Just five days before National Public Radio has to decide whether it can continue operating, negotiations over an emergency loan have reached another impasse. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has made a new proposal for ownership of the network's distribution equipment, but NPR's interim board chairman said he had serious reservations about it.
Since the negotiations for a loan that would solve NPR's $9.1-million deficit problems started a month ago, ownership of the distribution equipment has been a serious snag. Some NPR officials and station managers felt that CPB's proposal to transfer title of the equipment to the corporation was an attempt to completely control NPR.
The proposed new arrangement calls for transfer of the title to a group of NPR member stations, who would act as a trust group. The arrangement was proposed by CPB at a negotiating session on Saturday. The proposal will be considered by the NPR board of directors in an emergency session today.
However, last night Donald Mullally, the interim chairman of NPR's board, came just short of rejecting the CPB proposal. "It seems to me there is in existence already a group of trustees that the members have elected, the board of NPR. It strikes me as unnecessary and perhaps not helpful to suggest a restructuring of the system at this time," said Mullally.
Edward Pfister, president of CPB, said yesterday CPB was not suggesting a restructuring. But Mullally disagreed and characterized the proposal as "forced" upon NPR by CPB at a time when "we are in deep trouble indeed. Our deadline is sooner than Friday, we need to make a Friday payroll.
"I am not rejecting the proposal. I would like to talk about it."
Acceptance of the trustee arrangement is absolutely necessary to the completion of the terms of a loan by CPB. The management of NPR has repeatedly said the loan was the only way it could continue business.
"It was not a take it or leave it proposal," said Pfister yesterday. But, "it is the best way," he said, emphasizing that this condition was the last hurdle and he was optimistic that CPB and NPR would finally reach an agreement this week. The CPB board is scheduled to meet Thursday.
If the NPR board rejected the trustee arrangement, Pfister said, it would show the network was "is still not responsible, is still not mature and is not handling its affairs in a responsible way."
NPR had proposed a "preferred security interest" arrangement, in which the radio network would retain the title and, if NPR defaulted on the loan payments or went into bankruptcy, CPB would get preferential treatment in bidding. CPB sought a transfer of title.
Now CPB has proposed that the title belong to a group, such as the public radio uplink stations. The 281 member stations would give the new group the $1.6 million in federal funds they have already pledged to give NPR annually for debt retirement over the next three years.
The negotiations had been accelerated to round-the-clock status after the CPB board met July 14 and announced the negotiations had reached an impasse over differences in conditions CPB had attached. CPB also said NPR had not made a formal counterproposal.
To secure the three-year loan, in case NPR management defaulted on payments, CPB asked the member stations to provide collateral using federal funds they receive through CPB. The majority of the stations are licensed by educational institutions and needed extra time to receive authority to sign.