music.

WDTR doesn't buy Arbitron audience data, but Russell believes the station's ratings are less dismal than before, with a possible cume of 100,000 listeners, and credits the growing audience to the shift to a wide variety of contemporary African-American music.

Yet ratings are still bleak, according to the <I>Detroit Free Press<I>. The paper reported that WDTR ranked last in the metro Detroit radio market in the May-July Arbitron ratings. It doesn't help that WDTR broadcasts only 14 hours a day on weekdays and 12 hours a day, weekends.

"A lot of people [at WDTR] are in denial about the listenership," says John Smyntek, who covers radio for the <I>Free Press<I>. Smyntek points to the small response generated by his recent coverage of WDTR's possible demise. "Believe me, the number of phone calls I got indicates the miniscule audience."

"There is no compelling reason for anyone to listen to the station," says Ed Christian, president of Saga Communications in nearby Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich. "Nobody knows about it or essentially cares about it. . . . It's been my contention for years that this is an unutilized asset." Like some other Detroit listeners, Christian wants WDTR to become a classical music station, and has lobbied Burnley to keep the station in the public trust.

Broker examines sale options

WDTR's strong signal and potential reach bring out flocks of vultures whenever a new superintendent takes charge in Detroit, and this time is no different. Piper says possible suitors approached Burnley about WDTR at receptions welcoming the new superintendent to the job.

The school system has asked Livonia, Mich., radio station broker Jon Yinger to seek out interested parties. So far, only Crawford Broadcasting has made an offer, but Yinger says a second party specializing in urban broadcasting is close to making a bid.

For a time, Yinger also entertained a tantalizing possibility: WDET could sell its commercial frequency, 101.9, for upwards of $55 million and buy WDTR's reserved channel for much less. Interested buyers included Greater Media, Radio One and Disney-ABC, according to the <I>Free Press<I>.

But Wayne State University refused to take Yinger's bait. President Irvin Reid said July 24 that the station could not serve Detroit "as successfully if WDET was broadcast on a different frequency or sold." Jeff Sloltman, v.p. for marketing and communications, says the university has held talks internally for years about working with WDTR, and has told Burnley of their interest. However, Stoltman says the university will wait for Burnley to respond to Crawford Broadcasting's offer before pressing the matter further.

Limited presence for pubradio

A quick glance at Detroit's radio dial reveals two glaring gaps. One, Detroit is the seventh-largest radio market in the country, with 5.5 million listeners. Yet it has no classical music station and only a small public radio presence. Public radio's combined share barely cleared 2.0 percent in spring 1999 Arbitron ratings, less than half the total share in Boston, the eighth-largest market. WDET is the city's only major contender in public radio. Ann Arbor's WUOM reaches some areas.

WQRS, a commercial classical outlet, changed format in 1997 with an abrupt lurch from Wagner to Nine Inch Nails. Classical music fans have discussed staking out a slice of spectrum ever since, but so far no one has claimed WDTR for the cause. For now, classical listeners seek refuge in the Canadian programming coming from across the border. "It's a sad commentary in the Detroit marketplace that we have to rely on the largesse of Canada for our fine arts programming," Christian says.

Enterprising public radio stations with an eye on WDTR may get help from the Station Resource Group, whose Public Radio Capital project helps stations raise capital to snap up available frequencies. "We're certainly interested [in WDTR]," says Public Radio Capital Managing Director Marc Hand. Hand has encouraged Burnley and Piper to keep WDTR public, and says SRG is preparing to move when Burnley makes a decision.

"When they come out the other side . . . I think we'll be in a position to help bring some good operators or potential buyers to WDTR," Hand says.

Burnley could also choose to leave WDTR in the hands of the school system, as Russell hopes. "I agree with everybody else: WDTR should not exist as it is," Russell says. "I disagree with those who say it should be sold or parceled out. It's a priceless resource that can enhance the educational mission of the Detroit public school system in an unprecedented way, and it deserves investment."

Russell wants the station to broadcast around the clock and become a powerhouse for training high school students for communications careers, with additional courses in video engineering and recording technologies.

"I am optimistic that [Burnley] does see the value of WDTR," he says. "I'm sure that whatever decision he arrives at will be the correct one."

WDTR manager Cliff Russell wants his station to train a new generation of young broadcasters.


. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: Put up for sale by another college, WDCU was sought by religious broadcasters, but ended up under C-SPAN ownership, 1997.

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