The rumors began in early June. WBEZ, Chicago's public radio behemoth, was negotiating a takeover of WLUW, the small but popular station owned by Loyola University. Many WLUW supporters feared the worst; it was widely assumed that WBEZ would implement broad changes at the smaller station, perhaps replacing program director Shawn Campbell and station manager Craig Kois. WLUW enthusiastically supported local indie rock, provided alternative news sources, and reached out to specific ethnic communities--how much of its eclectic programming would survive?
The past six months had already been nerve-racking for the staff and volunteers at WLUW. In late 2001 the school's president, the Reverend Michael J. Garanzini, made a grim announcement: as part of a plan to alleviate Loyola's financial crisis (the school was more than $40 million over budget) WLUW would no longer be funded by tuition. Recently Kois and Campbell had been told that their jobs were guaranteed only until August. And other than that, the administration was virtually silent on the topic.
So Friends of WLUW, an advocacy group formed this spring, initiated a letter-writing campaign to demand answers from WBEZ general manager Torey Malatia. It worked. In July, Malatia attended several meetings held by the group, responding to questions and addressing criticism of his early decisions at WBEZ. "I made an on-the-fly judgment that the thing to do was to just tell them what was happening," says Malatia. "Not saying what we were talking about just added to the concern that we weren't talking for a reason, that it must be something bad." He says the university "didn't say it was OK with them, but they didn't complain about it."
Malatia also held private discussions with Kois and Campbell. "We were hearing all of these rumors, and then they were acknowledged," says Campbell. "We were so accustomed to what we were getting from the university, which was no communication, and really feeling that things were being done behind our backs. But as soon as we started talking to the WBEZ people they seemed to be really up-front about things."
Malatia assured Campbell that he would hire her under the new management agreement; when she was let go by Loyola in August WBEZ took her on as a consultant. And on December 3, when WBEZ signed a deal with Loyola to take over the management, finances, and programming of WLUW, Campbell and Kois became full-time employees of WBEZ, resuming their positions at the Loyola station.
According to Malatia the agreement covers a 15-year period, though either party can opt out with nine months' notice. Effective immediately, WLUW will attempt to meet its budget through fund-raising efforts overseen by WBEZ advisers. WBEZ and Loyola will split any deficit for the first three years, though there's a cap on the university's contribution. After that WBEZ assumes the full burden, but Malatia is confident WLUW will be in the black by then. "The irony here may end up being that with the proper focus on the station's relationship to its audience, the service it provides, and good, basic fund-raising infrastructure, the station may have had it in its power for the last few years to be self-sustaining," he says.
Andrew Arganbright, a WBEZ fund-raising specialist, has been working extensively with WLUW. He helped with its pledge drive in February and is currently planning strategies for the next one, in February 2003. The station raised almost $40,000 this year, and Campbell says it hopes to raise another $100,000 by the end of the fiscal year.
According to Bud Jones, associate vice president for public relations at Loyola, the school got everything it hoped for through the agreement. "We wanted to make sure we retained ownership, retained the license, the studios on our Lake Shore campus," he says. Loyola students will still be able to take classes from Kois, and they may now qualify for internships at WBEZ as well. "We wanted to increase our educational opportunities for our students, and we wanted to release our financial obligations and liabilities." While the new managers may help "fine-tune" WLUW, Jones says, "it's not going to be a clone of WBEZ."
Malatia has repeatedly vowed to leave well enough alone at the station. In a letter posted on WBEZ's Web site he writes, "We assured concerned listeners that we intend to preserve the present format and mission, with ethnically diverse and independent music and alternative information programs hosted and produced by students and volunteers."
So what does WBEZ get out of this arrangement? "It's a creative relationship, potentially, that will keep us thinking about radio in different ways and keep us exposed to new talent and so on," says Malatia. "I think that we're in the position that over the long run that is going to be a very real, tangible benefit for WBEZ, keeping it sounding different than a lot of other mainstream public radio stations that increasingly sound more staid, more predictable, and more like they can do it with their eyes closed."
WBEZ has frequently been accused of staidness and predictability itself--just last week a letter-writing campaign criticizing the station's lack of support for local jazz was launched by a group of writers, presenters, and musicians, including Ken Vandermark and John Corbett. Malatia says that within 18 months he hopes to create a position at WBEZ for someone who'll develop programming options suggested by WBEZ staff. The new employee will also monitor WLUW in search of talent and ideas that could eventually find a place on the larger station.
Malatia knows that only time will tell whether WBEZ can live up to its good intentions. "The only way we're going to get any accolades, if any, for this kind of thing is if we really do what we said we were going to do, which is to take a community station and make sure it's self-sustaining, and maybe even develop a little bit of a financial cushion," he says. "We've got to deliver. People really value that station and they don't want to see it manipulated or changed."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.