WLRN friends group reaches agreement with school district to manage station

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Friends of WLRN, the philanthropic partner for the Miami-based station, has reached an agreement with Miami-Dade County Public Schools to manage the dual licensee.

Under an agreement signed Feb. 10, the school district will retain the broadcast licenses. The agreement takes effect July 1 for a five-year term, with an option to renew for an additional year, according to a school board presentation during a Feb. 2 meeting.

The district is not paying a management fee to Friends of WLRN, according to Friends spokesperson Giselle Reid. The agreement is “structured to be cost-neutral” to the district, Reid said, aside from supplying facilities and paying some employees.

The school district will continue to fund WLRN. In fiscal year 2021, the station received $2.6 million in grants from the district. WLRN’s total support and revenue in FY21 was $11.1 million.

Friends of WLRN believes it “will be able to grow WLRN’s audience and community impact as well as increasing financial support from the community,” Reid said. “The agreement also provides for an education coordinator and production coordinator to work with Miami-Dade Schools on their educational initiatives.”

In a statement to Current, WLRN GM John Labonia said the agreement “is a win-win for both the district and Friends of WLRN. The agreement will allow WLRN to provide greater educational benefit directly into the classroom through teacher guides and other educational materials produced from WLRN original content. In addition, WLRN will provide high school internships in radio, television and news. The agreement is good for the station as it will allow management the flexibility to streamline operations resulting in expanded service to the South Florida community.”

A shift in WLRN’s governance has been in the works for years, with another bidder for management dropping out during the process. Under the district’s control, the relationship between the Friends group and the station’s overseer has at times been contentious.

During the Feb. 2 board meeting, Alberto M. Carvalho, outgoing superintendent of MDCPS, said management issues regarding WLRN has been “tortured throughout its process” but added that the station is now “in a good place.”

The school district began reconsidering its relationship with WLRN after a 2017 controversy arose over management of the station. The school board had proposed moving newsroom staffers onto its payroll and away from employment under an independent nonprofit. Journalism watchdogs and the Friends group raised concerns over the journalists’ editorial independence and the impact on donations and reporting partnerships.

In December 2018, a task force convened by Carvalho suggested four options for WLRN’s future. They included maintaining the status quo, embarking on a complicated restructuring of the station’s Community Advisory Board, and selling the station’s licenses to a new or existing entity.

The district took a different tack, announcing a request for proposals for an organization to manage the station while the district retained its broadcast licenses. The friends group and Miami’s South Florida PBS put in bids. A school board committee recommended South Florida PBS, but the school district indefinitely postponed plans to select a manager.

Friends of WLRN filed a petition challenging the selection process, which the school board denied. South Florida PBS withdrew its bid in April 2020, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and a focus on producing more health content.

The school board approved awarding the contract to the friends group in February 2021, “subject to successful contract negotiations which were completed at the end of 2021,” according to Reid.

None of the 21 WLRN staffers employed by the school district will lose their job or compensation as a result of the agreement, according to a district spokesperson. During the Feb. 2 board meeting, Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, the district’s chief communications and community engagement officer, said that Friends of WLRN will approach staffers that it wants to hire and who would transfer over from the district, but that employees have the choice to work under the friends group.

Labonia told Current that he is currently an employee of the district “but will move over to the new managing entity during the transition period as its president & CEO.”

Gonzalez-Diego also said the district had spoken to union representatives for district employees and would explain the options of staying with the district or working under Friends of WLRN.

The district will create a new liaison position to provide oversight of the agreement. The new management-level position will report directly to the school district and oversee district employees at the station.

School board member Mari Tere Rojas expressed trepidation about the liaison position and said it may not be fair to station leaders to deal with another administrative layer. John Iafelice, assistant school board attorney, responded that the liaison position is “extremely important because that is the position which any and all of our union employees will be able to report to.” 

Without the liaison position, district employees who may report labor issues about Friends of WLRN would lack proper channels to file complaints. “Without that liaison position … it would just be the manager, a separate entity to which we are hiring to operate the station,” Iafelice said.

Labonia told Current that the liaison position “is required by the FCC in order for the district as licensee to provide [oversight] over the management enterprise and the agreement itself.”

WLRN may relocate its offices and studios as part of the plan. During the meeting, Labonia said the technical facilities are mostly “up to date” but that the building, constructed in 1982, “has its issues.”

Friends of WLRN will maintain its fundraising arm, and “editorial integrity firewalls between fundraisers and journalists, producers and programmers” will be established, according to the Feb. 2 presentation.

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