By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2007
For months, cash-strapped Columbia Union College of Takoma Park believed it had found a surefire, if somewhat controversial, way to escape its financial pressures:
Sell the school's radio station, for which one eager bidder was willing to pay more than $25 million.
The sale looked so certain that managers of the Christian-music station, WGTS (91.9 FM), had planned to remove DJs from the air last night, after the school's trustees met to consider approving a bid from a public broadcasting company.
Instead, the trustees emerged from a day-long meeting yesterday with a brief, and surprising, announcement: no sale.
"The Columbia Union College board of trustees voted . . . to rescind the action to enter into negotiations to sell the radio station license," the college's leadership said in a one-sentence news release.
The unexplained reversal left staffers of the station jubilant and the would-be buyer, American Public Media Group, stunned.
"The Lord performed a miracle today, and we give Him all the praise and thanks for what happened," said John Konrad, the station's general manager. He said WGTS "is God's radio station and always has been."
APMG wanted to buy the nonprofit outlet and turn it into a news and public affairs station that would compete with public radio powerhouse WAMU (88.5 FM) and all-news WTOP (103.5, 103.9 FM), among others. The not-for-profit company saw a big opening in the local radio market with the demise Wednesday of Washington Post Radio, which The Post produced in conjunction with WTOP's owner, Bonneville International.
WGTS is especially attractive because its 23,500-watt signal blankets the most heavily populated parts of the Washington area.
Among the parties watching the negotiations closely was The Post, which had begun preliminary discussions with APMG about producing programs for WGTS, assuming a sale was completed.
APMG operates a string of public stations in Minnesota and produces and distributes various programs heard on public radio, including Garrison Keillor's weekly "A Prairie Home Companion," the classical music program "Performance Today" and the financial news show "Marketplace."
A spokesman for APMG said yesterday that the St. Paul-based company was still discussing the matter. In a statement last night, AMPG said it was "disappointed" by Columbia Union's decision, and hoped it would someday reconsider.
Columbia Union, which is operated by the Silver Spring-based Seventh-day Adventist Church, had considered a deal to pay down about $5 million in debts and to fatten its endowment of $4 million. The school, which has an enrollment of about 1,000 students, also anticipated that the proceeds would pay for constructing the first new building on campus in 37 years.
But the prospect of a sale wasn't popular around the school. In the months leading up to yesterday's decision, the board received about 500 letters and e-mails in support of WGTS, which bills itself as the "Family Friendly Music Station."
"The leadership [of the church] is committed to alternative ways of strengthening the college and to continuing the ministry of the station," college spokesman Scott Steward said yesterday.
Staff writer Marc Fisher contributed to this report.