Fundraising is a challenge for WDUQ's would-be buyer

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When Duquesne University put WDUQ-FM (90.5) up for sale in January, plans were in the works to expand the signal transmitting the jazz-and-NPR format to areas around Indiana, Pa., Bedford and Ligonier, which would have more than doubled the number of its potential listeners.

They also had built up the station's respected JazzWorks, a 24/7 syndicated jazz network, which now airs in 40 markets, including Phoenix, Detroit, Miami and Philadelphia.

The sale is on hold until early July after a group of four local foundations purchased a 60-day option on the license to allow interested parties to research what the vision of the station should be.

The extra time is allowing Pittsburgh Public Media, a group of station staffers and community volunteers, to raise awareness and money to keep the station in its hands so it can continue its expansion plans and preserve NPR and the jazz programming. It is one of four bidders for the station -- the others have not been identified.

One of the biggest challenges Pittsburgh Public Media faces, however, is raising money as an independent entity from WDUQ itself, which wrapped up its spring on-air fundraising campaign on Friday.

The nine-day drive netted $218,000, bringing the total raised through on-air pledge drives for the 2009-10 fiscal year to $1,010,960 -- the first time the station has exceeded $1 million for the year.

The money raised during the on-air pledge is restricted funding that goes to WDUQ's current day-to-day operations: none of it will go to Pittsburgh Public Media or into an account to buy the station.

Pittsburgh Public Media doesn't have access to mailing lists of current and past station donors, which is making it a challenge to connect with current and future supporters of the station. "It's an attempt to raise money under the most difficult circumstances imaginable," said the group's advisory board chair Joseph Kelly.

Pittsburgh Public Media is launching a pledge drive of its own, where donors can make a pledge toward the purchase fund: if the sale doesn't happen, the donors won't lose any money.

Advisory board member Andrea Fitting of marketing/advertising agency The Fitting Group -- a longtime underwriter of the station -- is turning to social media strategies to spread the message. In addition to a website, www.pittsburghpublicmedia.org,where people can read updates on the group's progress and donate, they've also launched Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn pages, hoping that friends of the station will spread the word. "Hopefully it will spread virally," Ms. Fitting said.

Pittsburgh Public Media continues to build its advisory board, with several recent additions: Nathan Davis, the jazz musician and University of Pittsburgh faculty member; Alan Lincoln, founder of Pittsburgh Urban Media and former president of Sheridan Broadcasting's radio division, which owned urban radio stations WAMO-FM/AM; and City Councilman Patrick Dowd.

WDUQ has traditionally relied on listener support, which accounted for more than half of its $3 million annual revenues in 2008, according to Corporation for Public Broadcasting annual financial reports. That included proceeds raised from on-air pledges, membership fees and other contributions provided by the public. DUQ is the top-rated local public station, with 180,000 listeners a week and 15,000 donors.

In the March Arbitron ratings, the station was ranked 13th among all listeners. It was No. 8 in morning drive, during the hours "Morning Edition" airs. Midday jazz programming ranks 15th and the station moves up to 12th during afternoon drive, when "Fresh Air" and "All Things Considered" air.

Duquesne University has said it wouldn't sell the station unless it got a fair value. Radio analysts have estimated it is worth at least $10 million.

While the foundations' move to temporarily freeze the sale indicates strong interest in keeping NPR on the air here, the future of jazz on the local airwaves is uncertain. That concerns Pittsburgh Public Media's supporters, who want to see the current mix of music and international, national and local news continue.

"It's not a dual format. It's a voice," said Pittsburgh Public Media's Mr. Kelly. "The station has a very defined voice. When you turn on 90.5, whether you're hearing local news reports, or jazz or `Fresh Air,' you know what station you're on." It's a formula that works, he says, with listener support for jazz programming helping to sustain the national and local news operations, which are expensive.

What's for sale is much more than a radio signal, Mr. Kelly says. There are jobs -- a staff of 23 full-timers and 24 part-timers, "The staff has stuck together through seven months of uncertainty. It's a remarkable family. To treat it as a commodity is a shame."

Also on hold are the station's expansion efforts. WDUQ planned to build full-power stations near Indiana, Bedford and Ligonier, extending the station's coverage of the region and bringing public radio to areas where there currently isn't any -- and to increase to a potential audience of 400,000 listeners. Similar translators already in place carry WDUQ programming to Johnstown, Ligonier and Somerset. The applications for the Marion Center/Indiana station and the Everett/Bedford station were approved by the FCC this year, and the smaller Ligonier project was approved last year, with a three-year deadline to build these new facilities.

And there's JazzWorks, a 24/7 syndicated jazz network produced by WDUQ. The programming features WDUQ hosts Tony Mowod and Bob Studebaker and others playing a mix of classic and newer jazz artists.

Last August, Radio Information Service, an audio reading service for the blind, announced it was ceasing operations. WDUQ, which had been managing RIS, has continued some of those services at a reduced level.

Preserving all of these things, along with continuing to use the station as a training ground for Duquesne University students, is important to Pittsburgh Public Media. If it succeeds in buying the station, the group hopes to move it to a central Downtown location, giving both its news team and its cultural activities a higher profile, Mr. Kelly said.

"Without a continuation of the vision and aspirations that have gotten WDUQ to where it stands now," he said "there is a serious risk of Pittsburgh losing this commitment to local and national engagement."


Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.


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