Public radio stations WKSU and WCPN consider merger, sources say

Kent State University is considering a merger of its public radio station with another public broadcaster in Cleveland, according to several people familiar with the station’s operations.

Kent State University spokesman Eric Mansfield has not confirmed a report that the university’s board will vote next week on a merger between Kent State radio station WKSU ( 89.7 FM) and WCPN nonprofit from Ideastream (90.3 FM).

Instead, he referred to a $ 100,000 “grant for collaborative operations and services” the two stations received last year.

“In August, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarded a grant to explore opportunities for growth and expansion of public media in Northeast Ohio,” he said. “This analysis has identified potential opportunities for Ideastream and WKSU, and we continue to examine those possibilities …

“Both entities recognize the need to strengthen public service reporting in Northeast Ohio, and we continue to discuss ways to leverage these two strong public media organizations for the benefit of listeners in the region.”

Messages left at Ideastream were not returned and Mansfield declined to comment further.

The agenda for the September 22 KSU Board meeting will be posted on Monday.

Projects under construction

People familiar with the station’s operations say a plan for collaboration has been discussed for months.

Elizabeth Bartz, a former member of the WKSU Community Advisory Board, said WKSU Chief Executive Officer Wendy Turner told the board in May that “there had been discussions with Ideastream about a possible merger. because 15 hours of their programming was duplicating every day and that’s a lot of money going to NPR. “

“She said it was about having more resources so that they could have more reporters to do more stories,” Bartz said.

Turner did not immediately respond to a message requesting comment.

Two former CEOs of WKSU also said they were told that merger plans were underway.

“It would be a deep alignment between WKSU and Ideastream and as a result of this deep alignment there would be some significant changes,” said John Perry, former WKSU general manager from 1973 to 1999. “WKSU would become the main one, and only one outlet, for NPR and local news and WCPN would become the classic station for Northeast Ohio and WCLV (104.9 FM, also owned by Ideastream) would become an extension of the news feed for the Cleveland area.

“While a lot of people decry this, it has its potential,” Perry said.

Al Bartholet, chief executive of WKSU from 1999 to 2013, said he had also heard of plans to merge the two stations.

“I knew it was going to happen because there was a lot of chatter between some people that I won’t tell,” he said. “I have news from former employees and employees who are concerned about this.”

He said a major concern is the potential for loss of local news attention.

“It seems obvious to me that Ideastream will be in charge at the managerial level. Will all staff be exported to Ideastream Center in Cleveland? Will WKSU lose its local identity? WKSU serves – be decreased? Ideastream has always viewed the Akron area as nothing more than a suburb, like Willoughby or Bedford. These are the kinds of things that people worry about.

In addition to WCPN and WCLV, Ideastream owns the public television channels WVIZ and The Ohio Channel.

Money for studies, consolidation plans

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) grant to the two radio stations received provides up to $ 100,000 for “facilitation, analysis and research” collaborative efforts. An “implementation” grant of up to $ 750,000 is available for entities with “binding commitments from station boards and authorities supporting the proposed collaboration”.

The two radio stations announced in August 2020 that they intended to use the grant to “explore expanding local reporting and journalism resources; coordinate editorial efforts; expand and diversify thematic geographic coverage of local and national issues, especially in underserved communities; and fostering future journalists through engagement with the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “

Grant recipients are required to report on the results of their work. Ideastream CEO Kevin Martin said in an email to Ideastream staff that the results of the study and a plan for next steps would be shared early this year, according to a press release dated August 31, 2020.

A public document request for that report was pending Thursday.

Bartholet said he was familiar with the subsidy program, but said that, in his experience, bindings face many obstacles.

“I think the university is going to lose quite a bit, because I can see them losing their identity in WKSU and the way it is branded,” he said.

Bartholet said he remembers the CPB grant program starting several years ago.

“Almost no one accepted them on the money because they couldn’t find any terms,” he said. “It comes down to localism. A station is fighting for its own territory.”

He said the station he ran after leaving WKSU in Charlottsville, Va. Faced competition from another public radio station in the same area.

“On a per capita basis, it was one of the top four public radio markets in the country… it never worked,” he said.

Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9422 or at emarotta@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarottaEric.


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