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Radio Free Oxford

February 2, 2009

Don’t blame video this time. At Miami University, budget cuts killed the radio star.

In the face of a projected $22 million budget shortfall, Miami of Ohio plans to cut more than $500,000 by ceding control of its radio station -- WMUB 88.5 FM -- to Cincinnati Public Radio. As a result, 10 university employees associated with the station will lose their jobs and all locally produced content will come to an end in March. Though WMUB will remain an affiliate of National Public Radio -- maintaining such popular programs as “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” -- it will simulcast the feed of a station located about 40 miles to the south, in Cincinnati.

The decision, announced last week, followed a two-year review of the station’s viability to the university. Initially, university officials stated that the station faced “serious challenges in raising funds through underwriting and membership.” In an effort to attract more donations from its core demographic, WMUB trimmed all of its jazz programming to become a “full-time news and information station” last summer. Though this and other changes helped the station trim about $230,000 from its operating budget, these cuts ultimately did not help lighten the university’s financial burden enough to keep the station afloat. Miami is not alone is this predicament: many other institutions have recently had to consider jettisoning their radio stations for financial reasons.

In 2006, almost two-thirds of the station’s $1.7 million budget was bankrolled by the university, said David Creamer, Miami vice president for finance and business services. In years since, he said this percentage has receded as the radio station made a number of strategic cuts and boosted its fundraising efforts. After the March transition, he noted the university will save $536,000 in salary costs, which can be redirected elsewhere at the administration’s discretion. (Note: This article has been updated to correct an error from an earlier version.)

The university could have generated much more money from the sale of the station, but Creamer said this option was quickly dismissed.

“From our perspective, this creates more flexibility,” said Creamer, noting Miami would maintain the station’s operating license. “It was important to us to continue to provide public radio to those in the area. Clearly, selling the station would have generated the greatest cash value -- and that was talked about -- but the benefits of the station to the community would have been lessened.”

Though the university has yet to pledge not to sell the station’s license in the future, Creamer suspected that its final transitional agreement would likely preclude it from pulling the plug on new operators Cincinnati Public Radio -- which owns two other stations and does not have the resources to formally buy another license.

Balancing Money and Mission

Other institutions have made similar deals, protecting the mission of their university stations while also generating a profit. University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. finalized a deal last week to sell KUOP 91.3 FM to Capital Public Radio, which will maintain local and news-related programming. Pacific put the station up for sale in 2005 but, as a university spokesman told the Sacramento Business Journal, “did not want to sell [it] to just anyone.” In another example, Johns Hopkins University generated $5 million from the sale of WHJU 88.1 FM to Maryland Public Radio in 2001.

These cases, however, are not the norm. Many colleges and universities simply abandon the mission of their stations.

“What often happens is universities are not as civic minded in the process and will sell their stations to the highest bidder,” said Erik Langer, director of acquisitions at Public Radio Capital -- a group that helps sustain public radio stations often by counter bidding commercial outlets for their licenses. “When we’re sitting across the table in negotiations in an open market transaction, we often find ourselves against some of the non-commercial religious groups, who are very active in the market [for licenses].”

PRC lost a bidding war in 2006 for Kilgore College’s radio station -- KTPB 88.7 FM in eastern Texas -- which was ultimately sold for $2.4 million to California-based Educational Media Foundation Broadcasting. The Christian group now collectively owns and operates about 250 radio stations in the United States with all content coming from one of its two networks.

The Loss of Localism

Though Miami’s radio station will not be changing drastically in the coming months, some local donors have already started asking for their money back. Cleve Callison, WMUB general manager, said he has talked to at least five listeners who will have donations they gave in the station’s prior fund drive refunded. Many listeners, he noted, were saddened to hear the station will lose all of its local programming and news as it becomes a simulcast of another signal.

“I DO NOT want my donation to go to Cincinnati’s public radio station or any organization related to them,” writes Tim, a listener on the station’s official blog, now receiving comments from unhappy donors. “I am mad. I am hurt. And I don’t want to provide financial support to an organization that is taking over WMUB.”

Another listener echoed a similar sentiment in a plea for his refund.

“I wish to support LOCAL public radio and do not want my pledge to roll over to the new Cincinnati based station,” Rich writes on the blog.

With six public radio stations in the area, southwestern Ohio has a relatively crowded market for listener donations. Though the heavy presence of these stations in a relatively small area can boost their overall listenership, Callison said it often can lead to a situation in which listeners cannot financially sustain them all. He believes this was the case at WMUB.

“It’s a loss; there’s no question about it,” said Callison of the station’s local bent. “The loss of localism is a big issue in radio. All of us staked our jobs on the belief that listeners want radio to be local. Seeing something like this happen, there is a definite loss of identity here in Oxford. When you drive around here soon, you’ll hear reports from Cincinnati instead.”

In today’s tough economy, Callison said he believes university radio stations aimed at larger audiences -- typically with a full-time staff, professional announcers and purchased NPR content -- are much more at risk that those with shoestring budgets. He suspects these other stations -- with a majority of their content produced by students or community volunteers under the supervision of either a faculty advisor or general manager -- are in less danger of vanishing from the dial as they often have less-desirable, lower-power broadcast signals.

Though WMUB used to be more hyper-local, like the latter of Callison’s examples, other station officials argued it still maintains that rare local flair on the air. For them, the comings changes spell the end of an era.

“We’ve done the absolute best we can do with the resources we had,” said John Hingsbergen, the station’s program director. “I would argue this station has never had a station break in which a listener would not get a sense that they were hearing something out of southwest Ohio. It’s been one heck of a ride, and we’ve had one heck of a station. Our friends in Cincinnati are professionals, but the station will sound a bit more dry. No one else is likely to get a station in a small town and do what we’ve done again.”

Miami officials say the changes at the radio station are only the first of many cuts to be made to help the university meet its shrinking budget.

 

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