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WLIU Stumbles With Employee Salaries

Posted on 17 December 2009

Fans of radio station WLIU may have noticed this week there were more pre-recorded features on the air than usual, and that some of their favorite personalities were not on when they were expected to be. The station is in a transition, as Peconic Public Broadcasting — the group that successfully bid on WLIU’s license in October — has taken over operation of the studio. That transition, however, has left the non-profit PPB short-funded and unable to pay the salaries of the 13 staff members.

Peconic Public Broadcasting — formed earlier this year by local supporters of the station that has broadcast from the Southampton campus of what was originally Long Island University and now-Stony Brook University for nearly three decades — took over management responsibilities on December 1, when their agreement with Long Island University took effect. Until that time, LIU had paid the salaries of the staff, which were considered the university’s employees. On December 1, those employees became the responsibility, apparently unexpectedly, of PPB.

“We thought, since we had an agreement to stay here until March, that LIU would continue to pay the salaries,” said the station’s general manager, Dr. Wally Smith in an interview Tuesday.

Earlier this fall, and prior to the bid opening, the university had sent the staff notices they were to be terminated.

“We thought they would rescind the termination notices,” said Smith. “They didn’t.”

Smith said LIU’s decision to no longer fund salaries came as a surprise, and “we were not prepared for that eventuality,” realizing “we could not handle the December payroll.”

Several of the staff members — Smith said 10 — have decided to come in as “part-time volunteers” to man the station, and he comes in himself to make sure programming continues to be broadcast. Popular morning figure Bonnie Grice, he said, has taken advantage of unused vacation time. Most of the employees are filing for unemployment insurance, and three have decided they cannot volunteer to help, said Smith.

The staffing changes come as Peconic Public Broadcasting and Long Island University prepare to sign an asset purchase agreement, which is expected to occur in the next few days, said Rob Altholz, vice president for finances at LIU. Once that has been completed, the paperwork is sent to Washington, D.C. for final approval by the Federal Communications Commission. PPB and the university would then close on the sale of the station in late February or early March, according to both Altholz and Smith.

At that time, said Smith, Peconic Public Broadcasting would need to have $1,450,000 available to them. Smith said they will need to put $300,000 in an escrow account, adding $100,000 to it monthly for three months, for a total of $600,000. They will also need $850,000 for the university at the closing. The total price bid by PPB for the station and its assets is $2,425,000. None of this includes the cost of moving the station to new quarters — since Stony Brook wants the space currently occupied by the studio for classrooms — or ongoing costs of operation.

When asked how far along the organization was in raising the capital for the acquisition, Smith said they were still in the early stages of fundraising.

“We only received our 501.c.3 status in November,” said Smith, “that’s when we were finally able to say, yes, we can accept your money now.”

Smith said he expects the employees will be working on a volunteer basis for one month, and they were working on plan to reinstate the employees as soon as possible.

“We’ve had extraordinary volunteer help,” said Smith. “When you realize where we were on August 6, we had nothing. We’ve come a long way.”

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