WDUQ sale on hold… Foundations pay for time to preserve station

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Erroll Garner, Earl Hines, the Turrentine brothers, the Betters brothers, Walt Harper, Ahmad Jamal—all are Pittsburgh jazz legends, known the world over. But increasingly, even in their hometown, they seem to only live on the airways of WDUQ radio.

But with Duquesne University’s pending sale of the station license, some fear their work and their place in Pittsburgh history may disappear from local airwaves, lost to future generations.

NelsonHarrison
NELSON HARRISON says losing only jazz station in Pittsburgh would be a disaster.

“I really can’t imagine not hearing the melodic voices of Tony Mowod and Bob Studebaker, as well the other excellent hosts such as Helen Wigger, bringing this community the sounds of this nation’s original art form, jazz,” said Tim Stevens in a letter to the New Pittsburgh Courier. “This station has played more music by Pittsburgh artists than probably all of the other Pittsburgh stations combined, something that I as a Pittsburgh jazz vocalist and writer highly appreciate.”

Shortly after the university announced it wanted to sell the license, station management and staff formed a nonprofit, Pittsburgh Public Media, to buy the license and keep the format as it is—jazz music, award-winning local news and National Public Radio programming including “All Things Considered,” “This American Life,” and “Car Talk.”

The new entity has submitted two bids for the license, but the university has rejected both as they did not meet the $10 million asking price. Spokes­­person Bridget Fare said the university subsidizes the station with $500,000 a year and is selling so it can refocus funds toward core academic and student needs.

“This could be an opportunity for Duquesne to reallocate assets for the enhancement of our educational enterprise and for the station to thrive on its own. We believe that DUQ will be even stronger under ownership that focuses on radio,” she said. “But our focus all along has been to keep it a public station, if possible.”

Initially the university and Pittsburgh Public Media worked with the Pittsburgh Foundation, one of the station’s funders, to reach an accord. In the interim, three other entities submitted bids for the license. They too were rejected.

Early last month, The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and an anonymous foundation pooled their resources and essentially took out a 60-day option to purchase the station. The amount of the option payment was not disclosed.

As of now, Fare said, everything is in a holding pattern.

“We agreed to the two-month period in which we won’t negotiate or make decisions so that the foundations have an opportunity to put forth a bid,” she said.

Though Pittsburgh Foundation President Greg Oliphant emphasized he and his colleagues are not interested in owning a noncommercial radio license and are just trying to ensure the station’s future, board member, and former Heinz Endowments head Maxwell King suggested a new roll for the station as a regional news entity.

King, the former editor of the Philadelphia Enquirer, said local foundations want to use media to generate debate on issues such as reforming public schools, improving Pittsburgh’s air quality and the environmental impact of drilling for natural gas.

“It makes complete sense for the Pittsburgh Foundation to be looking at how electronic media can be used to advance a dialogue,” he said.

Conversely, Pittsburgh Public Media wants to preserve the station’s current mix of local news, NPR and jazz programming. And while the option has given them time to raise more money, it has done the same for other potential buyers.

Joe Kelly, advisory board chair said with one month left on the option, “We’re on the outside looking in.”

“I don’t know what the foundations are doing or why,” he said. “We have yet to be given the chance to sit before the powers that be and make our case. So, we’re building up our board with great people like Alan Lincoln and Nathan Davis, media, jazz, and journalism people who want to continue the station and help it improve.”

Additionally, Kelly said they have set up the website http://www.pittsburghpublicmedia.org for people to get the latest news on the pending sale, to ask questions, to make contributions and meet the board.

“This isn’t some failed art group the foundations need to prop up, the station is rated number one in every category,” he said. “Bit it’s tough to ask people for a million dollars. We can’t use the station or its mailing list because that’s university property.”

Jazz musician, historian and teacher, Nelson Harrison played with Walt Harper on the station’s first live jazz broadcast in 1969. He said losing the only jazz station in Pittsburgh would be a disaster.

“I don’t want to see it happen it would create a real vacuum in Pittsburgh market because they wound up being only jazz station. Its how I keep up with jazz community the music and the news,” he said. “It’s a shame we don’t have more institutional support. But the corporate mentality doesn’t understand the music. I hope people get behind it and rally around it because only grass roots support will save it. WDUQ raised the consciousness of its audience.”

The foundations’ option expires at the end of June. So far, no meetings have been scheduled to elicit public feedback on the station’s future.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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