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WBUR commits to WRNI’s future as a public radio station

TUESDAY, JUNE 14 -- In a significant change, Boston University and the WBUR Group have decided to continue to operate WRNI (1290) as a public radio station indefinitely. This announcement, from spokeswoman Nancy Sterling of Boston-based ML Strategies, represents a reversal from WBUR’s plans to sell the Rhode Island station last September.

Beyond describing the new commitment, Sterling declined to comment before a more detailed announcement scheduled for the afternoon of Wednesday, June 15, after the Phoenix’s deadline.

Gene Mihaly, president of the Foundation for Ocean State Public Radio (FOSPR), which worked with WBUR to create WRNI in 1998, reacted skeptically. " I think I will await elaboration, " Mihaly says. " We have heard several reports over several months -- the station is for sale, the station is not for sale. Given recent performance, I do not think that Rhode Island would be optimally served by the continuation of WBUR management. I would be delighted to be proved wrong in my concern. "

Sterling’s announcement came after FOSPR, frustrated by what it called a lack of response from BU, backed legislation meant to preclude BU from selling WRNI (1290 AM) without leaving enough money to maintain public radio in Rhode Island.

The legislation, slated to be discussed during a June 15 House Finance Committee hearing, " would allow the attorney general to require anyone selling a noncommercial station to a commercial broadcaster to pay a ‘conversion fee’ based on donations and other revenue the station had received in prior years, " according to a statement by FOSPR. " The legislation also defines a strong role for the state attorney general in such conversions. "

Don Wineberg, a lawyer who helped to write the bill, says the effort was meant to ensure that WRNI " isn’t sold with all of the resources just going back up to Boston, " if the General Assembly is out of session when Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch concludes a review of the station’s finances. Mihaly, during an earlier interview, added, " That is the key point. We’re protecting a Rhode Island asset, and we’re doing it because we must. "

The arrival of WRNI in 1998 ended the Ocean State’s status as one of only two states without its own public radio station. But after pledging to build a vital news-and-information presence, WBUR steadily cut WRNI’s local content and staff before abruptly revealing plans last September to sell the station. The stormy reaction of WRNI boosters led Boston University to suspend plans for the sale.

Sterling, who previously declined to detail BU’s efforts to preserve public radio in Rhode Island – citing Lynch’s ongoing fiscal review – says a lawyer hired by BU saw only a preliminary version of the bill and was not informed of plans for the Finance Committee hearing.

Mihaly estimates that Rhode Islanders invested $3.5 million – " perhaps much more " – to bring an NPR station here. Over the last two months, FOSPR made a proposal to BU in which it would enter into a management agreement for the operation of WRNI, with an option to buy, he says, but BU has declined to meet to discuss it, citing the ongoing nature of Lynch’s review. Mihaly says BU simultaneously offered the station to Bryant University, which decided not to pursue the offer.

Supporters of the companion bill in both chambers of the legislature include House Majority Leader Gordon Fox and Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Paiva-Weed.

Lynch, who told the Phoenix in late March that he expected his fiscal review of WRNI to conclude shortly, says it has been slowed by the receipt of additional audits from BU and may not be complete until the end of summer.

Before Sterling revealed BU and WBUR’s new posture, FOSPR expressed hopes of emulating New Hampshire’s approach to public radio, in which a number of different frequencies broadcast the same content to different corners of the state.

Issue Date: June 14, 2005
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