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WBUR Group to sell Rhode Islandís public radio station
Sudden move sparks outrage among WRNI donors
BY IAN DONNIS

FRIDAY, September 17 Ė THE WBUR Group of Boston, which brought public radio to Rhode Island with the establishment of WRNI-AM (1290) in 1998, has outraged a number of the stationís most serious financial supporters by abruptly announcing plans to sell WRNI.

"Rhode Island should feel insulted," said Rick Schwartz, spokesman for the Rhode Island Foundation, a charitable organization that has given hundreds of thousands of dollars and below-market rent to WRNI in its building at One Union Station. He says donors plan to contact Secretary of State Matthew Brown because of concerns about the prospect of the nonprofit station, strengthened with considerable community donations, being sold to a for-profit entity.

During a meeting with top donors this morning at One Union Station, Jane Christo, general manager of the WBUR Group, announced plans to put WRNI on the market Monday though a broker, Schwartz said. "She kept repeating, ĎWe just decided itís really time for the station to be taken over by community concerns and community interest. Weíve built this wonderful thing and it's now the communityís turn,í " Schwartz said.

If WBUR wants community groups to maintain public radio in Rhode Island, Schwartz says, they should be given more lead time before the station is offered for sale. At this point, he says, "Itís unlikely we would have the same advantage as someone with a commercial incentive."

Although many observers believe that financial concerns at WBUR (the licenses for WBUR-FM (90.9) and WRNI are held by Boston University) are driving the situation, Christo would not answer questions on the topic, Schwartz said. "We were getting such short answers that they would make the presidential candidates proud Ė in other words, she said nothing," he said.

Christo, emerging from a different meeting, declined to answer questions from the Phoenix. A spokesman, Will Keyser, of the Boston public-relations firm Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, denied through the Media Services Group in Providence that financial considerations are driving the decision to offer WRNI for sale. "I know there are concerns about the process, and those that feel that the process is not fair, but the reality is that the community will be given [a chance] through this process to make a serious and viable offer for the station, if thatís what they would like do," Keyser said.

"WBUR formed a partnership with the community and invested in WRNI six years ago for the purpose of building a viable public-radio station in Rhode Island," Keyser added, "and WBUR now feels that the station is viable, and that itís time for the community to decide what the future is going to be. Placing the station up for sale, informing those in the community of this, they feel, is the fairest way to handle giving the community the opportunity to decide the future."

Keyser says WRNI will maintain its current broadcast operations until such a time when the station is sold, and that the four remaining staffers will be offered jobs at WBUR when that happens. The sale would encompass the license for the station and its physical infrastructure.

In the late í90s, WBUR shelled out more than $2 million to acquire WRCP, a 5000-watt commercial station with Spanish-language programming. At the time, Rhode Island and Delaware were the only two states without their own public radio stations, and WBUR attracted financial support with pledges of robust local programming.

Such plans took a big hit after the September 11 attacks in 2001, however, when One Union Station, a two-hour daily newsmagazine named for the location of WRNIís broadcast office, was scrapped, and a number of Providence staffers reassigned to Boston. At the time, WBUR spokeswoman Mary Stohn told the Phoenix, "Thereís absolutely no possibility that íRNI wonít be comprehensive, strong, and true to its mission at the end of this crisis situation that weíre in."

In early 2002, the result of the change was Focus: Rhode Island, a weekly one-hour newsmagazine that, although of excellent quality, marked a considerable diminishment in local programming. In the first cuts at WRNI since 2001, Focus: Rhode Island was cancelled about two weeks ago, and two WRNI staffers, reporter Martha Bebinger and morning anchor Deb Becker, reassigned to WBUR.

Fans of WRNI, who were disappointed and saddened by the demise of Focus: Rhode Island, are flabbergasted by the news that WRNI is being offered for sale.

"What youíve described to me is the worst-case scenario," said H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island. After the most recent cuts, "My assumption of the worst-case prior to what you told me was that they would just cut back and do national NPR programming."

"I find that almost whenever Iím in the car, I have WRNI on, and the in-depth reporting from Iraq, and the in-depth discussion about Iraq, and those vital issues that have almost entirely been shut out of the broadcast TV news is priceless to me," West added. "But Iíve also appreciated that pretty regularly they had Martha Bebinger in the State House Ė two, three, four times a week she would be there. Most of the commercial stations send someone when thereís a big event, but theyíre not there for the routine stories. I think thatís a statement both of how good public broadcasting can be and how superficial the recent commercial broadcasting has been."

West says his critique isnít geared at the local talk show hosts, who help to stimulate discussion of political issues. But in an age of media deregulation, Rhode Islandís public-radio station has been an important additional source of informed journalism.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com.

 


Issue Date: September 17, 2004
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