To Air Is Divine, Say Backers of Imperiled Station
God, reason, education, classical music and the news are all mixed up in a clash of values and priorities at a little radio station in Takoma Park.
A new public station featuring local and global news appears to be the most likely outcome in a battle involving two big media players, a struggling college, a proud religious faith and a flock of listeners who believe they are hearing God's will. At stake is the future of WGTS (91.9 FM), a station owned by Columbia Union College, which in turn is controlled by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
The station, for many years a fringe player with microscopic ratings, dropped its longtime classical music format in 1997 and switched to a "family-friendly" program of inspirational Christian music -- a move that resulted in a nearly tenfold increase in audience and a similar boost in listener donations.
But now the college faces a severe financial crisis -- $7 million in debt and a steadily declining supply of tuition-paying students. And its board has decided that among the moves it must make to survive as a liberal arts school is selling its radio station. Bids for the station have topped $20 million, according to college sources.
Columbia Union's board voted this month to negotiate with "a potential buyer . . . to protect and grow the future of Columbia Union College as an Adventist Christian college in the nation's capital," a statement from the college said. Station sources, who declined to be named because the college asked them not to reveal details of the transaction, said the Columbia Union board has decided to negotiate with the highest of three bidders and expects to finalize the deal in September.
The high bidder, the sources said, is American Public Media Group (APMG), the parent body of Minnesota Public Radio and the country's second-largest producer of news, talk and classical music programming for public stations. A nonprofit brokerage that tries to secure noncommercial frequencies for public radio across the country learned of WGTS's availability from the college last fall and alerted American Public Media to the opportunity, said Bill Kling, president of APMG.
Kling saw a big gap in Washington's radio offerings then as commercial classical WGMS dropped that format and public WETA (90.9 FM) was still airing news-talk programming. The prospect of the nation's capital having no classical station impelled Kling to put together a bid to replace that programming. After WETA returned to its classical roots in January, Kling saw a different need -- for a new kind of news-talk public radio in Washington.
In addition to airing American Public Media programs such as the business news show, "Marketplace," and Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion," a second news-oriented public station would complement WAMU (88.5 FM). A second station could emphasize content from overseas providers such as the BBC, experimenting with interactive, listener-generated news content, and building a local newsgathering staff. In Los Angeles, where APMG owns two stations, it built a news staff of 16 reporters and producers.
"Public radio ought to be vastly stronger in local news, with a staff much closer to what local news organizations like newspapers have traditionally had," Kling said. The new station also would air some National Public Radio programs that have no outlet in Washington, perhaps including NPR's new morning show, aimed at younger listeners, which is scheduled to debut this fall.
But Kling is not ready to declare victory in the contest to win WGTS. The nationwide competition between public and religious broadcasters has heightened in recent years. And in this case, the other bids for WGTS came from Educational Media Foundation, one of the nation's largest owners of Christian radio stations and provider of two formats of Christian rock and pop played on hundreds of stations; and WGTS's existing board, which cannot match the financial resources of the other bidders but which hopes to win by appealing to the Adventists' sense of religious mission.
The noncommercial end of the FM dial has become a battlefield for "very aggressive efforts by both public radio and religious broadcasters to get the remaining real estate" on the airwaves, Kling said. "Traditionally, the religious broadcasters have been the more aggressive bidders."
Educational Media President Richard Jenkins said that although he has not given up on winning WGTS, it appears the college has decided to sell the station to American Public Media.