Talk show host Marc Steiner is on the brink of realizing his dream of taking control of WJHU, Baltimore's chief public radio news station.
Yesterday, the station's owner, the Johns Hopkins University, signed a letter of intent to sell the station to a not-for-profit community-based group led by Steiner, called Maryland Public Radio Corp.
The group has 30 days to solidify its financing to buy the station and make a specific offer. The asking price has been estimated at $5 million or more.
"We're dedicated to building a real public radio community that belongs to the people here," Steiner said. "Beyond purchasing the station, we've got to make the place continue to hum and grow."
The decision by Hopkins came toward the end of a tortuous process that began in the spring, when university administrators acknowledged that they were putting the 15-year-old National Public Radio station on the block.
In a side-by-side interview, Steiner and Hopkins budget officer Frederick W. Puddester explained the general outlines of the memo while avoiding details, saying they had jointly agreed to keep the details confidential during the negotiations.
Puddester said that Maryland Public Radio best enabled the university to meet its aims of obtaining financial value for its asset - the license and the physical station - while ensuring that WJHU remained an NPR affiliate with a news and information format. Puddester also said the university deserves great credit for not shopping the non-commercial license to religious broadcasters, who presumably could pay more for it.
"We wanted a group that had the operational expertise and financial wherewithal to take the station to the next level," Puddester said. "We think we've achieved all those goals with Maryland Public Radio." Puddester, a former state budget secretary, vouched for the soundness of the local radio group's financial plans.
Hopkins, which has a $1.6 billion annual budget and a $1 billion endowment, has come under some fire from Baltimoreans who believed the university could spend more funds and energy on the station. But the university earlier concluded WJHU, heard at 88.1 FM, did not fit neatly within its mission of research and instruction.
Yesterday, Steiner said his group intended to continue running NPR programs, to expand local offerings, to broadcast some shows from sites in local communities and to establish a news department to generate original reports.
He also said he expected to change the station's call letters as its identity evolves and as he pushes for greater donations from people who live in the Baltimore area. Steiner thinks that there will be more financial support for the station once it is detached from an institution as wealthy as Hopkins.
Along with Steiner, Maryland Public Radio is led by Martha Rudzki, WJHU's current marketing director, and Gary Levine, a local furniture store owner who is an underwriter, or sponsor, of the station.
The group has tapped as its acting station manager Tony Brandon, a Baltimore resident who is president of American General Media, which owns and operates 47 radio stations in California, Colorado and New Mexico. In addition, the group intends to name a board of directors.
But Steiner also said he hoped to bring a new spirit of creativity to the station, a spark that he said he encountered while visiting WAMU-FM in Washington, which had considered making a bid for its Baltimore counterpart. "We need to release the creative juices of this staff," Steiner said. "There's a lot of great ideas that lurk here." Steiner also said he wants to collaborate with strong regional broadcasters to generate new ways to create programs and sources of support for the station.
"We wish them well," said Chris Naylor, a WAMU spokeswoman. "We look forward to working with them in the future - I hope we can do some joint projects."
Money, money, money
Maryland Public Radio faces challenges large and small in launching its new venture. It needs to line up the money to buy the station, probably through a loan or by
arranging to issue the equivalent of a bond, public broadcasting professionals said.
The group also needs to raise funds vigorously if it is to improve the station's aging equipment and weak signal, or to add a news desk and additional local shows. The university doesn't own the building at 2216 N. Charles St. where WJHU is housed, so it's not clear how much of the physical capital will be conveyed to the new owner.
Even the group's name may pose a problem. Officials at Maryland Public Television, citing the advice of the Washington law firm Schwartz, Woods and Miller, said they would take legal action to prevent the on-air use of "Maryland Public Radio" to define the station. MPT President Robert J. Shuman said the state-owned broadcaster still is interested in acquiring other Maryland public radio stations - setting itself up as a potential competitor for WJHU.
"Our thought was to explore the multi-[media] platform benefit that radio, TV and the Internet has for us," Shuman said. "We think that's the right strategy, and we'll implement it at our first good opportunity."
Behind the scenes
Other details of the bidding process shook free as the agreement - the penultimate step before a final purchase offer is accepted - became known publicly. Several other outlets, such as Minnesota Public Radio and WETA outside Washington, had flirted with the idea of making a play for WJHU. WBUR in Boston and WAMU pursued the station more seriously without, ultimately, making even informal bids.
MPT was dismissed by Hopkins early in the process, despite making a seemingly attractive preliminary bid of $4.5 million. The proposal included a highly unusual degree of involvement by NPR in the programming and planning of a local station's operations.
But MPT officials acknowledged yesterday for the first time that their offer included only $2 million in cash, which would have been raised from private gifts. The other $2.5 million would have come in the form of credits for underwriting, effectively advertising, on the public television system, on WJHU, and on MPT's Web site.
Once a deal with Maryland Public Radio is complete, Hopkins will need to file an application with the Federal Communications Commission to transfer its license and signal to the group.
Then Hopkins and the FCC will publish statements announcing its intentions, and a 30-day comment period follows.
Usually, the transfer period is uneventful. Once that occurs, the Steiner group can take control.