C-SPAN steps in as buyer of WDCU in Washington

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As the prospective new owner of jazz station WDCU took constant heat over the past month from jazz lovers and public radio officials, another potential buyer was visibly waiting in the wings. The persistence paid off: Earlier this month, C-SPAN assumed Salem Communication’s $13 million bid for the Washington, D.C., station.

Commercial broadcaster Salem, which owns one of the nation’s biggest religious radio chains, was facing a fight to close the WDCU transaction. A citizen’s advocacy group was set to file an FCC challenge, questioning the nonprofit bona fides of the corporation that Salem set up to purchase the station. NPR was considering filing its own challenge. And CPB had demanded WDCU’s licensee return the $1 million in grants it has awarded the station since 1991. CPB also argued against the sale, noting that WDCU currently serves one of the nation’s largest African-American audiences.

Although FCC sources repeatedly indicated the sale was likely to proceed, Salem President Edward G. Atsinger told the Washington Times that the company didn’t want the hassle. “We were not there to fight with people,” he said.

C-SPAN, a nonprofit owned by a consortium of cable TV systems, says the new station will air C-SPAN’s brand of unfiltered live-event coverage, but not a simple simulcast of its 24-hour public affairs radio service.

Having a radio outlet will free C-SPAN to cover more live events, says spokesperson Rich Fahle. Right now, the cable service is committed to covering House and Senate action live and gavel-to-gavel, he says. That commitment means the network sometimes misses happenings, such as the current hearings in the Senate on campaign finance reform. The radio service will have no such limitations, Fahle says.

The new radio service may offer some of C-SPAN’s existing fare, such as call-in program Washington Journal, or Booknotes, he says. As is the case with C-SPAN on cable, the radio station won’t take underwriting and won’t subscribe to ratings, Fahle said.

Fahle says C-SPAN may syndicate some of its programming to radio stations around the country, but C-SPAN chief Brian Lamb told reporters he has no plans to buy additional stations.

Some public radio managers worry the development could signal new competition for NPR news. But others disagree. Craig Curtis, who is now program director for Minnesota Public Radio but recently headed programming at Washington, D.C., station WETA, says C-SPAN will likely provide “a great public affairs service of interest to a particular and important group in Washington.”

NPR says it won’t comment on the C-SPAN deal before looking at the company’s FCC application.

Citizens’ group “Save Jazz 90,” represented by the Media Access Project, may still put up a fight. MAP Director Andrew Schwartzman says the hope is that C-SPAN will work with Save Jazz 90 on a format that incorporates jazz. For its part, C-SPAN has acknowledged the loss of WDCU to jazz lovers, but seems to have no plans to take up music programming. C-SPAN’s product is a different type of public-service programming than WDCU provided, but a public service all the same, says Fahle. “There will be people frustrated no matter what happens,” he says.

“I hope it will prove unnecessary to have to file” a challenge to the C-SPAN application, Schwartzman says. He wouldn’t discuss the likely grounds of any future challenge.

The University of the District of Columbia sold WDCU to close a $10 million deficit that threatened the university.

The WDCU sale and its high price tag provoked much concern among public radio managers fearful religious broadcasters would approach other municipal or university licensees with tempting cash offers public radio just can’t match.

Indeed, the firm that brokered the Salem-WDCU deal, Blackburn & Co., did send a solicitation to Kent State University last month. But the university has said its station, WKSU, is a “jewel” of the institution, and declined. Richard Blackburn, who sent the letter, said he doesn’t know how many other solicitations his firm sent out, but that the number probably didn’t total five.

Blackburn had also approached Johns Hopkins University, licensee of WJHU — also uninterested.

Anticipating rising interest in reserved frequencies in the wake of the recent radio-ownership gold rush, the Station Resource Group has been working to identify vulnerable public radio stations and devise ways to respond to future buyout attempts. It’s part of SRG’s larger effort, led by consultant Marc Hand, to expand the system’s entire delivery capacity.

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