They, along with over 5,300 current St. Olaf students, faculty, alumni and other community members think that the St. Olaf Board of Regents made a mistake in selling WCAL 89.3 FM, the listener-supported radio station owned and operated by the College since 1922.
Preliminary news of the sale was released last August, following months of closed-door negotiations between St. Olaf and Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). The announcement sparked disappointment and opposition from many supporters of the radio station and the College, who worked under the banner of the non-profit group SaveWCAL (www.SaveWCAL.org) in an attempt to halt the sale.
One of SaveWCAL's most compelling arguments was that unlike most college- and university-owned radio stations, which tend to be financial drains and artistic flops, WCAL operated in the black and produced widely-respected radio content. The station had just completed a record-breaking listener fundraising drive and received no direct contributions from St. Olaf in the current fiscal year.
Also, WCAL's award-winning content helped boost St. Olaf's strong musical and religious reputation. The Minneapolis Star Tribunes assessment of 89.3 was typical; it recently called WCAL a "remarkable station" and hailed its "sophisticated, creative programming," which included frequent performances by St. Olaf music ensembles, daily chapel services and other unique offerings.
In October, SaveWCAL offered St. Olaf a counterproposal, committing its organization to raising $6 million over two years from WCAL supporters and $500,000 annually thereafter if the College would cancel the sale. In the end, however, St. Olaf rejected SaveWCAL's proposal, opting instead to take the immediate $10.5 million offered for WCAL from MPR. The sale was finalized on Nov. 19 and WCAL's St. Olaf-produced programming went off the air shortly thereafter.
In response, some long-time supporters of St. Olaf have threatened to withdraw donations and bequests to the college, some allegedly as high as six or seven figures. Although the WCAL sale has caused understandable anger and divisions in the St. Olaf community, we should all pause and think carefully before these rifts widen any further.
St. Olaf President Christopher Thomforde, Vice President for College Relations Jan McDaniel and the Board of Regents, the leading advocates for the sale, all want St. Olaf to be a great institution of higher learning while remaining true to its mission as a "College of the Church." These are admirable goals worthy of support. If St. Olaf's leaders truly believe it was a wise and necessary move to sell WCAL, and that there were no viable alternatives, then they should be recognized for standing firm to a difficult decision amid considerable criticism.
Although I strongly disagree with their decision to sell WCAL, I respect their administrative abilities and hope that the entire community, including those who opposed the sale, can now come together and work to build and secure a stronger, better future for St. Olaf. Over the years, WCAL and its dedicated staff have brought a rich heritage of music, ideas and faith into the St. Olaf community and the broader region.
The best way for the station's supporters to honor that legacy is to emulate and share these ideals with others, not to undertake financial retribution against St. Olaf, which supported and sustained WCAL for over eight decades. SaveWCAL opposed the sale of WCAL with integrity and dignity, and in doing so, the organization raised important issues about St. Olaf's administrative decision-making process, the meaning of St. Olaf's mission as a "College of the Church" and the role of St. Olaf in our regional community. President Thomforde, his successors and the Board of Regents would do well to carefully consider these broader issues in the years to come.