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The Nose

Whose Public Radio?

Posted 8/15/2001

For all of the good vibes they've received from folks around town--not to mention $275,000 in donations--the people behind what may one day become WYPR have yet to turn the buzz of optimism into a replacement station for WJHU (88.1 FM).

A deadline for accepting the sale of the Johns Hopkins University-owned public-radio outpost to the small cadre of radio people behind WYPR--the call letters acronymize "Your Public Radio"--passed on Aug. 13 with the station still in the hands of the huge, rich institution that can't afford to keep it. A group led by longtime WJHU talk-show host Marc Steiner won the rights to the station in mid-July. Now Steiner says the sale, which will be made through bank loans estimated by sources to total around $5 million, will become final once a few details are worked out later this month. "It's always the last-minute stuff that gets you," he says. "We'll get it done."

But sources inside the soon-to-be-former WJHU and from National Public Radio (NPR) headquarters in Washington say it'll take quite a bit of doing. Even with strong signals of support from 'JHU listeners and other local media, the station-in-waiting hasn't started to look like a business--not even a nonprofit one, some say. Chief among the doubters' concerns are Steiner and company's lack of cash for the purchase or a business plan for the station, and the loss of support from Hopkins, which has handled the costs of payroll, accounting, legal services, and phone bills for its radio operation. Steiner says the station will cost $2 million to run annually once (or if) the purchase goes through, but sources say the new owners will need a half-mil more than that to keep the whole shebang solvent once Hopkins is out.

The negative buzz surprises Steiner. He has, after all, led a handful of WJHU staffers in an online drive (through www.baltimorepublicradio.org) that has garnered significant public support. And while some at NPR wonder whether WYPR will ever get its signal off the ground, the radio-programming behemoth is, at least publicly, firmly in the putative new station's corner. "We're relieved that there will continue to be a strong NPR news presence in Baltimore," says Dana Davis Rehm, NPR's vice president for member and program services. Other groups "have started radio stations from very humble beginnings," she notes, "and gone on to great things."

But Steiner acknowledges that the questions about the new ownership group are legitimate. "I don't think anybody in the country has used banks to guarantee huge loans to buy a public radio station," he says. "We know we have to do better with [corporate] underwriting. It's important we find a way to marry the nonprofit and for-profit sectors." And while Steiner's group has raised more than 10 percent of what it would need to run the station for a year, "We still have to raise a lot more in the next three or four months" to make WYPR viable, he adds.

Steiner says a five-year business plan, one that includes money for increasing the station's wattage and pumping up its local programming, is in the offing. The station will also troll for grants from NPR and others, he says.

Still, as a former WJHU general manager once noted, even an institution with a $1 billion endowment can have trouble keeping the station humming along. Steiner knows it won't be easy. He also knows that a late-August deadline extension for the sale looms large--as large as rewarding those listeners who have poured hundreds of thousand of dollars into WJHU and its prospective heir over the years. "It's huge," he says.

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