To Air Is Divine, Say Backers of Imperiled Station

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, July 29, 2007

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.

"We made an all-cash offer and believe it was for the same amount, and were disappointed to learn that our offer was not accepted," Jenkins said. "We are hopeful that we will be given an opportunity to present our case when the matter comes before the full [college] board of directors" in September.

WGTS's own board has not given up hope. "WGTS is God's radio station and always has been," the station's general manager, John Konrad, wrote in an appeal to loyal listeners to pepper the college and the church with messages of support. "We've all done our share of worrying about the future of WGTS in recent days, but you know what, God is completely in control. We have nothing to worry about. He has a purpose for WGTS and that purpose is being worked out every step of the way."

Listeners have responded with hundreds of letters attesting to the station's transformative role in their lives. WGTS's music -- a kind of soft rock with Christian lyrics -- provides solace and encouragement to listeners who have filled message boards at with testimonials such as: "I find it most comforting to keep the station on all night. It is a blessing because it encourages me, lifts up my spirits and teaches me life."

"This seems to be an attempt at a quick fix to cover up the horrible financial and substantive state of affairs at the college," says Noel Gould, a Washington Adventist and donor to WGTS, who has hired a law firm from the District to look into ways to halt the sale.

"The college is fairly hard up for cash," says Doug Walker, a member of WGTS's board who for many years hosted the station's "Divertimento" classical show.

A Columbia Union spokesman, Scott Steward, and the college's board president, Dave Weigley, did not return calls seeking comment. But Steward told the Adventist News Network that the offer from the WGTS board was "insufficient" because it proposed to pay for the station over 25 years and the college wants a cash deal.

WGTS stalwarts say their only hope for saving the Christian format is to appeal to fellow Adventists. "If the overall mission of the college and the station is winning souls, then you don't sell off the station," Walker says. "The college's board has to decide whether to save the college or the station."

A college statement says WGTS's current format could be salvaged even if the station is sold by putting the programming on a digital sub-channel that would be available to listeners who buy the HD or digital radios that came on the market last year. But sales of those radios have been slow, and WGTS executives are skeptical that the college would retain the staff needed to maintain the current programming. Walker called that plan "a load of rubbish."

WGTS, which aims at an audience of 20-to-45-year-old "soccer moms," collects about $2.5 million a year in donations from about 15,000 listeners and is, according to the Arbitron ratings service, the second-most-listened-to noncommercial religious station in the nation.

"We're heavy on music and camaraderie," Walker says, "as opposed to preaching and right-wing politics."

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