Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Friday, July 29, 2011

More on the sale of WBFO from today's story in the Buffalo News:
But UB -- which provides WBFO with $205,000 a year in funding, along with an estimated $1.3 million in support services -- has been looking to save money during these difficult economic times.
While UB didn't go into the talks expecting to sell, it became clear that it would be in the best interest of both the university and radio listeners, said Joseph A. Brennan, associate vice president for communications at UB.
 This is, you should excuse the expression, chump change. UB could find $200k in cash in the sofa cushions, and the $1.3 million looks like spitballing the use of the building (not even the whole building) and utilities. There may be some salaries in there-- WBFO has seven full-time and 11 part-time employees, including news staff, on-air personalities and administrative workers. The same story reports that WNED AM has 8 employees, but of course that's comparing apples and pears. WNED AM is a completely different sort of operation from WBFO. Indeed, as I recall it, WNED regards its AM operation as something of an albatross-- its chief value is the license.

Part of why I am hating this so much is that there is an important difference, historically and culturally, in the world of public broadcasting between public radio stations (small, efficient, essentially local operations that communicate in an intimate way) and public television television stations (bloated, inefficient, largely providers of services that have been supplanted, pipelines for national programing and little else.). It is an accident of legislation that the two are even thought of together, and it has been generally the case that operations that have television licenses tend to treat their radio operations as secondary to their primary purpose. This has certainly been true of WNED in the past-- it is one of the chief reasons that WNED was in financial trouble a dozen or so years ago. I'm also worried about the differences in culture between the two operations: WNED has always seemed to me to think of itself as a television operation with a couple of radio stations, and in my experience in public broadcasting that typically means that the radio stations are the red haired stepchildren.

Another quote:
Brennan added that "UB is a research university; WNED is a public broadcaster. It is their mission to operate a public radio station. It is not our core mission to do that. While WBFO is a very good radio station, it's never going to be central to our academic mission."

Here's what is wrong with that analysis: it is answering the wrong question. It shouldn't be, "Why are we in the radio business?", it's "How can we be using this powerful tool to better advance our mission as a public university?" A university and a public radio station seem to me to have complementary missions.

Oh, and although "UB received two independent appraisals for the radio station before agreeing to the $4 million price tag," I think the deal is weirdly one-sided. I just Googled "How much is a 50 thousand watt broadcast license worth?" and learned that Rice University got $10 million bucks when it sold its license for KTRU a year ago. In a letter to alumni Rice's president said that the university viewed a broadcast license as a " declining asset over the long term as a result of changes in technology and consumer preferences for accessing music." Maybe so, although it seems to me that broadcast rights over the electromagnetic spectrum have been a pretty solid bet. WBFO has in common with the University at Buffalo the fact that both are public trusts, and this has somehow been lost sight of.

| Comments:
The University sponsored NPR station to which I listen utilizes a fair number of University Departments and personnel in its local programming. History professors, authors, horticulture experts, etc.

the Public owned community NPR station does the same but not to the same extent. It delegates less time to local programs and more to recorded (classical), music.
That's fairly typical. A good counter-example is the Albany area NPR outlet, which covers the Hudson Valley, Western Massachusetts and Vermont. They produce a lot of their own programing, and are particularly good on Albany politics and environmental issues. I suspect, but do not know, that this is due in part to the long-time involvement of SUNY Albany Professor <a href=">Alan Chartock</a>. Chartock used to do a program with Mario Cuomo that was some of the best radio you'd want to hear. WAMC, like WBFO, was one of the charter members of National Public Radio, and at that time was university owned, but was divested in 1980. The chief difference between WAMC and WNED is that WAMC is a pure radio outlet. WNED is a public television outlet that owns two radio stations, and is acquiring another.

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