While Long Island University, which owns WLIU radio, is “evaluating several options” for the station’s future — including selling it to another organization, creating an operating agreement with another station, or finding another public broadcasting station — a local non-profit group headed by station manager Dr. Wallace Smith is hoping to mount an effort to acquire the station. An apparent victim of the failing economy, the public radio station, which is based on the campus of Stony Brook Southampton, appears ready to go off the air unless officials can construct an 11th hour deal.
WLIU is the last vestige of Long Island University on the Southampton Campus, which the State University of New York took over three years ago. The station has been actively looking for a new location for more than a year, since its lease with SUNY Stony Brook expires on October 3 this year.
“WLIU offers innovative programming and provides an essential community service to Long Island; but, unfortunately, currently runs at a deficit that the university can no longer afford to subsidize,” said Robert Altholz, Long Island University’s vice president for finance and treasurer. The university’s trustees have stipulated that the expenses associated with operating the station must be eliminated, said the release. The university was subsidizing the station by “over a million dollars annually,” said Altholz in an interview this week.
The station had been losing money consistently, and Altholz said the annual deficit was typically in the $500,000 to $700,000 range. But in the past two years the shortfall topped $1 million each year.
“It has simply become too big a loss,” said Altholz.
The school’s treasurer said their decision to unburden themselves of the station was really the combination of two things: WLIU’s dramatic increase in deficit, and the financial pressure the economy has placed on the university itself.
The deficit, he said, would be tough “even in a great environment.”
“That being said, these are tough times for everyone,” added Altholz, who noted that both the endowment and the enrollment at Long Island University have been affected by the downturn in the economy.
“We had to take a look at all our options,” he said.
For the school’s “flagship” radio station (there is a smaller station, WCWP, on the CW Post campus in Greenvale) that meant contracting with a broker to find the best buyer for the station.
“Yesterday, sitting with my staff while the news was being delivered was like having open heart surgery with no anesthesia,” said Dr. Smith in an interview Friday. He said that the turn in the economy was “definitely a part of this.”
The station, which the release said serves about 400,000 people on eastern Long Island, Westchester and the southern Connecticut shore, is the only National Public Radio affiliate on Long Island and regularly features NPR programs like “Car Talk,” “The Splendid Table,” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” In addition, it features the locally-produced Bonnie Grice show, “The Song is You,” which has included guests like k.d. lang, Montel Williams and Michael Feinstein.
While the university is looking at possible agreements with existing organizations, Dr. Smith has been actively cultivating local community members who have an interest in preserving the station.
“I think we have a good shot at putting this together,” said Dr. Smith. “Already the outpouring of support is pretty significant.” He added he felt the ultimate cost of renewing the license and moving the station was “not that great.”
Involved will be literally moving the station and its tower off the Stony Brook Southampton campus and finding a new location. The general operating budget for WLIU is about $2 million annually, said Altholz. The appraised value of the license for acquisition purposes is about $800,000, said Dr. Smith, who quickly added he felt the number was high, and the university was currently doing a re-appraisal based on current economic conditions.
“I’ve put these numbers together and they’re not astronomical; but,” he conceded, “it’s going to be a tough 60 day period.”
“Several prominent citizens of the East End have expressed support for the establishment of a new nonprofit entity that will be able to purchase the license of WLIU,” added Dr. Smith.
To that end, he has begun to establish a board that will hopefully become the new owners of the station and is in the process of creating a website for “Save Public Radio on the East End.” He has given a name to the new venture: Peconic Public Broadcasting. It speaks, he said, to the focus a new station would take, with more locally-generated news and programming, and a re-dedication to the East End of Long Island, freer from obligations WLIU had with the university and West End issues.
Also this week, a trust fund was being established which will be able to receive contributions to help the new organization reach its goal.
Ultimately, though, the management of the station — whether it’s a local non-profit or a commercial entity — will come down to money. The university is obliged to sell to the highest bidder, according to Altholz.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to the school and its students,” said Altholz, “and we need to accept the highest offer. When you’re a non-profit, you need to get the highest possible price. The net proceeds from the sale go back to the university.”
Altholz said their broker, Public Radio Capital, has “cast a wide net” for potential suitors, and said they already have “a significant number” of interested parties, although he declined to be specific.
Still, Dr. Smith remains optimistic.
“The way people are responding to this, it’s difficult to ignore a local guy,” he said.
Above: Inside the WLIU office on the Stony Brook Southampton campus.