WDUQ belongs to the public

It shouldn't be sold; the staff should take it over on the listeners' behalf, argues arts impresario CHARLIE HUMPHREY

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Last week's announcement that Duquesne University has hired a broker to sell the NPR affiliate WDUQ had loyal listeners spewing their Pinot Noir across the room. While the station cannot be converted to a for-profit entity, it can most certainly become something it is not now, namely a Christian propaganda machine. Verily, it could become an anything propaganda machine so long as it remains noncommercial. (I have friends several clicks right of me who argue that National Public Radio is a propaganda machine.)

But the truth is, Christian broadcasters around the county have deep pockets and a 24-hour opportunity to raise more money on-air. They are the most qualified buyers of noncommercial licenses right now and WDUQ sits firmly in their crosshairs.

Credit Duquesne, a Catholic university, for not using the station to proselytize over the years. Not that Duquesne has been totally hands-free. A number of listeners were outraged (me included) when the university administration barred the station from running an underwriting announcement from Planned Parenthood.

What are the alternatives to saving core NPR programs in Western Pennsylvania? I will list two in the order of desirability.

Option One

The staff of WDUQ incorporates as an independent nonprofit entity, leverages money to buy the station and its assets and continues to program more or less the way it does now. There is a big bonus in this scenario because the station would have to appoint a board of directors. WDUQ works without any sort of advisory board. All nonprofits benefit when there are informed and dedicated trustees governing the organization. This alternative would make WDUQ a better station.

Option Two

One of the other two NPR affiliates in Pittsburgh, WQED-FM or WYEP, radically alters its programming to pick up flagship programs like "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."

The most likely candidate to do this is the all-classical station WQED. It ran the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at the same time as WDUQ for a couple of years in the early '80s. I worked for WQED back then as a producer and administrative assistant, and I could not go anywhere in the city without someone telling me what a stupid idea that was.

In the 1980s, WQED had the larger audience. Now, the roles are reversed, due to the aging of classical-music fans and the stunning growth of NPR listeners nationwide.

But we're not talking about simulcasting now. We're talking about an utterly reconfigured WQED, with a little classical music and a lot of talk.

Here is a characteristic of WQED listeners I remember (fondly): You can change the format of my radio station when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

Shifting WDUQ content to WQED would ignite a major battle. I'm not sure management could stomach one at a time when resources are lean and the station's leadership is in transition.

What about WYEP? I surmise it would cherry-pick certain shows rather than dive into the larger NPR canon. NPR programming is seriously expensive and you have to raise a lot of pledge dollars to justify it.

Prevailing wisdom says that if you are going to run the headlining NPR shows -- "All Things Considered," "Morning Edition," "Car Talk," etc. -- then you need to go all in to retain members. I cannot imagine WYEP stalwarts rolling over any more than I can imagine WQED supporters giving up without a pitched battle. This would be no pillow fight.

A larger issue merits discussion, though. Who really owns public radio stations?

In fact, the Federal Communications Commission does. It licenses nonprofits to run them for the public good. The frequencies belong to the federal government.

Duquesne University officials, including President Charles Dougherty, have pointed out privately that the university has invested significant money in WDUQ over the past 60 years and indeed, it has.

Dr. Dougherty also has argued that the mission of the station has no relevance to the mission of Duquesne. Again, I agree.

But it needs to be pointed out that Duquesne's investment in the station is a wee fraction of what the public has invested through direct contributions, federal support and foundation grants.

I have to wonder what it means to be a member of a public something when that membership can be revoked at any time. "Remember," we are constantly told, "This is your public radio station." Well, it turns out, it isn't yours at all.

I have no idea how much public equity there is in any public broadcasting entity. But I do know the law doesn't match what I think is morally right: WDUQ should not be "sold" to the public, a public that thought it already had bought it. It should be returned to the public, with a reasonable grant to the university's unrestricted coffers to support the effort.

A lot of numbers are being tossed around about the sale value of the station. Some are scary nosebleed high, which of course provides disincentive for the university to simply turn the station over to the community.

Again, much to Duquesne University's credit, it has agreed to slow down and allow an independent evaluation of the station's value to be conducted. In fact, the university is paying for half the cost. This is a tremendous goodwill gesture and the university should be commended for it.

And I do not mean to throw the jazz programming of WDUQ under the bus. But I'm pretty sure that unless the public takes control of the station as in Option One, we can say goodbye to independent jazz in this radio market. That would be a shame.

You or I may or may not be big fans of the brand of Jazz WDUQ plays, but we would not want to live in a town that didn't have any, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor.

Charlie Humphrey is executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Pittsburgh Glass Center ( charlie@pghfilmmakers.org ).


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