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[March 23, 2007]
R.I. group to buy WRNI
(Providence Journal, The (RI) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Mar. 23--WRNI-AM, Rhode Island's National Public Radio station, has announced a series of moves that will transfer the station's license from Boston University to a group of local public radio supporters, who will also purchase a second station in Narragansett that will allow WRNI's programming to cover nearly the entire state.
WRNI currently broadcasts at 1290 AM, with a second signal coming from WXNI-AM (1230) in Westerly. Both stations are currently owned by Boston University.
H. Joseph O'Connor Jr., general manager of WRNI, said Boston University will sell WRNI to a local nonprofit organization, Rhode Island Public Radio, formerly the Foundation for Ocean State Public Radio, for $2 million, to be paid over a 10-year period. O'Connor said the official transfer of ownership, pending federal and state approval, should take place around July 1.
"The university has increasingly realized that if public radio in Rhode Island is to achieve what all of us would like it to, it should be under the trusteeship of local ownership," said Paul La Camera, general manager of WBUR-FM, WRNI's parent station.
This announcement comes 2 1/2 years after Boston University shocked and angered local public radio supporters by announcing it planned to sell WRNI, whether or not the buyer planned to keep it a public radio station.
"This historic agreement ensures that Rhode Islanders will control the destiny of the important media outlet ... RIPR [Rhode Island Public Radio] is thrilled to bring WRNI home," said Eugene Mihaly, president of Rhode Island Public Radio.
At the same time it is assuming ownership of WRNI, Rhode Island Public Radio announced plans to buy a second station, WAKX-FM, 102.7, from the Davidson Media Group, using a $2.65-million loan from the Rhode Island Foundation to be repaid over 15 years.
The transmitter for WAKX, which currently broadcasts jazz, is in Narragansett. O'Connor said the WAKX signal will reach key parts of the state that had been unable to receive WRNI, including South County, East Greenwich, Jamestown and Newport. That will leave only part of western Rhode Island unable to get WRNI programming.
Peter Davidson, president of Davidson Media Group LLC, confirmed the sale of WAKX. In a joint news release, Boston University and Rhode Island Public Radio estimated the acquisition of WAKX would be completed in about 60 days.
Craig Rapoza, who leases WAKX from Davidson Media, said he plans to move the station's jazz programming to WALE-AM (990).
Once WAKX is broadcasting WRNI programming, La Camera said, the Westerly station WXNI-AM will no longer be needed. So Boston University plans to sell it and subtract the proceeds from the $2 million that Rhode Island Public Radio will owe.
University officials estimated that WXNI is worth between $300,000 and $400,000.
La Camera said Boston University, which has assessed the value of WRNI and WXNI at about $3 million, has also agreed to supply WRNI with programming, engineering and accounting assistance for five years.
"We would love to receive full value for those two properties, but that would have crippled public radio in Rhode Island," La Camera said. "The university feels an obligation to Rhode Island."
Rhode Island Public Radio must still repay Boston University and the Rhode Island Foundation. Mihaly said the organization will begin a capital campaign soon, adding that the improved signal should enable Rhode Island Public Radio to find new contributors in places such as Newport and East Greenwich.
"There's a risk, but it's a reasonable risk," said O'Connor. "Hopefully, as Rhode Islanders realize this is their station, and more people are able to find us, we'll see more revenue."
O'Connor, who won five Emmy awards as a producer for ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel, came to WRNI last June.
His ultimate goal, he said at the time, is to create a robust station with strong local programming. But O'Connor said his first priority was to improve WRNI's signal. "I've got to get the whole state. It couldn't be a higher priority. I need that coverage," he said.
In an interview last week, O'Connor said he had "a summit" on Feb. 1 in Providence with representatives of Boston University, the Foundation for Ocean State Public Radio and the Rhode Island Foundation.
"I was astonished at how quickly the numbers came together," he said. "Everyone wanted to make this happen."
Ronald V. Gallo, president of the Rhode Island Foundation, said the foundation was an early supporter of public radio in the state, donating about $500,000 to the station since 1998. WRNI rents studio and office space in the foundation's headquarters at One Union Station in downtown Providence.
WRNI began in 1998, after Boston University had purchased WCRP-AM in Providence and WERI-AM in Westerly for about $2.3 million. According to figures obtained by The Providence Journal, The WRNI Foundation, the BU-controlled entity that held the license for WRNI, ran a $9.4-million deficit between 1999 and 2003.
When former WBUR general manager Jane Christo announced plans to sell WRNI in 2004, it galvanized public radio supporters in the state. In late September of 2004, plans to sell WRNI were put on hold at the request of Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch.
By June, 2005, Boston University announced it would not sell WRNI after all. At about the same time, the General Assembly passed the Public Radio Conversions Act, which would give Lynch the authority to determine whether an ownership change at a public radio station serves the public interest. If he determines it does not, he can require the new ownership to pay a "conversion fee."
Yesterday, Lynch said he has not been formally notified of the changes at WRNI, although he expects that will happen soon. After that, he will analyze the proposed transactions and give a decision as quickly as possible, although he couldn't say exactly how long it would take.
"It's wonderful to be at this point in the process, but at the same time I have to do my job under the law," Lynch said.
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