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Commentary ::
Public Radio: For Sale to Highest Bidder?
22 Sep 2004
Public radio is being given away to a corporate newspaper in Lowell, MA.
It is not uncommon to read stories about media consolidation nowadays, with companies like Clear Channel and Entercom buying up small radio and TV stations and distributing their content across these various outlets, and making a hefty profit while they're at it. In the case of Clear Channel type consolidation, the company is going after small commercial stations. In Lowell, a similar situation is taking place but in this case it involves a corporation going after a non-commercial station. The corporation is MediaNews Group, owner of the Lowell Sun and the radio station is our own WUML, a small non-commercial radio station owned by the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. MediaNews is a newspaper investment company, with newspaper holdings across the country, as well as 4 radio stations. In FY 2003, the company totaled $738,598,000 in revenues from their varied holdings.

In the winter of 2002-2003, UMass Chancellor William Hogan was reportedly approached by William Bulger's office with a request that he find ways to "utilize the University's communications outlets to their fullest extent." Realizing that UML had a Class 1 FM radio station right here on campus, with the potential to reach over 2.2 million people, the solution was obvious: use WUML (then WJUL). In February, negotiations were begun between the University and the Lowell Sun newspaper which culminated in the creation of a "morning drive time show", which would air between the hours of 5am and 10am, five days a week. The members of WUML were not a party in these negotiations. In July an agreement was signed handing over the 25 hours per week of air time to the Lowell Sun, despite the strong disapproval of WUML.

WUML is a 53 year old, student run radio station, financed through student activity funds. During the summer of 2003, the elected student board of directors of WUML was told by then Lowell Sun editor Kevin Keane "We view this is another opportunity for the students, not a roadblock. The Sun has no plans to take over control of the station." Kevin Keane no longer works at the Sun. But since the Lowell Sun is owned by the Colorado based MediaNews Group this statement is, at best, an irrelevant exercise in wishful thinking. According to MediaNews Group's annual report to shareholders, the company seeks to "explore new and innovative ways to leverage our content across multiple platforms with a clear focus toward developing profitable new revenue streams." These two statements seem incongruous at best, and deeply disturbing to most WUML members and supporters. Yet Kendall Wallace, the current publisher of the Sun, stated in an editorial "We also get a kick out of those who want to bash our corporate ties to MediaNews in Denver, claiming they are behind this plan to expand to radio." Well, if that is the case, why does MediaNews and not the Lowell Sun or their non-profit hold the copyright license for "Lowell Sunrise", the name of the Sun's morning program? As powerful as Mr. Wallace is at the Lowell Sun, he is subordinate to the wishes of the management and stockholders of MediaNews Group.

Wallace has also said "having a quality public radio station interested in promoting the region and the university is a real plus. . . it's a win-win for all of us." Yet the students of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell have yet to see how they are winning. The title of this article is even a bit misleading (but very catchy), because this proposal was not put out to bid, but rather given away for free. The agreement signed between the University and the Sun stipulates that the Sun must contribute $40,000 to the school yearly, but that money does not go to the radio station. The money is used by the University to hire a "Broadcast Assistant ", who works for the Communications and Marketing department. His position is completely separate from WUML, and his main job task is to produce University and Sports content for the Sun's morning program. The agreement also says that the Sun will "assist the University with plans and funding to create a satellite production studio." This has yet to happen, and no guarantees have been made.

In order to be able to use their show to its full extent, the Lowell Sun could not do underwriting without being a non-profit. So they established Lowell Community Broadcasting (LCB), a non-profit, charitable organization based in Lowell at 15 Kearney Square (The same address as The Sun). This organization was established on November 25th, 2003, two months after the Sun had begun broadcasting. Kendall Wallace, the president of LCB, addressed concern about this issue by assuring that the board would be comprised of wide community representation, including UMass Lowell officials and alumni. The board is currently comprised of; Kendall Wallace (President of the Sun), Carmen Bellerose (Comptroller of the Sun), and Judy Pigeon (Wife of a Sun Photographer). Employees who work on the Sunrise morning program are paid by LCB, and those who do work for the radio program who are not paid by LCB are mostly Sun employees. This does not seem compatible with one of the last parts of the agreement between UML and the Sun, which states "This agreement may not be assigned by either party without the express written approval of the other party." When asked about this, UML administration seemed to think this section was unimportant, despite giving the Sun the ability to shift liabilities and finances without the knowledge of UML.

By establishing their non-profit organization, the Sun is able to accept underwriting money from Enterprise Bank and Trust, the Lowell Five Savings Bank, Jeanne D'Arc Credit Union, and others, most of whom are frequently featured advertisers on the front page of the Sun. It has yet to be disclosed how much money they are making with their underwriting.

The value of the show to the Sun is not gained simply by the money received from underwriters, but in the promotional value of the radio time itself. The show, other than weather and traffic reports, is almost entirely made up of Sun reporters giving in-depth coverage of stories that are in the day's paper. This fits in with the goals of MediaNews Group, as it contributes to their ability to portray their newspaper as the only source for local information available. In addition to having Sun reporters promote their articles, there is also a headlines segment that runs twice an hour that is nothing more than reading the headlines of the Sun's daily newspaper. These headlines are read by Ryan Sullivan, son of Lowell Sun editor Paul Sullivan. At the end of each reading of the daily headlines and some of the feature stories, it is stated that "You can read about these stories and more in today's Sunrise edition of the Lowell Sun." This appears to cross the line between non-commercial and commercial broadcasting since in order to read “these stories and more” in the Lowell Sun one must buy the paper. This is at best questionable, as the FCC rules regarding advertising on non-commercial radio stations state that announcements containing a call to action are not permissible.

It is somewhat understandable why the University would want to use a company like the Sun in order to help promote the school. The budget for the UMass system is being slashed, and this is leading to tough times at all public schools. The school needed to find new, innovative ways to use their facilities to generate more revenue and increase admissions in order to maintain its status as a quality public institution of higher learning. By making a deal with the Sun, the school was able to present itself as a professional provider of news.

There were many other avenues open to the school, since a radio station is a very valuable promotional resource. One of the problems was how the station was viewed by the administration. They were respectful of the student's right to use the station, but did not fully see why they were attracted to it. WUML is a place that has a mission of being an alternative to mainstream media, and accomplishes this goal by only playing music and news not commonly heard on commercial radio. It is a place where the local immigrant community can have a voice. It is a place where equality and diversity are the top priorities. Professionalism is on our list of priorities, but it is certainly not at the top of the list. This is very appealing to many incoming students, but the station has never been heavily promoted during the admissions process. The station is a strong supporter of public education, and I'm sure that WUML could work with the University to help promote the school in a number of innovative ways. Our only requirement is that the students be given a meaningful role in the process and that we are not put in a position that would compromise our values and the traditions and culture of WUML that have been passed from one generation of students to the next over the last fifty years

The mission statement for the University Of Massachusetts, Lowell states that the University seeks to provide quality, affordable, widely available higher education, and to "discover, integrate, and transmit knowledge for the benefit of the Commonwealth and the good of society." "Recognizing its role as a public institution, the University is committed to active involvement in community service through instruction, research, consulting, cultural events, and continuing education." The University has even devoted a graduate program to the study of Regional Economic and Social Development. But these factors, these obligations to the people of Massachusetts, did not seem to affect their decision to give away time on WUML. We are grateful to the state of Massachusetts for the honor of being responsible for our tiny slice of public radio spectrum, but we must respectfully disagree with our University's decision to give the Lowell Sun time on our radio station. I use the term "our" in referring not only to the students of UMass Lowell, but to the surrounding communities. WUML/WJUL/WLTI has a 50+ year history of being involved with the local community. Although the station license is not owned by the community, UMass students have long understood that the surrounding community is a vital part of the station. We are disappointed that the University did not choose to help us strengthen our current ties to the community. In doing so, they might have been able to promote the University as much, if not much more, than the Sunrise program is currently doing. We would still like to see the University help us establish stronger links in the community, but it is not an endeavor we wish to embark upon with the Lowell Sun. Because that's what non-commercial public radio is supposed to do; serve the public, not the interests of a large for-profit company.

MediaNews Group 2003 Annual Filing
-Article in Lowell Sun, July 31st 2003, "Sun, UMass Lowell on same wavelength" by Susan McMahon
-Form 10-K Annual Report
-Article in Lowell Sun, "Sun, Umass Lowell join for local radio program" by Susan McMahon
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