Sale of WDUQ generates more buzz

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The record-breaking spring pledge drive for WDUQ-FM is over, but the commentary about the public radio station's future continues unabated at the Pittsburgh Foundation's website.

In a post on the foundation's community e-forum earlier this week, Pittsburgh Foundation president Grant Oliphant responded to e-mails from people who asked him to "save the jazz" on WDUQ. Those requests, he said, "assume a level of control we don't have right now."

Duquesne University put the license up for sale last December to channel any sale proceeds into educational improvements.

Last month, the Pittsburgh Foundation joined with the Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and an anonymous foundation and bought a 60-day option to essentially freeze the sale.

The foundations bought the option, Mr. Oliphant said in his post, "in the hope that our community would use this time to develop and put forward a credible, financially sustainable vision for purchasing the station and preserving it as a public asset."

Foundation executives appointed Charlie Humphrey, executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Pittsburgh Glass Center, to do research and develop a plan.

Although the option expires on July 2, Mr. Oliphant expects the situation to remain fluid after that date.

"July 2 is an important day in a sense that that's when the option runs out. It's foolish to think that we can have a full campaign of public involvement between now and July 2. What we can have is a dialogue with community around what some of its interests might be."

University officials believe the license is worth $10 million. The station's 25,000-watt signal covers the metropolitan Pittsburgh area. There are four translators, which extend the signal to Westmoreland, Cambria, Somerset and Bedford counties. Among Pittsburgh's three public stations, WDUQ has the largest overall listenership.

Public Radio Capital, a Colorado-based nonprofit that has handled more than $250 million in deals for public radio stations since 2001, valued the WDUQ license at between $4.5 million and $6.5 million.

In April, Barry University of Miami, Fla., agreed to sell Palm Beach County's public radio station, WXEL-FM 90.7, to a Broward County classical radio station for $3.85 million in cash.

Asked if the four foundations plan to solicit public opinion via surveys, focus groups or a town meeting with a moderator, Mr. Oliphant replied, "the answer to that question depends ultimately on whether and how they as a group decide to go forward."

"Hearing from the community is really a critical part of this conversation. We've heard from the community in one way and that's in the giving they have done to the last two pledge campaigns. What that has sent is a very strong signal that listeners support public radio in Pittsburgh and support DUQ."

The nine-day drive that ended May 28 netted $218,000, bringing the total raised through on-air pledge drives for the 2009-2010 fiscal year to $1,101,960, the first time the station has exceeded $1 million for the year.

Resolving the sale is far from over.

"What the community needs to appreciate is that the fate of the station is still very much up in the air. The public support is more critical now than ever. Finding a way for the community to come together for a proposal to take the station independent requires significant public involvement," Mr. Oliphant added.

Joe Kelly, owner of Kelly Custom Cabinetry in Lawrenceville, chairs the board of Pittsburgh Public Media, a nonprofit group that put in a bid to buy the license. The group is using its own website and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to raise money. The Pittsburgh Foundation has a presence on Facebook and Twitter, too.

The Pittsburgh Foundation's blog, Mr. Kelly said, "is an attempt to get some community input, which I'm in favor of."

The process of saving the station, he added, needs to be a thoughtful one but he perceives the foundations' overall approach as too top down.

"This sort of reminds me of the URA tearing down East Liberty and putting up a mall. The city has experienced these top down decisions before. We've spent decades trying to fix that. I think that's a reasonable parallel."

"We need the foundations to help us if they're going to help us," Mr. Kelly said.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting's rules, Mr. Kelly said, require the creation of a community-based governing board and a community advisory board.

"What is paramount in the quest to save the station is to simply "save the station first," he said, adding that that's why Pittsburgh Public Media established an advisory board made up of educators, broadcasters, financial professionals and non-profit law experts.

"Our intent is not to come up with the answers but to identify the people bets qualified to represent the listeners, be they present or future listeners."


Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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