Friday, June 10, 2011

WDUQ-ing It Out


OK, before we get into the WDUQ story, let's develop a little timeline:

1949 - The station begins as a Duquesne student-run classical music outlet.
1952 - Hourly newscasts begin.
1969 - First jazz show broadcast, a live local set.
1971 - The station becomes a charter member of NPR.
1972 - Power increases from 2,750 watts to 25,000.
1972 - WDUQ broadcasts first "All Things Considered" show.
1989 - In addition to several NPR shows, daytime jazz debuts.
1997 - JazzWorks begins.
2005 - New transmitter built on Mt. Washington; four "translator" stations added to network.
2006 - Multiple HD channels offered for jazz, news, blues.
2007 - WQED carries Planned Parenthood ads, which does not sit well with the good fathers of Duquesne, who ordered them removed.  Independent station, hey?
2009 - Duquesne starts looking for a buyer for the station, citing WDUQ's independence from the university.

And that started the ball rolling.  Led by WDUQ GM Scott Hanley, WDUQ employees and supporters, under the banner of Pittsburgh Public Media (PPM), threw their hat into the ownership ring. Public Radio Capital, a Colorado non-profit, came aboard as consultants to help broker the deal.  PPM offered $6.5M for the station during negotiations.

Then the foundations (The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation in the lead) bought a 60-day delaying option on the sale process to evaluate what was going on with the ol' public radio station.  They weren't fans of the status quo, and hired Charlie Humphrey, a local non-profit fiscal and organizational go-to guy, to explore creating a next-generation public media news service, something that Pittsburgh lacked.

It took 30 days to figure out that none of the local players were willing to take on supporting an all-news public station and an outside entity would have to be found or created. WYEP and Public Radio Capital, the former partners of PPM, joined forces. They offered $6M to make WDUQ a full-time NPR outlet; Duquesne took it, to the jeers and tears of Pittsburgh's jazz fans.

As you can see from the timeline, NPR and jazz coexisted for decades at WDUQ; that doesn't mean that the alliance was easy. The station is a nice news source locally; its website hosts one of the better daily news capsules around here, and it was a charter member of the NPR network. It's also the last holdout in a City that is synonymous with great jazz, and hosts programming that is syndicated through 60 other stations. Its jazz impresario, Tony Mowod, is also the founder of the Pittsburgh Jazz Society.

But jazz is a niche musical market. Just look at how many local clubs have folded and much infighting there is even among the fans; be-bop and fusion cats are unquestionably from different planets. People love their oldies, too, but how often do the classic rock stations change formats, and who airs doo-wop anymore except mom-and-pop shops?

The truth is that Duquesne has subsidized WDUQ throughout its existence. The amount they've pumped into the station is confidential but thought to be in the neighborhood of $200,000 -$500,000 in recent years. Both sides realized that the foundation community would be the key to WDUQ's eventual format, and rest assured that the grant-makers are pretty steely-eyed when it comes to the bottom line.

WDUQ is the fourteenth rated Arbitron station in the region, and so is a fairly valuable asset. It's also funded by underwriters and membership, and the foundations saw the NPR model as the better blueprint to cut into that revenue gap that Duquesne filled. So it's easy enough to see why they selected a NPR format; just follow the money, and a full-time NPR service is the superior cash cow.

They left six hours per week out of an original 100 for jazz. They'll also have a 24/7 dedicated HD channel and online stream of jazz programming as a sop for the fans, who are taking their chagrin to the FCC. That's just a delaying tactic; the FCC doesn't involve itself in format spats.

So here's the end result: Duquesne has rid itself of a deficit operation and will get a financial infusion sufficient to endow a couple of chairs. Pittsburgh will join the major markets with a full-time NPR news and information station, and that changeover has resulted in increased, not declining, membership in other regions. Jazz followers get the short end of the stick, and can be expected to vote with their radio dials.

Goodbye WDUQ, hello NPR.

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