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ISSUE 118 VOL 1 PUBLISHED 9/17/2004

WCAL sale raises concerns

By Emelie Heltsley
News Editor

Friday, September 17, 2004

When St. Olaf students returned to life on the Hill, they found their college immersed in a growing controversy over the sale of St. Olafs radio station, WCAL, to Minnesota Public Radio (MPR).

MPR contacted St. Olaf President Christopher Thomforde last November about the possibility of selling WCAL. However, it wasnt until last spring that Thomforde began to look at a sale more closely.

After meeting with Jerrol Tostrud, chairman of the Board of Regents, and Alan Norton, the college financial director, Thomforde got approval to continue investigating the selling process. St. Olaf hired an attorney specializing in licensing, as well as a broker, Patrick Communications, who made a public offer for the radio station. The starting price was $8.5 million.

From the beginning, St. Olaf had four non-negotiable terms for the sale of WCAL. First, the new owner of the station had to broadcast the annual Christmas Festival forever. Second, all WCAL employees must receive severance pay. Third, the company must pay in cash at the time of purchase. And fourth, St. Olaf must receive free advertising at various points throughout the day for a certain period of time after the sale.

Of all the bidders, only MPR agreed to all the terms put forth by St. Olaf.

Thomforde then met with St. Olaf executive board members, and the sale was approved. The decision went to the entire board, which voted unanimously to sell the radio station (20 of 28 members were present, another six were present via email when the decision was made, and two were out of the country). WCAL was officially sold for $10.5 million dollars.

This is a very sad moment, and a huge loss to the college, Thomforde said. I do not deny that. It was a wrenching decision, but one that is for the long-term health of the college.

Although the Board of Regents vote was unanimous, many students, friends, and faculty of St. Olaf are not happy with the decision. Save WCAL is an organization started for the sake of opposing the sale of Classical 89.3 WCAL-FM, and advocating continued ownership of the station by St. Olaf College.

Carl Schroeder 05 and Ben Henry-Moreland 07 are the student leaders for Save WCAL.

WCAL has benefited me as a music composition major, said Schroeder. It has supported student composers by broadcasting their work. Schroeder also mentioned the unique opportunity on campus that would be lost should the sale be finalized.

Henry-Moreland thought signing an online petition would be the end of his contribution to Save WCAL. After going to an informational meeting over the summer, he thought [the group] needed more student directors. Henry-Moreland was voted onto the Save WCAL Board, along with Schroeder.

The group has already held several meetings, along with a silent protest outside of Boe Chapel last Sunday. Thomforde said he welcomes peaceful student protesting, proclaiming that it proves students are thinking.

One of the first questions brought up by concerned friends, family and alumni is how the money from the sale will be used. The $10.5 million from the WCAL sale will go into a fund to endow things already going on on-campus, Thomforde said.

Each year, four percent of the endowment will be taken out and used for on-campus activities. That four percent will be returned to the fund through gained interest, resulting in roughly $400,000 of new money for the college each year.

By strengthening the endowment, St. Olaf will be less susceptible to stock market fluctuations and insecure government funding. With the sale of WCAL, academic programs will be supported forever at a growing rate, Thomforde said.

The radio station is wonderful, but it does not directly benefit students and faculty, Thomforde said. I would rather put investments into what students and faculty are doing.

Members of Save WCAL, however, see the radio station as a benefit to the college. On the WCAL site, Ben Houge 96 is reported as saying, I worked for the station as a student, and I learned audio engineering skills and a general professionalism that have proven invaluable to me in my career.

On the Save WCAL website, the station is said to increase the value of St. Olaf by $1.3 million.

However, because WCAL only employs eight to 10 students at a time, it is not a teaching tool available to the general St. Olaf student community.

Thomforde pointed out that without a broadcasting or communications program at St. Olaf, the radio station does not provide students with any direct benefit, whereas the money from the sale would.

The Board of Regents is already considering ways to use the new money. Possible uses of the money are a new organ for Boe Chapel, endowing a church music position on the faculty and endowing some of the music organizations of St. Olaf. We wont start something new, Thomforde said. But we will take the money and augment things were already good at.

Save WCAL members stress the radio stations tradition, reputation and place in the community of classical music listeners. The ill-will generated by the public devalues the St. Olaf diploma, Schroeder said.

Henry-Moreland mentioned the secrecy of the negotiation, calling the administrations handling of the announcement a main irking point.

Schroeder pointed out the unfortunate nature of the sale. WCAL was started by students, yet students were not notified of the sale until its completion.

The privately owned radio station, WCAL, began almost 80 years ago, in 1918. In its time at St. Olaf, it grew from five physics students experimenting in the basement of Hoyme to a professional staff of 23, a student staff of nine and a special staff of four. The mission of WCAL includes a desire to reflect the intellectual, spiritual, and cultural traditions of St. Olaf College.

Schroeder believes that the goals of the administration, such as lowering tuition, improved alumni relations, and the endowment, can all be met by saving WCAL. After comparing the increase of the endowment to WCAL, Henry-Moreland agreed. It just isnt worth it. The radio station is a positive benefit to the college.

When students returned to campus, questions regarding the finality of the sale began to arise. It is not a done deal, Schroeder said. The sale is pending [the Federal Communication Committees] approval.

Before it is finalized, the FCC must review the sale, a process which can take anywhere from two weeks to two months. Within this review period there is a public comment window, when people may voice their opinions to the FCC. The public comment window closes on Oct 4.

Both Thomforde and members of Save WCAL encourage concerned students and friends to write to the FCC. Writing to Thomforde will no longer affect the sale of the station, though Thomforde admitted, If I werent the president, Id write the president.

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