Jefferson Public Radio’s deal with university splits radio from real estate

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A new agreement between Southern Oregon University and Jefferson Public Radio settles the months-long dispute between the two parties over control of the 22-station radio network and related real-estate projects that had caused concern among university auditors.

One element of the dispute remains unresolved: Kramer’s complaint over the university’s decision to dismiss him as executive director.

The mediated settlement, announced Aug. 27, splits JPR’s radio activities from the theater restoration projects that a related nonprofit, the Jefferson Public Radio Foundation, had undertaken in recent years.

Southern Oregon University will assume control of all 22 stations in the JPR network, seven of which are now owned by the foundation. Meanwhile, the foundation’s theater properties will be controlled by Jefferson Live!, a new limited-liability corporation to be established as a subsidiary of the JPR Foundation.

The Cascade Theater in Redding, Calif., now owned by SOU, will be transferred to the LLC. Jefferson Live! will lease space for JPR studios in the Cascade back to the university for a dollar a year. It will also continue restoring the historic Holly Theater in Medford, Ore., and explore the feasibility of Jefferson Square, a redevelopment project intended to furnish new headquarters for JPR in Medford.

SOU and JPR negotiated the new ownership structure after two failed attempts at mediation, initially prompted by a 2011 university audit that raised concerns about the JPR Foundation’s debt burden. The audit also questioned whether the foundation’s plans to raise funds for its redevelopment ventures could have threatened the university’s own fundraising efforts.

The most recent attempt to settle the dispute broke down in June, drawing the attention of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who intervened and asked both sides to take a 90-day cooling-off period before trying again.

“I am glad to see that the parties were able to find agreement on a solution that will benefit communities across southwest Oregon,” Kitzhaber said after the new agreement was announced.

In earlier unsuccessful negotiations, the parties wrangled over a proposal to create a new nonprofit to operate JPR, with a board dominated by appointees chosen by the university and area community colleges. JPR Foundation board members opposed the deal but felt pressured to approve it because SOU had raised a threat of lawsuits against individual foundation board members.

The new arrangement preserves the JPR Foundation but specifies that its primary purpose will be to provide fundraising support to JPR, in addition to managing the properties under the new LLC. Furthermore, SOU will be required to consult with the foundation before selling or transferring any broadcast licenses. The university system would be required to reinvest proceeds from any such sales into JPR activities and not into other university programs.

Leaders of JPR and the JPR Foundation welcomed the settlement, but Ron Kramer, former executive director of both entities, is concerned about the arrangement’s effect on JPR’s finances. Membership income for JPR has been flat, he says, and the university has also been cutting support for the network. The theater division had been furnishing additional revenue, but now that it’s separate from JPR, “one could have a question about the financial path that has been laid out,” he says.

Kramer is also unsure whether completion of the Jefferson Square project is feasible. Under terms of the agreement in which the building was donated for use in the redevelopment project, restoration must start within 18 months or the building will revert to the owner, Kramer says. But Jefferson Live! will not start on Jefferson Square until it finishes restoring the Holly Theater, which is estimated to take at least two years, according to Paul Westhelle, interim executive director of JPR.

SOU dismissed Kramer as executive director of JPR effective June 30, citing concerns about his leadership of both JPR and the JPR Foundation. Kramer filed a complaint against the university, and a university committee has charged that SOU violated the terms of Kramer’s contract. The committee recommended that Kramer be compensated, and the university has yet to respond, Kramer says.

Meanwhile, SOU and JPR will begin the long process of implementing their complicated agreement, which is only a starting point for the new governance structure, says Steve Nelson, president of the JPR Foundation. Jefferson Live! and the JPR Foundation must first submit business plans to SOU.

“There’s an awful lot of negotiation to be done,” Nelson says. “What we have through this mediation is the infrastructure, and it’s all about the details.”

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