Should it stay or should it go?

SPINDALE — WNCW’s fate still hangs in the balance following an anticlimactic meeting of the Isothermal Community College board of trustees last week.

At a specially called Aug. 12 meeting, board members (who collectively hold the station’s license) did little more than ask a few questions and rifle through a report by ICC President Bill Lewis detailing various options for dealing with the popular, yet troubled, public-radio station.

But on Tuesday, Aug. 26, the trustees likely will decide whether to keep the station (heard in Asheville at 88.7 FM) or sell it.

If the board opted to get out of the radio business, it wouldn’t be alone. As recently as five years ago, noncommercial stations rarely changed hands, says Washington, D.C., communications lawyer John Crigler. But because most of the good frequencies have been snapped up, sales of existing noncommercial stations have become more common, Crigler told Xpress.

Operating principles

Ongoing turmoil concerning the station’s direction over the past three years prompted the trustees to ask Lewis back in May to examine their options. The wrangling that led to the request has included angry exchanges between WNCW staffers and a group of unhappy listeners and ex-employees; a tangle with the Federal Communications Commission; and the dismissal of a number of station employees (including, most recently, the program director).

Although Lewis’ report lays out eight options, it gives only two of them much consideration: selling the station or keeping it.

Under keeping the station, however, the report recommends a host of new “operating principles” for WNCW, including:

• making the station’s mission compatible with ICC’s (“to improve life through learning”);

• boosting news coverage;

• strengthening the relationship between WNCW and ICC’s broadcasting curriculum;

• clarifying the role of the station’s Community Advisory Board and perhaps adding a couple of trustees as ex-officio members;

• reviewing the existing operating policies to ensure complete compliance with federal and state regulations (Lewis calls this one “imperative”);

• reminding WNCW’s personnel to be professional and courteous with the public; and

• revamping the way WNCW personnel handle complaints.

Widespread support

Since May, about 350 listeners have weighed in on the issue — and all but a handful have been “generous in their support or praise” of the station, Lewis told the board. Inquiries about either buying WNCW’s license or using its signal also are rolling in; Lewis ticked off nine groups that have contacted him, including Christian broadcasters, an Asheville group known through its Web site (www.preservewncw.org), and Asheville public-radio station WCQS.

Trustee Doug Pearson asked Lewis about how to better integrate the radio station with the community college’s goals. Lewis said that ICC’s Jay Coomes, who teaches broadcasting classes, is working on that very issue.

Pearson also said he’s “very much in favor of looking for a way to maintain the relationship” with WNCW. “I enjoy it a great deal,” he continued, “especially the variety in its programming.”

Trustee Bobby England took a similar position; he also asked Lewis to explain a line in his report referring to the declining number of station supporters. More money has been raised with fewer contributors, Lewis explained, because the cost of membership has risen. If the trustees keep the station, Lewis suggests finding a way to increase the affordability, number and variety of memberships.

Of the more than 50 people who attended the meeting, only three (who’d signed up in advance) addressed the board.

Ex-WNCW employee Linda Osbon (who has consistently pointed out the station’s missteps) said she was “very happy” to hear that ICC is thinking of linking its broadcast curriculum to the station. But she also told the trustees that she’d never been notified about that day’s meeting, despite having paid a $10 notification fee. “I’m looking for transparency and accountability,” Osbon declared, as some in the audience grumbled.

WNCW Community Advisory Board member Doug Beatty (who co-owns Barley’s Taproom in Asheville) suggested that the trustees keep the station intact, let Station Manager David Gordon (who watched from the audience) do his job, and allow the Community Advisory Board to fulfill its advisory role. “I’d like you to go ahead and take care of the station,” urged Beatty, to audience applause.

And Gary Williams, a part-time Brevard resident, said he’d come to praise — and caution — both the station and ICC. The station already exemplifies ICC’s mission and values, argued Williams, though WNCW’s problems ought to be corrected. He ended with a rousing tribute to the station’s diverse play list, garnering even more applause than Beatty had.

In their hands

After the meeting, Pearson (who favors keeping the station) explained the trustees’ rationale for requesting the report. Although he and other trustees have taken great pains to insist that they consider WNCW “an asset” to the college, board members finally concluded, “Let’s just find out what the problem is and fix it.”

Board Chair Elizabeth Owens also said she’d be inclined to keep WNCW — while making sure that the station serves the college’s mission.

But Trustee Ron Paris sounded a cautionary note, telling Xpress that the decision to examine ICC’s options came after three years of “intensive effort” that had still left the college spinning its wheels.

“Obviously, whatever we do has to be done with the good of the radio station in mind,” said Paris, adding that he wants to preserve WNCW’s trademark programming.

Noting that support for WNCW is widespread and deep — even fanatical — Paris suggested that if the college sold the station, the new owners would have to be able to run it better than ICC can. But for that to happen, the trustees would first have to prove to themselves that they couldn’t run it effectively. Although the trustees haven’t reached that point, Paris said it’s possible that the board won’t be able to resolve the contentious issues that dog the station.

How long would he give it?

“I asked Bill Lewis the same question, and we just looked at each other,” admitted Paris. “I guess if things are getting better, then the time frame extends.”

Although it may prove to be a moot point, FCC rules allow the trustees to sell ICC’s noncommercial license to any qualified nonprofit buyer — regardless of who puts in the highest bid, noted communications lawyer Crigler. Any sale would be subject to FCC approval, he told Xpress.

That was the scenario that unfolded in 2001 when the University of Northern Colorado sold KUNC to the local Friends of KUNC for $2 million, rejecting a $2.6 million bid from Colorado Public Radio, according to the online edition of Current, a Washington, D.C., newspaper that covers public broadcasting. That same year, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore sold its campus station (WJHU-FM) to Maryland Public Radio Corp. for $5 million, according to a university news release, which also noted that radio is not part of the university’s “core mission.”

Lewis’ report on WNCW can be found on the station’s Web site (www.wncw.org), along with an archive of recent news stories. To weigh in on WNCW’s fate yourself, you can e-mail Lewis at wll3@isothermal.edu.]

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