Two news competitors in deficit, so one buys the other in Buffalo

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Talks exploring a union between two major public broadcasters in western New York state will culminate with the $4 million sale of Buffalo’s WBFO-FM, the dominant NPR News station in the region.

WNED, a public TV and radio operation with a weaker AM signal for news, in addition to an FM for classical music, will buy the news station from the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo, retaining its call letters and news format.

With the stronger FM news signal, WNED plans to enhance WBFO’s appeal to Canadian audiences, who comprise 68 percent of member contributors to WNED-TV, according to Don Boswell, president.

Broadcasting on WBFO’s 50,000-watt signal on 88.7 MHz “gives us the totality of what we need to grow into the Canadian marketplace,” Boswell said. WNED, which has a $23 million endowment from the sale of its second TV channel in 2000, plans to finance the purchase with a loan, he said.

“WNED is in a position to invest in the station and has expertise in public broadcasting,” said Joe Brennan, the university’s v.p. of communications. “We have expertise in running a university, so this makes sense.”

“What was important to us was to keep WBFO as the flagship NPR station for this region,” Brennan said. “This . . . sets the station up for future growth and continued success.”

The sale pact, announced July 28, requires approval by both the FCC and Comptroller of New York — processes that will take months, according Boswell. He plans to use that time to gather community feedback on the stations’ service potential before making decisions about programming, staffing or a possible sale of WNED-AM.

Nixing an LMA

In merger talks that spanned more than a year, the pubcasters considered a local management agreement for WBFO, but agreed that outright sale gives WNED’s licensee — the independent nonprofit Western New York Public Broadcasting Association — a greater incentive to invest in the FM news outlet.
Under an LMA, “there was concern that we really won’t have final say in what we do, and the university could overrule us,” Boswell said.

The university invited WNED to discuss merger possibilities early last year after going through strategic planning for WBFO, said Mark Vogelzang, who has served as the station’s interim g.m. since November 2009.

Discussions started around the collegial theme of strengthening the region’s pubcasting services, according to participants, but economic and demographic factors brought pragmatism and urgency to the table.

WBFO-FM was outpacing WNED-AM in the competition for NPR News audiences, while neither station was self-sustaining. The state university has been giving WBFO about $200,000 annually in cash and another $1.2 million in administrative support, according to Brennan.

WNED-AM, with its own news team producing local coverage as insertions in NPR newsmagazines, also runs at a deficit. “We’re losing $200,000 a year running our AM,” Boswell said.

WBFO’s average quarter-hour share is 2.3, according to Arbitron’s top line estimates for spring 2011, almost twice WNED-AM’s 1.3. (WNED’s classical FM station has an AQH share of 1.9.)

WBFO differentiates its schedule on weekends and overnights by scheduling blues and jazz music, while WNED sticks with news and information 24/7, including BBC World Service, PRI’s The World, APM’s Marketplace and other programming not carried by other Buffalo outlets.

Underlying considerations of station performance were sobering demographic trends. “It’s very clear that Buffalo is not growing, and it’s got an aging population,” said Brennan, describing an analysis presented by university researchers. “Another eye-opener is how different the market is across the river in Ontario — there’s growing affluence in suburban Toronto, and WBFO’s signal does go in there.”

Buffalo’s population decline had already prompted many nonprofits in the region to rescale their services through consolidations and mergers, Brennan said. The duplication in NPR news programming between WBFO and WNED-AM seemed out-of-line with these shifts.

The university’s decision to reexamine its commitment to WBFO wasn’t driven by money, Brennan said, but financial considerations did come into play. Having lost $80 million in state funding over the last three years, it wasn’t able to invest in WBFO. “We have too many other priorities and too few resources to commit to all of them,” he said.

WBFO’s seven staff members received notices that their university jobs will end when the sale closes. WNED may offer jobs to some of them, but those decisions are months off as well. “We want to determine where we want to go and what we’ll do programming-wise, and then put the staff around that,” Boswell said.

The $4 million sale price includes two full-power stations that carry WBFO’s signal to the south: WUBJ 88.1 in Jamestown, which reaches into Chautauqua; and WOLN 91.3 in Olean, home of St. Bonaventure University.

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