Owner of Miami’s WLRN narrows options for future governance

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The school district that owns Miami dual licensee WLRN closed in on options for the station’s future ownership during a meeting Wednesday but stopped short of a formal decision, with a final proposal expected later this year.

Attendees at the meeting included the board of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which holds the station’s license, and district Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. Also present were WLRN President John LaBonia; representatives of Friends of WLRN, an independent organization that raises funds for the station; and members of a task force convened by the superintendent to research options for the station’s governance. The task force includes local journalists and community representatives.

The participants, who convened at the school board’s administration building, discussed four previously proposed options for the station’s future. Superintendent Carvalho and board members expressed unfavorable views of two of the options: maintaining the status quo or selling WLRN’s licenses to a wholly different entity.

The status quo “is not recommended,” Carvalho said, pointing to what he said were at least two decades of feedback about “perceived interference” at the station. And a sale of the licenses, he said, “has never appeared, to me, to be a position that the board outright supported.”

Much of the discussion Wednesday focused on more plausible options: continuing school board ownership while restructuring WLRN’s Community Advisory Board to grant it more control over the station’s programming and budget; or transferring ownership to an independent, newly created entity, possibly with assistance from Friends of WLRN.

Superintendent Carvalho said the CAB option “would envision enhancement of the CAB to a point where it would become the independent entity that would provide oversight to the content, decision-making process, [and] day-to-day responsibility of talent at the station.”

Carvalho acknowledged that strengthening the station’s CAB could prove challenging, as CPB regulates the responsibilities of CABs. Its guidelines prevent CABs from exercising control over daily management and operations of stations. WLRN’s CAB includes school board members appointed by the chair of the school board; members of the Friends of WLRN board; and a member of the South Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Creating a new, independent entity would be “sort of a game-changer,” Carvalho said. He added that it “would dispel in every single way, from every single angle, any appearance or perception of interference” from the school district.

“When stations go independent from an educational or some government agency, community support increases.”

Dwight Hill, Friends of WLRN Board Chair

Appearance of interference has been an issue for WLRN. Local journalists harshly criticized a 2017 school district proposal that would have granted the district more control over the station’s editorial employees. The quickly abandoned proposal responded in part to the friends group’s creation of a subsidiary nonprofit, the South Florida Public Media Co. Founded in 2009 without the school board’s approval, the subsidiary hired WLRN editorial staff independently of the school district.

Some school board members expressed frustration Wednesday that South Florida Public Media Co. continues to employ around two dozen WLRN staffers. At the meeting, Carvalho described the situation as a “gray zone.”

“I would like the board to be what the board is: the owner,” school board chair Perla Tabares Hantman told South Florida Public Media reporters after the meeting.

One board member, longtime district teacher and principal Lawrence Feldman, said he wanted the station’s editorial policy to be strengthened. Both the school board and the friends group agreed on that need, he said.

“Whenever we have a policy, we should make sure it says that we are not involved in editorial anything and that the integrity is solely that of the reporters,” Feldman said. He added that emphasizing the newsroom’s independence would follow the goals of the school board in earning “public confidence that we, in fact, should have oversight and we should have a number of firewalls.”

Friends of WLRN Board Chair Dwight Hill spoke in favor of creating a new, independent entity for WLRN, arguing that it would yield benefits beyond editorial independence. “When stations go independent from an educational or some government agency, community support increases,” he said.

School district spokesperson Daisy Gonzalez-Diego told Current that “ideally,” Carvalho will present a final proposal for board approval by the end of June, when three contracts between the district and WLRN, including a facilities use agreement, are set to expire. But she cautioned that June is “overly ambitious considering all the elements that will need to be factored in.”

Freelance journalist Sam Turken recorded audio of the school board meeting for Current.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the Miami-Dade County Public Schools superintendent appoints two members of WLRN’s Community Advisory Board. The chair of the school board appoints the members.

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