Deals with schools give Rhode Island two new pubradio signals

New England pubcasters are preparing for a major expansion of public radio services in Rhode Island through partnerships with schools that have frequencies but limited resources for running them.

Rhode Island listeners will get a stronger signal carrying NPR News if Providence-based WRNI switches from AM to FM as proposed. WRNI, which went independent from Boston’s WBUR in 2008, is negotiating with the Wheeler School, a private prep school that owns WELH-FM, 88.1 MHz, for a channel swap that would greatly strengthen its channel position in the state capital.
The agreement, which may be finalized by Labor Day, would give the freed-up AM channel to Spanish-language Latino Public Radio.

And Rhode Islanders will gain a new all-classical music service next month when Boston’s WGBH completes signal upgrades on Bryant University's WJMF, 88.7 MHz, in Smithfield. The station will simulcast the classical schedule from WGBH’s will 99.5 FM in Boston. 

Both agreements allow the schools to retain ownership of the stations while providing broader public service, but they take analog FM over-the-air signals previously used by two student stations at two universities and at Wheeler. The student stations will be heard on Internet web streams and other digital platforms. 

Since neither of Providence-area deal is likely to involve an outright station sale, the new programming can launch without FCC approval. But the commission’s pending inquiry into a temporary operating agreement for the University of San Francisco’s student station, KUSF, could change how similar arrangements are handled in the future.

The commission is sensitive to arrangements in which a broadcaster retains the license and legal responsibility for a station yet allows another organization to operate  it.

In Providence, the tentative deal to put WRNI’s pubradio news service on the Wheeler School’s WELH-FM was first reported as a lease agreement. A WRNI statement described the arrangement as a historic public media partnership creating “a remarkable listening environment for a diverse Rhode Island audience.” WRNI General Manager Joe O’Connor declined to comment until the contract is signed.

Attorney John Crigler of Garvey Schubert Barer, who represents WRNI before the commission, said use of the term “lease agreement” is inaccurate, because the FCC requires license holders to retain control of their channels even when they are managed by other operators.

WELH had been shared by three programmers — Latino Public Radio, college broadcasters at Brown University, and students of the Wheeler School, which is adjacent to Brown’s campus.  

By migrating its NPR News service from AM 1290 to the FM 88.1, WRNI plans to bolster its audience in the populous part of the state. Latino Public Radio, a nonprofit news service for Spanish-speaking Rhode Islanders, would expand its schedule on the AM channel from 78 hours a week to full time. The Wheeler School will continue its broadcast curriculum for students, but distribute its programming as a web stream. The school terminated its programming agreement with Brown Student Radio Aug. 1. BSR programmers are working to enhance, which already streamed its programs.

Meanwhile, WGBH’s agreement to bring simulcasts of its classical music service to Rhode Island displaces student broadcasters at WJMF, owned by Bryant University in Smithfield, about 10 miles northwest of Providence. Bryant students willingly gave up the over-the-air frequency for the opportunity to learn digital and broadcast technology skills from the professional pubcasters of WGBH. The students’ radio programming will be distributed as an HD Radio channel, and they will also have use of one of WGBH’s mobile DTV channels. Meanwhile, engineers are upgrading WJMF’s signal to 1,200 watts.

The arrangement, which WGBH spokesperson Jeanne Hopkins described as a partnership exchanging programming and educational services, will bring classical music broadcasts back to Providence, which is beyond the reach of WGBH’s new 99.5 FM signal.

Word choice makes a difference

The FCC’s inquiry into interim management of San Francisco’s KUSF put noncommercial broadcasters on notice that it will give closer scrutiny to operating agreements involving channels in the reserved FM band. Such arrangements — sometimes called “management agreements” or “public service operating agreements” — have allowed buyers of noncom stations to begin running them while the formal transfer process works its way through the FCC.

The University of San Francisco agreed to sell KUSF as part of a complex deal to maintain classical music service in the Bay Area. Classical Public Radio Network, an offshoot of Los Angeles classical powerhouse KUSC and proposed future licensee, became interim operator in January, when students and volunteer programmers were abruptly ousted from the station.  The take-over sparked street protests and formal petitions to block the sale, prompting the FCC to take a closer look.

In a June 28 letter of inquiry to the university and CPRN, the commission requested extensive details about the interim public service operating agreement, including provisions allowing on-air fundraising by a party other than the licensee — in this case, CPRN. The FCC normally forbids such practices.

The detailed nature of the FCC’s letter regarding KUSF was not unusual, according to Crigler, but its decision to release it publicly was. “It’s fair to say that the commission is looking at this case as way to establish some guidelines on the noncommercial side that it hasn’t done before.”

The controversy over  the KUSF transfer — and multiple petitions to deny it — drew the FCC’s attention.

In contrast, no such petitions were filed in a similar situation in Pittsburgh, where a university announced the sale of its station in the same month, January.

As of July the FCC had not publicly questioned the temporary operational takeover of WDUQ by its proposed buyer, and by August the license transfer had been approved.

“The commission is aware that these arrangements are used in other situations, and realizes that they’re prevalent enough that they ought to establish guidelines,” Crigler said.

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