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God, Reason, Classical Music and The News

Sunday's Listener column (note postscript at bottom with information obtained since press time)

God, reason, education, classical music and the news are all mixed up in a clash of values and priorities at a little radio station in Takoma Park.

A new public station featuring local and global news appears to be the most likely outcome in a battle involving two big media players, a struggling college, a proud religious faith and a flock of listeners who believe they are hearing God's will. At stake is the future of WGTS (91.9 FM), a station owned by Columbia Union College, which in turn is controlled by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

The station, for many years a fringe player with microscopic ratings, dropped its longtime classical music format in 1997 and switched to a "family-friendly" program of inspirational Christian music -- a move that resulted in a nearly tenfold increase in audience and a similar boost in listener donations.

But now the college faces a severe financial crisis -- $7 million in debt and a steadily declining supply of tuition-paying students. And its board has decided that among the moves it must make to survive as a liberal arts school is selling its radio station. Bids for the station have topped $20 million, according to college sources.

Columbia Union's board voted this month to negotiate with "a potential buyer . . . to protect and grow the future of Columbia Union College as an Adventist Christian college in the nation's capital," a statement from the college said. Station sources, who declined to be named because the college asked them not to reveal details of the transaction, said the Columbia Union board has decided to negotiate with the highest of three bidders and expects to finalize the deal in September.

The high bidder, the sources said, is American Public Media Group (APMG), the parent body of Minnesota Public Radio and the country's second-largest producer of news, talk and classical music programming for public stations. A nonprofit brokerage that tries to secure noncommercial frequencies for public radio across the country learned of WGTS's availability from the college last fall and alerted American Public Media to the opportunity, said Bill Kling, president of APMG.

Kling saw a big gap in Washington's radio offerings then as commercial classical WGMS dropped that format and public WETA (90.9 FM) was still airing news-talk programming. The prospect of the nation's capital having no classical station impelled Kling to put together a bid to replace that programming. After WETA returned to its classical roots in January, Kling saw a different need -- for a new kind of news-talk public radio in Washington.

In addition to airing American Public Media programs such as the business news show, "Marketplace," and Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion," a second news-oriented public station would complement WAMU (88.5 FM). A second station could emphasize content from overseas providers such as the BBC, experimenting with interactive, listener-generated news content, and building a local newsgathering staff. In Los Angeles, where APMG owns two stations, it built a news staff of 16 reporters and producers.

"Public radio ought to be vastly stronger in local news, with a staff much closer to what local news organizations like newspapers have traditionally had," Kling said. The new station also would air some National Public Radio programs that have no outlet in Washington, perhaps including NPR's new morning show, aimed at younger listeners, which is scheduled to debut this fall.

But Kling is not ready to declare victory in the contest to win WGTS. The nationwide competition between public and religious broadcasters has heightened in recent years. And in this case, the other bids for WGTS came from Educational Media Foundation, one of the nation's largest owners of Christian radio stations and provider of two formats of Christian rock and pop played on hundreds of stations; and WGTS's existing board, which cannot match the financial resources of the other bidders but which hopes to win by appealing to the Adventists' sense of religious mission.

The noncommercial end of the FM dial has become a battlefield for "very aggressive efforts by both public radio and religious broadcasters to get the remaining real estate" on the airwaves, Kling said. "Traditionally, the religious broadcasters have been the more aggressive bidders."

Educational Media President Richard Jenkins said that although he has not given up on winning WGTS, it appears the college has decided to sell the station to American Public Media.

"We made an all-cash offer and believe it was for the same amount, and were disappointed to learn that our offer was not accepted," Jenkins said. "We are hopeful that we will be given an opportunity to present our case when the matter comes before the full [college] board of directors" in September.

WGTS's own board has not given up hope. "WGTS is God's radio station and always has been," the station's general manager, John Konrad, wrote in an appeal to loyal listeners to pepper the college and the church with messages of support. "We've all done our share of worrying about the future of WGTS in recent days, but you know what, God is completely in control. We have nothing to worry about. He has a purpose for WGTS and that purpose is being worked out every step of the way."

Listeners have responded with hundreds of letters attesting to the station's transformative role in their lives. WGTS's music -- a kind of soft rock with Christian lyrics -- provides solace and encouragement to listeners who have filled message boards at http://savewgts.net with testimonials such as: "I find it most comforting to keep the station on all night. It is a blessing because it encourages me, lifts up my spirits and teaches me life."

"This seems to be an attempt at a quick fix to cover up the horrible financial and substantive state of affairs at the college," says Noel Gould, a Washington Adventist and donor to WGTS, who has hired a law firm from the District to look into ways to halt the sale.

"The college is fairly hard up for cash," says Doug Walker, a member of WGTS's board who for many years hosted the station's "Divertimento" classical show.

A Columbia Union spokesman, Scott Steward, and the college's board president, Dave Weigley, did not return calls seeking comment. But Steward told the Adventist News Network that the offer from the WGTS board was "insufficient" because it proposed to pay for the station over 25 years and the college wants a cash deal.

WGTS stalwarts say their only hope for saving the Christian format is to appeal to fellow Adventists. "If the overall mission of the college and the station is winning souls, then you don't sell off the station," Walker says. "The college's board has to decide whether to save the college or the station."

A college statement says WGTS's current format could be salvaged even if the station is sold by putting the programming on a digital sub-channel that would be available to listeners who buy the HD or digital radios that came on the market last year. But sales of those radios have been slow, and WGTS executives are skeptical that the college would retain the staff needed to maintain the current programming. Walker called that plan "a load of rubbish."

WGTS, which aims at an audience of 20-to-45-year-old "soccer moms," collects about $2.5 million a year in donations from about 15,000 listeners and is, according to the Arbitron ratings service, the second-most-listened-to noncommercial religious station in the nation.

"We're heavy on music and camaraderie," Walker says, "as opposed to preaching and right-wing politics."

ONLINE EXTRA:

Since the deadline for the print edition of Sunday Arts, Columbia Union College has announced that American Public Media is indeed the selected bidder for WGTS and that the college is determined to go ahead with the sale of the station to save the college from a financial crisis. More details in this release from the college press office.

By Marc Fisher |  July 28, 2007; 8:15 AM ET
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Comments

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How does this work? The college received the license to the station for free from the Federal Communications Commission. Now, they're selling it for $20 million+ to support a religiously-oriented college?

The buyer is, itself, a non-profit organization based in Minnesota. This organization presumably solicits contributions from listeners in Minnesota and these contributions are being used to run a non-profit station for listeners in Washington DC.

Wow. What convoluted set of incentives led to this outcome? It's hard to know who to thank, for what, ... or who to blame.

Posted by: KK | July 28, 2007 12:52 PM

Even if the college received a free license to broadcast, wouldn't it have been an educational license? And if so, where do they, the college or the Adventist radio station for that matter, get off spewing their patently religious programming and "happy talk"? Wouldn't this be in violation of their license?

Whether the Christian college pockets $20+ million or their station lulls its evangelical soccer-moms with their cotton-candy programming into giving them $2.5 million annually in the name of Jesus is an outrage. No wonder WGTS fights on. Their hypocrasy is self-evident and the college's actions are at best, schizophrenic.

The FCC never foresaw the amount of abuse over the years of the public airwaves by educational license holders who use it to proselytize. Maybe now with MPR, the frequency can finally return to its intended purpose of informing and educating.

Besides, programming that confronts head on global problems we face today by such fair and balanced reporting of the BBC would be welcome in Washington, DC. More current affairs, less religious pomposity, please.

Posted by: JT | July 28, 2007 2:35 PM

Hey, soccer moms have a right to listen to something that fits their needs, too. I don't speak Spanish, but I don't have a problem with local Spanish stations serving those who do. The first educational broadcast license was issued to a Mormon university in Utah in the 1920's. Most of the last century there were college stations all over the country, broadcasting every kind of format under the sun. The real problem is that big corporations like MPR figured out how to get around the non-comm rules and make a dime out of non-commercial radio, and pushed the value of those licenses artifically high and through the stratosphere. WGTS steers clear of politics (a welcome rarity in this area), entertains and meets the needs of a large group of listeners, gets involved in its community, and yes, trains and hires college students. I see that as a better use of a non-comm educational license than a spoiled Minnesota millionaire moving into town to play competing egos with NPR, ignoring the local community in the process.

Posted by: k | July 28, 2007 4:18 PM

the biggest loss will be in a niche that GTS fills in the washington area. while i'm not religious, i am appalled at the lack of diversity on the AM and FM dial. the huge price MPR is paying for this station, i suspect, is part of a trend of making vanilla-themed radio stations that rake in the bucks. i personally would prefer diversity over competition on the radio waves.

but the crux of the matter is that the $20 million won't solve the College's financial woes, but merely looks like a band aid for a larger problem...

Posted by: kate | July 30, 2007 10:57 AM

I want to thank the Post for covering the story. I'm a young 20-something single living woman in DC. I'm not a soccer mom and never will be. Nevertheless, the WGTS radio station will be greatly missed by myself and many others in the Washington D.C area. For believers, its not just music, its life for our souls.

Posted by: J.P. White | July 30, 2007 3:09 PM

The point that can't be missed is that the college is in the EDUCATION business, not the RADIO business. All the CUC board has done is decide that it is not in the business of running radio stations. Congratulations to them for making that decision.

Posted by: CJS | July 31, 2007 8:49 AM

It's a fluke that the college became the owners of such a valuable commodity, it was never anticipated when they first got the license. But that's irrelevant now. Now, irregardless of whether they are in the education business or the radio business, they are supposedly Christians, and by default are in the ministry business. Shame on them if they shut down a vibrant, successful, growing ministry.

Posted by: Silver Spring | July 31, 2007 11:19 AM

If this station is taken off the air, the Washington DC area will lose a valuable tool that is aiding in the moral growth and development of our young people. I can't tell you how many times I turn off the radio and the TV because it almost seems as if immorality is being promoted rather than reported. I don't subscribe to any newspapers for the same reason. I have considered it such a blessing to just turn on the radio and listen to WGTS. The music is prayerful, the news is relative (not political) and when the DJs talk, I don't have to worry about what my children are hearing. As Christians, I would hope that the decision makers in this sale, will take into serious consideration the magnitude that this radio station does have on our future leaders of this country. I have 2 teenage sons and this station has been on in my house for several years and I know my children have been positively influenced by this format. My husband and I listen to The Voice of Prophecy every morning and it has aided in the spiritual growth of our marriage and our family. So many good things come from this radio station; to lose it would be a victory for those that support and endorse immorality in this country. To save it, would be a victory for God, Jesus Christ, and all who need and want to hear love over our airways.

Posted by: Michele | July 31, 2007 1:28 PM

WGTS isn't just a radio station playing music. To me and for many others who listen to it, it brings hope in a hopeless world. I don't want another station that talks about politics and how corrupt it is, I don't want another station who plays songs about sex and getting more sex. For many of us fighting for this station, we know the value of what's behind the songs. A song WGTS may air can during a time may actually save a suicidal person from committing. I don't think MPR discussions is able to do that.

What I find very strange is how people are not offended by songs on the radio talking about murders, violence, anger, etc., and yet, when it comes to "religious" things, off it should go.

For all those praying for WGTS, pray hard and on your knees. If our God is able to bring down the walls of Jericho, if He was able to separate the Red Sea when Moses and the Israelites were surrounded, our God can surely save WGTS. Have faith.

Posted by: Christine | August 3, 2007 12:36 AM

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MSN

Posted by: Bill | August 7, 2007 7:05 AM

Minnesota Public Radio, Market Watch, and the BBC provide an alternative perspective on the same information covered by many other outlets...i.e...the DOW went up, or the NASDAQ went down, Democrats and Republicans still disagree, and sadly - yet again - extremists and/or terrorists committed another horrible atrocity somwhere in the world.

An independently run Christian radio station is a unique voice.

I hope the owners of WGTS and all stake holders do what it takes to maintain ownership and control of the radio station.

I also have some questions for the Adventist decision makers. Why would you sell your successful radio station to temporarily shore up a failing college? You have other colleges in the U.S. Do you have another successful FM radio station? The administrators of the college are in the business of running a college. Okay, I get that. But what "business" is the Adventist Church in? What type of "witness" will it be to the D.C. area, other Christians, and the nation if you sell WGTS?

What are you really selling for $20 million plus dollars?

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Posted by: jbvlwhoili | August 26, 2007 12:59 PM

Whatever side you take on this, there are some cold hard facts! The station started as a classical music station and failed horribly. It was converted to a new format, for convenience sake lets's call it contemporary Christian music. It is now a big success. Whoever owns this station should be able to read the bottom line on this! Otherwise, in several years someone else will be more likely buying this $20+ million station for a lot less.

Posted by: Annandale | August 27, 2007 9:25 AM

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