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FCC approves WBRU FM signal sale to Christian nonprofit

Paxson P’19 in communication with station to ask them to consider selling signal to RIPR instead

By
Senior Reporter
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Federal Communications Commission announced its approval of the transfer of WBRU’s license Tuesday, an unexpected twist that will likely complicate any lingering efforts to avert the sale.

The announcement comes only a day after President Christina Paxson P’19 emailed WBRU staff and board members Monday urging them to consider an alternate plan that would see the station’s signal sold to Rhode Island Public Radio, according to Paxsons’ email, obtained by The Herald.

The FCC-approved sale, a $5.63 million deal that will see the station’s FM signal transferred to the California-based Christian contemporary nonprofit Educational Media Foundation, has proven controversial amongst not only station staff and members of the board, but also station alums and members of the University administration.

Paxson has been in communication with station members throughout internal debate about the sale, according to various emails between WBRU staff members obtained by The Herald. Before the station voted to continue with the sale, Paxson offered the station a $600,000 direct line of credit from the University and assistance with fundraising, according to internal documents. Monday’s email caps off a months-long effort by Paxson to prevent the sale of the station. But Brian Clark, director of news and editorial development, wrote in an email to The Herald that Paxson maintains the student leaders’ autonomy and right to self-determination.

“RIPR management believes that … (with the public radio’s support), WBRU would be able to benefit from the continued utilization of its spot on the broadcast spectrum in a sustainable manner,” Paxson wrote in the email to station members. “This is a proposal worthy of your consideration.”

The alternate proposal has been floated as a possibility for some years, said Bill Lichtenstein ’78, a station alum advocating for this proposal. Lichtenstein has been involved in recent efforts to save the station, launching the website SAVEWBRU and discussing the station’s options with representatives from both WBRU and the University.

“The idea was that RIPR could operate the station as a commercial student workshop, and the students could have use of the station to broadcast,” Lichtenstein said, adding that he discussed the issue with Torey Malatia, president, chief executive office and general manager of RIPR, and obtained his support for this possiblity.

Malatia said he initially expressed concern about the financial burden of purchasing the signal but said that the offer of financial aid from the University made the plan feasible. “We don’t need to make money,” Malatia said. “We just want to help.”

Student station members authorized the sale of the FM signal in April after two rounds of contentious voting, seemingly ending a prolonged debate over the station’s future. Members of the board along with WBRU General Manager Kishanee Haththotuwegama ’19 have been advocating for a sale, and the only alternative considered would have pushed WBRU as a commercial radio station. Lichtenstein’s plan, on the other hand, focuses on WBRU’s nonprofit status, he said.

In a press release announcing the approval, Haththotuwegama praised the approval, calling it a “critical and near-final step in the transfer of the license.”

Though approval makes the sale more likely, it is not yet set in stone. The Educational Media Foundation has been leasing WBRU’s signal while it awaits approval for a transfer. Even with approval, a transfer cannot be completed until the deal’s closing, said Art Norwalk, a WBRU spokesperson. He added that he did not know when funds from the deal would be made available for station use.

Lichtenstein has not been deterred by the announcement of the FCC’s approval.

“My understanding is that it is not a done deal until the deal is actually closed, and the station has been saying that could be as late as December,” Lichtenstein wrote in an email to The Herald. “Until that happens, I don’t think it changes anything. It doesn’t change Brown’s or RIPR’s interest in discussing the alternative to selling the station with the board or, more importantly, with the students.”

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