The Sale of UDC’s Radio Outlet Raises Concerns About the Future of Campus Stations
Last fall, Davey Yarborough, jazz studies director at the Duke
Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., was prepping the
members of his youth orchestra for an upcoming performance. He was
trying to teach them a little-known Duke Ellington tune called
“Daybreak Express,” but the students were missing the expressive
nuances the great composer intended.
Yarborough knew that the sheet music wasn’t enough. He had to find a
recording of the piece. He called the Smithsonian Institution and found
that it had transcribed the music, but didn’t have a copy of the
In fact, he couldn’t find a copy of the recording anywhere in the
city until he called WDCU-FM, Washington, D.C.’s all-jazz public radio
station housed on the campus of the University of the District of
WDCU, whose mission is to play jazz and report on local public
affairs, has the fourth-largest Black audience of any public radio
outlet in the country, according to the Corporation for Public
“Without WDCU, I’m not sure we’d have performed the piece,” says
Yarborough, a saxophonist, who has gained international accolades as
both a musician and educator. “I always say that 35 percent of teaching
jazz is listening. With WDCU, my students have unrestricted access to
one of the best listening libraries in the country.”
That’s important, says Yarborough, because neither the school –
which is part of D.C.’s cash-strapped public school system – nor the
majority of his students have the resources to purchase music on their
own. Over the past fifteen years, the station has become a hands-on lab
for students to develop broadcasting, programming, and business
So when UDC trustees announced in June that they would sell the
station to a nonprofit arm of one of the nation’s largest Christian
broadcasters, Salem Communications, for $13 million, loyal listeners
and educators like Yarborough were outraged.
“It is one of the most short-sighted moves I’ve ever seen by a
university,” Yarborough says. “What self-respecting university would
sell its library or computer lab because it faced financial problems?”
Salem eventually backed out of the deal. Insiders said the company
feared its purchase of WDCU would be delayed indefinitely as several
groups – including Save Jazz 90 (a community group opposed to the sale)
National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting –
filed challenges against Salem’s FCC application for a license.
Salem transferred its right to purchase WDCU to C-SPAN. John
Maynard, a spokesman for C-SPAN, says the new station will air
congressional hearings and other national public interest programming.
There are no plans to include jazz music or local community service
shows on any C-SPAN-owned station, he says.
It also is unlikely the FCC will attempt to interfere with C-SPAN’s
$13 million purchase of the license, experts say. C-SPAN initially had
entered a bid of $10 million.
Show Me the Money
Yarborough is joined by scores of other educators, station managers
and public radio advocates – including UDC trustee, Frances Murphy –
who fear that mega-buck transactions such as that involving WDCU
undermine the core mission of public universities. These critics
contend that the unprecedented price for a noncommercial station is a
clear signal to other well-heeled broadcasters that they can entice
financially feeble municipal or university licensees with attractive
“[At any time] there could be a dozen or two dozen stations, where,
if the right offer was made at the right time to the right person, it
would be seriously entertained by folks who hold the license,” says Tom
Thomas of the Station Resource Group (SRG), a prominent public radio
The offer for WDCU was five to ten times what its license and
physical assets were thought to be worth, suggesting new levels of the
perceived market values of public stations nationwide. If WDCU can
invite offers of up to $13 million, other public universities which
have seen their budgets severely slashed at the state and federal
levels over the past several years will likely opt for the cash, some
At Texas Southern University in Houston, George Thomas, general
manager for campus jazz and public information station KTSU-FM, also
has received offers. The university has its own “financial challenges,”
according to Thomas, but “the offers have not been accepted.”
KTSU has implemented other survival measures, such as changing its
jazz format to “smooth jazz” during drive times to broaden its audience
and attract additional sponsors. KTSU, established twenty-five years
ago, boasts one of the top-rated [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] listening
audiences in the market – including a No. 1 share on Sundays – and is
less vulnerable because the campus president. James M. Douglas, is
“pro-KTSU,” maintains Thomas.
FCC regulations preclude reserved frequencies such as those held by
many campus stations from being sold as commercial enterprises.
However, there is nothing to prevent them from being incorporated into
the nonprofit arm of a religious broadcaster who could make a whopping
profit by transferring an existing, donation-based commercial service
to the newly acquired one and selling the unreserved station.
Campus Radio and the Black Community
The relationship between public college radio stations and their
surrounding communities is steeped in history, says Jerry Carter, North
Carolina Central University’s WNCU-FM program director and a member of
the university’s mass communications faculty. Although his station
wasn’t licensed until 1995, it was under development for nearly three
“The alumni of the [1960s and 1970s] fought to form these stations,”
says Carter, who helped start WVST-FM at Virginia State University in
1987. “They protested because they wanted radio stations for their
children in the future. and now is the future. Most college radio
stations never would have gotten their licenses without first proving
the link between the university’s mission and the station’s mission.”
Today, there are campus radio stations on twenty-eight historically Black college and university campuses. (See sidebar)
“At WNCU, my students learn radio programming and broadcasting, and
they learn how to run a million-dollar business. I’m not just teaching
them college radio, I’m teaching them radio, period. When they leave
here, they can go anywhere in the country. I make sure of that,” says
Carter. “As a learning platform, the station is as important to the
university as the law school, the medical school, the nursing school.
It is the focal point of the community.”
With the exception of people participating in the Save Jazz 90
campaign, the surrounding community has been virtually silent about the
sale of WDCU. That silence is a reflection of the weak relationship the
station had with the community, some observers say.
“It is significant that the trustees fail to see the community
service the radio station provides as central to the university’s
mission,” said Dan Logan, founder of Save Jazz 90.
Robert Pederson, former executive assistant to former UDC President
Ralph Cortada, was a consultant at Bradley University in Illinois when
its radio station was under fire recently. He says that station
survived because of community support.
However Pederson warns, “When WAMU goes against the wall, it will [now] have one less ally.”
“College radio stations will need to reach out more to the community
and develop those relationships if they are to survive.” says Kelley
Cunningham, executive director of the National Association for College
Broadcasters. “It will be important for them to broaden their funding
base as well.”
Handwriting on the Wall
Station Manager Scott Mearns, of KUOP-FM at the University of the
Pacific in Stockton, California, does not believe his station is
vulnerable to purchase. However, he does believe that the pending sale
of WDCU for such a high price is the handwriting on the wall for
noncommercial radio sales.
Mearns believes that as Congress continues to loosen the rules about
the buying and selling of these stations, groups who understand the
value of a broadcast frequency will expand and more non-traditional
buyers who are willing to pay high prices for them will enter the
“Unfortunately in these financially difficult times, some university
officials are bound to sell their stations because they don’t recognize
the value of their asset as a training tool and community service,”
Mearns said. “It’s much harder to see that side of the picture than the
While the demise of WDCU is apparently a done deal, there are
obvious lessons for everyone who professes an interest in the arts,
says popular WDCU disc jockey Candy Shannon.
“Part of our tragic situation is that people have called in to show
their support in these last days, but that wasn’t always reflected in
the giving,” Shannon says, noting that the station’s annual financial
intake was under $100,000.
“If we had been a $500,000-a-year membership station, perhaps the
trustees would have thought differently about selling it – I just don’t
know. But I do know that they didn’t sell WDCU because it was costing
the university money. In fact, we weren’t dismal in terms of other
parts of the university.”
Moreover, UDC did no financial development for the radio station, Shannon says.
“There were no chairs underwritten, no radio programs…. There was
never much apparent interest on the part of the administration,” she
“The real tragedy is that there was so much more this station could
have accomplished,” she continues. “It could have been used to get
instruments into children’s hands, to meet so many needs of the
community. We’ve sold our soul to save what? This station was not
considered important enough to save, and that’s a shame.”
Free-lance writer Giselle Lancaster contributed to this article.
RELATED ARTICLE: UDC Out of Options?
Battling an $80 million budget deficit at the beginning of the year,
the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), the District’s only
open-enrollment institution, laid off hundreds of faculty and staff,
reduced retirement benefits and raised tuition. After these
cost-cutting measures, which included axing one-third of its personnel,
the university still faced a deficit of more than $10 million.
The perception that the university’s fiscal crisis is the result of
mismanagement at UDC is wrong, says Philip Brach, UDC’s manager of
facilities. “We were managing fine,” he says, “but then the rules
UDC was founded as a free public post-secondary institution.
Initially, virtually all of its funding came from the government; now,
less than half comes from public sources a decline from $78 million to
$36 million in five years, Brach says.
Michele Hagans, chairwoman of the trustee board, says UDC had few
options after the District’s congressionally appointed Financial
Control Board ordered it to close its $10.1 million budget gap by Sept.
“The education of 5,000 students is far more important than the
radio station,” she says. “We struggle to keep the doors of this
university open. If there were something else to be done, I don’t think
there’s a trustee sitting on the board who wouldn’t have done it….
There’s nothing left to take out of the university.”
But fellow trustee, Frances Murphy, disagrees. The lone dissenter on
the board, Murphy contended that there were other options, such as
selling vacant buildings.
“We should have tried harder to sell the real estate,” she said at a
July board meeting. “This was a rush job. When we sell WDCU, we sell
the face of the university. This is the best vehicle we have for
getting the university’s message to the community. This is a one-time
deal. And it’s shortsighted.”
Brach says that UDC’s other holdings may not be as lucrative or as
easy to sell as they seem. Of the five major properties UDC owns, the
Carnegie Building is the most valuable. It would be worth about $15
million under normal circumstances, but because the university is
“under financial duress,” Brach says it would probably only sell for
about $5 million. Complicating matters further, the Carnegie Building
rests on federally owned land.
Another property, the Mather Building, would need major renovations
prior to any sale. In Brach’s opinion, it would probably only sell for
about $1 million.
The university’s three other available properties – the Wilson
Building, the Brooks Mansion, and the Nicholson Street property – are
worth far less. The city owns other properties that have been deeded to
UDC, but, Brach says it is unclear whether any proceeds from the sale
of these properties would go to UDC.
Robert Pederson, former executive assistant to former UDC President
Ralph Cortada, believes that both local and national factors have
influenced the financial problems at UDC. He said that on the local
level, the problem centers on the District’s narrow tax base. The
public college receives nine times more money from the District
government than it does from the federal government. UDC receives more
than seven times as much money from the District government as it gets
from its next highest money generator – tuition and fees.
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