Public broadcasting audience members have a unique relationship to the radio stations they follow. Listeners and viewers are told repeatedly, particularly during pledge drives, that the stations belong to them by nature of their donations. It is only natural that they feel a sense of ownership that followers of commercial stations don’t.
So, when Baltimore public radio station WYPR announced Friday afternoon that it was purchasing Towson University’s WTMD for $3 million, it is not surprising that followers and supporters had questions. Among the biggest: What’s behind it, what does this mean for the future of WTMD and its musical format, and what does it say about public radio in Baltimore?
In an interview with The Sun Monday, LaFontaine E. Oliver, president and general manager of WYPR (YPR for “your public radio”), answered some of the questions. Topics ranged from the possibility of call letters changing at WTMD to how this purchase can be seen as a good thing when consolidation in the media is generally characterized by critics like me as bad in terms of narrowing choices, voices and diversity.
While Mr. Oliver stressed his desire for continuity at WTMD, most importantly in musical format and in the sponsoring of live performances in the community, he said a decision has not been made on whether the station would continue to be known as WTMD.
“I can make arguments both ways,” he said. “Does it make sense to have something that aligns better with the ‘Your Public Radio’ branding? But I could also make an argument that there’s some brand equity there in TMD. We just don’t know yet.”
Mr. Oliver, who is also chair of the board of directors of National Public Radio, has been down this road of acquisition before, and it resulted in a change of call letters. He came to WYPR from WMFE, an NPR-affiliated public radio station in Orlando, Florida. While there, he led that station in its acquisition of WKSG, a smaller non-NPR radio outlet, which wound up having its call letters changed to WMFV. The “M and F” for affinity with the station he ran and the “V” to target listeners at The Villages, the huge retirement community outside of Orlando, according to Mr. Oliver.
In answer to questions about the larger issue of consolidation of media that the purchase of WTMD raises, Mr. Oliver said the distinctive nature of the station’s musical format is one of the things that made the station attractive to WYPR; why would he want to change it? Baltimore listeners will still have WTMD’s commitment to discovering new music, so the options for Baltimore area listeners are not narrowing with the acquisition, he said.
“Oftentimes what happens with consolidation is that folks are looking for ways to either homogenize or sort of overlap things that create even greater economies of scale,” he said. “But what we’re talking about here is a distinctive format that is for music discovery and championing local artists and musicians, as opposed to one that serves news and information, and there are no plans to morph them into one thing.”
Mr. Oliver said listeners will benefit because savings made in “infrastructure and back office,” areas off the air, where economies of scale can be realized, will be used to reinvest in on-air content and live events.
“LaFontaine Oliver is a savvy manager of public radio stations,” DeWayne Wickham, dean of the School of Global Journalism & Communication at Morgan State University, wrote in an email to The Sun. Mr. Wickham is also in charge of Morgan’s public radio station, WEAA, which Mr. Oliver ran before moving to Orlando.
“With the purchase of WTMD, you can bet that he’ll find some economies of scale in the short run to lower the combined operating costs of WYPR and WTMD,” Mr. Wickham added. “In the long run, I expect he’ll implement some smart underwriting strategies to use the combined audiences of the two stations to bring in more revenue.”
Owning WTMD will give WYPR access to a younger demographic, which is one of the ways it can attract new and different underwriters to bring in that revenue.
But you can bet those audience members, who have invested their musical passion and money in helping make WTMD a distinctive voice on the FM spectrum in Baltimore, will let Mr. Oliver and the board of directors at WYPR know of their displeasure at pledge time if they don’t like what they hear at 89.7 on the FM dial.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.