Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Robust Debate. Really?

WDUQ delay option is rare solution in public radio: "Mr. King, a Pittsburgh Foundation board member and co-director of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media, said local foundations want to use media to generate robust debate about important issues such as reforming public schools, improving Pittsburgh's air quality and the environmental impact of drilling for natural gas.

They are putting their money where their mouths are, at least in this 'option.'

Mr. King, I'd be happy to do a 3-hour per week radio show on the new WDUQ. It will be called, "Take Your Mark." It will be robust and deal with all things Pittsburgh, as I and * see em. (The * is a wildcard in computer-speak / shell language that means anything and everything.)

With the necessary support, I'd be willing to host and manage a 3-hour show six days per week.

By the way, the Pittsburgh journalism scene is frail and often tilted to the side of being a tool for the nonprofit weenies, err, wonks. It is weak. The watchdogs have been in a deep slumber too often.

But, the way to counter that situation of a weak journalism infrastructure is to make our own. We are the watchdogs today.

Of course, there are times when they get it right, or they get it covered at all. When that happens, I cheer and let them know too.

WDUQ was a nice outlet. If it goes away, it will be missed. Honz, not so much, God bless his soul.

Let's talk about reforming Pittsburgh schools. Let's talk about raising our kids here. Let's talk about city hall politics. Let's talk about elections and have candidate debates -- before the smear campaigns begin. Let's talk about grass-roots issues and how to keep our city authentic. Let's talk about the bazaar and open source software solutions. Let's make wiki pages, on the air. Let's empower with social networking too.

WDUQ delay option is rare solution in public radio
Monday, May 10, 2010
By Marylynne Pitz and Adrian McCoy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Last week's move by four Pittsburgh foundations to buy a 60-day option on the WDUQ-FM noncommercial license is "a bold, proactive form of philanthropy," said Maxwell King, former head of The Heinz Endowments.

Along with Grant Oliphant, president of The Pittsburgh Foundation, leaders of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and an anonymous foundation gave what amounts to hand money to Duquesne University, which put the noncommercial license up for sale late last year.

The foundations' option purchase delays for 60 days any sale of the noncommercial license for WDUQ, a news and jazz station that began operating in 1949. Duquesne University, which would like to get up to $10 million for the license and channel the funds into educational improvements, has received four bids. WDUQ-FM's format consists of National Public Radio news, jazz programs and local reporting.

Mr. Oliphant made it clear last week that he and his colleagues are not interested in owning a noncommercial radio license but merely to ensure the station's future.

Mr. King, a Pittsburgh Foundation board member and co-director of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media, said local foundations want to use media to generate robust debate about important issues such as reforming public schools, improving Pittsburgh's air quality and the environmental impact of drilling for natural gas.

"The Marcellus Shale is going to have a huge impact on Western Pennsylvania," Mr. King said about gas drilling along the 95,000-square-mile formation that stretches over several states. "I don't think the public is very engaged in what the Marcellus Shale may mean to Western Pennsylvania."

Before leading the Heinz Endowments, Mr. King was editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. He, like Mr. Oliphant, sees the sale of WDUQ as an opportunity to explore how to preserve public service journalism in the region.

"We've got some great newspaper journalism happening in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, compared to many other American cities, has a pretty robust journalism scene," Mr. King acknowledged.

But the question is, "How can the tools of information dissemination be made more effective at driving the public discourse in Pittsburgh? It makes complete sense for the Pittsburgh Foundation to be looking at how electronic media can be used to advance a dialogue."

Erik Langner, a lawyer and director of acquisitions for Public Radio Capital, a nonprofit that has handled more than $250 million in deals for public radio stations since 2001, said, "It is nearly unprecedented for a market of Pittsburgh's size to face the potential loss of its NPR news station."

Based in Boulder, Colo., the nonprofit helps preserve existing public radio signals and finds opportunities to expand public radio formats in new markets.

"There have been larger stations sold, but they've been done in a way where there was no risk that the format was going to change," he said.

While he has never seen four foundations take the step they did in Pittsburgh, it's quite common for philanthropies to play a key part in galvanizing communities to preserve public radio stations, he said.

In other deals, many foundations have been "critical, especially in the early stages, for funding and vision and building and preserving public radio services."

The foundations' purchase of a 60-day option on the license -- a period in which Duquesne University promises not to sell the station -- alters the landscape for all potential buyers.

"They bought us 60 days and any other potential bidder 60 days. We all feel that given the time to raise the money, we can," said Joe Kelly, president of the advisory board for Pittsburgh Public Media, a local nonprofit established to try to preserve DUQ's NPR and jazz format.

Asked whether the Pittsburgh Foundation will hold a public forum or town hall meeting to elicit community input, Mr. Oliphant said all the details of the process haven't yet been mapped out.

In the short term, the foundations have tapped Charlie Humphrey, executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Pittsburgh Glass Center, to develop a plan.

The most important question, Mr. Humphrey said, is, "What does the best news and information public radio station look like? It has to take into account what current listeners and potential listeners want. You can't create a top-down, authoritarian model."

Bridget Fare, a Duquesne University spokeswoman, said the school "agreed to the two-month period in which we won't negotiate or make decisions so that the foundations have an opportunity to put forth a bid. It's in Pittsburgh's -- and Duquesne's -- best interest to allow all interested parties ample opportunity. Other parties can submit proposals during the two-month period, but the university won't act on them.

"From the very beginning, we have understood the keen community interest in the station's future. We've worked closely with the Pittsburgh Foundation in engaging Public Radio Capital to explore ways to keep the format ... and so naturally when they, along with the other foundations, came forward, we agreed to give them time.

"Hopefully a proposal will result that will address the community's desire to keep the format, while at the same time recognizing Duquesne's obligation in ensuring the maximum benefit for our students."

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648. Adrian McCoy: or 412-263-1865.

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