The newest public radio station in New York State went dark May 9, ending a six-year attempt to bring a local voice to small Otsego County.
Licensed to the State University of New York’s Oneonta campus, WUOW signed on in 2007 as a low-power FM signal on 104.7.
“The whole idea was to bring diverse voices to the airwaves and interact with the community,” said Gary Wickham, former WUOW general manager. The need for a local broadcast outlet was driven home in 2006, when major floods struck the community and there were no local stations to broadcast emergency messages. “We were trying to figure out how you get the word out to people,” he said. “For a while, they were reduced to having firefighters with bullhorns driving through town.”
The natural disaster prompted SUNY Oneonta’s president at the time, Alan Donovan, to back the station. Starting with a full-time staff of three (and later adding a part-time employee), WUOW broadcast Triple A music, including NPR’s World Cafe, and Pacifica programming. Locally hosted talk shows included a weekend block that Donovan hosted, even after his retirement in 2008.
The station also provided an outlet for local officials to communicate with the public during crises. Local emergency managers could go on the air at any time by simply dialing a phone number and entering a special code.
But after Donovan retired, support for WUOW within SUNY Oneonta faded. “This was his project,” Wickham said. “Once your advocate is gone, it’s kind of difficult.”
Limits on fundraising
The college’s new leaders tightened restrictions on WUOW’s funding. Wickham said the station was never allowed to run a pledge drive or even accept contributions from listeners.
“If someone made an individual contribution, we had to return it,” Wickham said. While the station accepted limited underwriting, each announcement had to be followed by a disclaimer. Staffing cuts in 2011 led to the dismissal of WUOW’s underwriting manager. Eventually Wickham was the only staff member left at the station.
“We have not solicited or gotten a dime of underwriting since they made that decision in November of 2011,” Wickham said.
By late 2011, about the same time the underwriting program was scuttled, SUNY officials had decided to eventually shut the station down, ending an annual subsidy that the Oneonta Daily Star reported to be as much as $180,000.
“The college had determined then that continued investment in WUOW was not aligned with SUNY Oneonta’s strategic plan, which directs resources toward student-centered learning, teaching and scholarship,” spokesman Hal Legg said in a statement.
“WUOW’s business plan was premised on underwriting to make it cost-neutral,” Legg said, describing it as “a goal the station fell short of reaching.”
WUOW’s shutdown came just a year after the station invested in a signal upgrade. SUNY Oneonta swapped its LPFM license at 104.7 for a new class A full-power signal at 88.5 MHz. Licensed to Milford, a small town 15 miles northeast of Oneonta, the new signal reached further into Otsego County, including Cooperstown, the county seat and home to the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Glimmerglass opera festival. To retain a city-grade signal in Oneonta, WUOW paid $12,500 for a 200-watt translator in April 2012.
Why did WUOW move forward with the upgrade even as the college was planning to shut the service down? All of the pieces were already in place when the college decided to pull the plug, Wickham said. The FCC granted a construction permit in 2009, and a $5,000 grant obtained through state Senator James Seward.
The demise of WUOW leaves just one professionally run public radio station in the extensive SUNY system — WRVO Public Media in Oswego.
In 2012, SUNY sold Buffalo’s WBFO to its longtime rival WNED for $4 million, ending decades of competition that had both stations running deficits.
At SUNY Oswego, WRVO General Manager Michael Ameigh said the situation at WRVO shouldn’t be compared to what happened at WBFO or WUOW.
“Each has its own context,” Ameigh said, “as does every situation resolved in the recent flurry of signal selling and swapping among public radio licensees across the country.”
“WRVO is solid financially,” he said, pointing to recent expansions that added a full-power signal north of Oswego and a translator in Ithaca. “All signs are pointed in the right direction for us to continue our mission well into the future.”
An expansion into Oneonta, just beyond the edge of WRVO’s extensive coverage area in central and northern New York, does not appear to be part of that plan. “We have no information to report,” Ameigh said when asked whether the fellow SUNY-owned station might be interested in taking over the Oneonta signals.
Suitor in Binghamton
But other New York state pubcasters were aware of WUOW’s tenuous situation, and at least one station already reaching Oneonta had hoped to buy WUOW’s license. Based in Binghamton, 60 miles to the southwest, WSKG is a joint licensee that has provided public TV service to Oneonta on cable since the 1960s and public radio since 1993, when it signed on WSQC 91.7 FM, rebroadcasting the mixed-format service heard on its Binghamton FM signal, WSKG-FM (89.3).
WSKG President Brian Sickora reached out to SUNY Oneonta in early 2012 after hearing WUOW was for sale. “I made them an offer to purchase the station,” he said, “and I didn’t hear anything back after that.”
WSKG planned to use the combination of WSQC and WUOW to split its format offerings for Otsego County, Sickora said. One transmitter would have been devoted to full-time news and talk and the other to full-time arts programming, including some local content created in partnership with community station WIOX in nearby Roxbury.
“We thought we could have created a really strong programming service,” Sickora said, if only the university had responded.
When news broke of WUOW’s impending shutdown, Sickora reached out to his contacts at SUNY Oneonta again.
“We had a brief conversation, but they said the decision was being made at SUNY’s central offices, not at SUNY Oneonta,” Sickora said. As the end of WUOW neared, Sickora also began reaching out to local officials, including state Sen. Seward, who had supported WUOW’s launch and secured assistance for the signal upgrade.
“It’s been really frustrating just to see it roll out this way,” Sickora told Current. Sickora declined to specify how much he’d offered for WUOW, but the offer fell in the range of $1–$4 for each potential listener in WUOW’s coverage area, estimated at about 30,000 people.
In addition to WSQC, Oneonta listeners continue to have access to public radio service from the other end of Interstate 88 through two translators of WAMC. Based in Albany, 80 miles to the northeast, WAMC has aggressively expanded over the last two decades, building new stations and buying existing signals across a wide territory from central New York into western New England.
WAMC didn’t respond to requests for comment on whether it’s interested in purchasing WUOW.
Wickham, who continues to be employed by SUNY Oneonta as an adjunct lecturer in mass communication, said college officials aren’t telling him whether they intend to sell the WUOW licenses or simply return them to the FCC.
In the meantime, he said, WUOW’s demise leaves a void in the community media landscape. “Down here, there’s 13 commercial radio stations within 20 miles of us; 11 of the 13 are owned by Townsquare Media.”
The noncommercial signals that remain are from two college stations, including SUNY Oneonta’s WONY, operated by students and funded by a student activity fee, as well as the WSKG and WAMC relays — and a hole on the dial where WUOW was.
“It was a pretty sad day, quite honestly,” Wickham said.