Kent State University’s public radio station WKSU has now been run for weeks by Cleveland-based classical music and news broadcaster Ideastream Public Media.
Full implementation and other changes will remain for months and will include Ideastream’s move of WCLV’s classical music programming from 104.9 FM to 90.3 FM, which currently houses WCPN. The end result will be that WKSU will become the Northeast Ohio Public Radio news and information broadcasting operation, including the broadcast of NPR programming, under the oversight of Ideastream. The stations could reach 3.6 million people in 22 counties.
Ideastream, a private, non-profit organization, is now signing paychecks for WKSU as part of a new “public service operating agreement” between the university and the news and music operation at Cleveland nonprofit. The 10-year deal went into effect on October 1, with April 1 being the deadline to make any planned changes.
The WKSU-Ideastream collaboration appeared publicly and was approved at the Kent State University board meeting in mid-September amid some public criticism. It follows behind closed doors studies and discussions between university, radio and Ideastream leaders and with the financial support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Agreement not a merger
This agreement with Ideastream is about growth and finding ways to better serve a common coverage area, not deficits and spending. And this collaboration is technically not a merger, the station executives said.
The objective was basically “how can we improve the service for those who depend on it?” Said Kevin Martin, President and CEO of Ideastream.
Ideastream has hired most of WKSU’s staff and provides management and programming under the agreement.
WKSU:Expected to merge with Ideastream of Cleveland by October 1
The deal coincides with WKSU just starting to run a monetary surplus for the year ending June 30 after recording annual deficits since switching to the news and information format in 2013.
“They’ve come back to profitability,” Kent State spokesman Eric Mansfield said. The university as of 2013 began budgeting $ 450,000 per year to support WKSU operations, which to date represents a total of $ 3.6 million. The total grant amount is closer to $ 4 million due to expenses related to the new agreement, Mansfield said.
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The expectation going back to 2013 was that WKSU, as revenues increased under its revamped format, would eventually pay off the university, Mansfield said. Now, with WKSU operated by Ideastream, the university will essentially start paying itself back, he said. The university will also earn income from the rental of transmission towers, he said.
“We knew we were going to be spending a deficit for a while and expected WKSU to be able to pay it off,” Mansfield said. “Before that happened, we entered into this public service operating agreement.”
The university and Ideastream boards of trustees voted to approve the deal, with the document signed on September 22. The deal developed from a multi-month analysis of WKSU and Ideasram’s operations, formats and their overlapping market coverage. Ideastream declined to release the full analysis citing proprietary data, and Kent State claimed it never owned the report in a public response to the Beacon Journal. Both provided an 11-page summary.
“It’s not a merger. It’s a public service operating agreement,” Martin said. “If it was a merger, I imagine we would own the license. KSU still has the license. We, Ideastream Public Radio, just have the right to operate the station. They will keep the asset.”
Ideastream and WKSU have worked together on multiple fronts for years, he said.
The Greater Akron region remains a priority
Followers of WKSU, which covers 22 counties including the greater Akron area, won’t see the Cleveland news eclipse the current coverage, said Martin and the former WKSU chief executive.
WKSU is mandated by federal regulators to provide local news coverage, said Wendy Turner. Turner is the former executive director and general manager of WKSU who was appointed this week as general manager of Ohio public media services at Ideastream, reporting to Martin.
WKSU’s 19-member community advisory board will also join Ideastream’s advisory board, Turner said.
“It’s a way to ensure that we are held accountable for covering the wider community,” she said. “Our business model depends on the willing and enthusiastic financial support of the community. It also holds us accountable.”
WKSU and Ideastream reporters live in the communities where they work, Turner said.
The combined editorial team of WKSU and Ideastream are currently working together to strike the right balance between broader coverage in the future, Turner said. “We are just at the start of this journey,” she said.
Ideastream increased its workforce from 20 to 150 with the addition of WKSU employees, Martin said. The main information space will be the Idea Center in Cleveland, he said. WKSU will continue to work closely with Kent State’s School of Media and Journalism.
“We have offered a job to every employee of WKSU,” said Martin. “And the vast majority agreed. So we’re really happy with that. The majority of this staff will be happy.”
Three people turned down job offers, he said.
The deal comes at a time when rapidly changing consumer trends in information and technology are having profound impacts on traditional broadcasters and traditional printing operations.
People now like to listen to podcasts and share content, not necessarily traditional radio, Martin said. People are increasingly turning to social media and other online resources, including mobile technology.
Ideastream and WKSU believe they have the opportunity to expand beyond conventional and traditional streaming limitations, Turner and Martin said.
“It was a way of growing up”
Turner said she calls the Ideastream-WKSU deal “more of an opportunity for growth than a saving of money by eliminating duplicate services and programming for the same market.”
Still, there will be cost savings. Ideastram and WKSU will no longer have to pay each for duplicate public radio news content that was broadcast in an almost identical coverage area.
Regarding WKSU deficits, “There was no red flag regarding spending. It was going in the right direction,” Turner said.
Without the deal with Ideastream, WKSU could continue to operate as before, she said.
“But we couldn’t keep doing it in the ambitious way we wanted,” she said. “This is the shortcut to kind of achieving our lofty goals.… Over the past two years, we aspired to grow. The path to growth was this convergence. There was no doubt that it was the way to to grow.”
FM dial changes
WKSU, which was founded in 1950, has undergone other significant changes in its history, including frequency changes; it started at 88.1 FM, then in 1962 at 89.7 FM, where it remained and will remain under the Ideastream operating agreement. It has repeater stations elsewhere in Northeast Ohio that are expanding its coverage.
While WKSU remains on site, the Ideastream stations will change on a date not yet announced, possibly 2022. WCLV, Ideastream’s current classical music station at 104.9 FM, will change its call letters to WCPN and will become a repeater station for WKSU. WCLV will in turn switch to 90.3 FM where it will continue to offer classical music.
Jim Mackinnon covers business. He can be reached at 330-996-3544 or [email protected] Follow him @JimMackinnonABJ on Twitter or at www.facebook.com/JimMackinnonABJ.