Speculation continues in central Illinois about the fate of Bradley University’s NPR station WCBU.
The station has been located on Bradley’s campus since the early 1970s.
However, the physical location of WCBU will change in the near future when the building the houses the station is demolished to allow a big construction project to move forward.
Officials from Bradley University (BU) and Illinois State University (ISU) have been meeting to craft a partnership between WGLT, based in Bloomington/Normal and WCBU, based in Peoria. According to Google Maps the two cities are 34-miles from each other on I-74.
The discussions concern ways to fold WCBU's operations, programming and fundraising into WGLT. The goal is save money by pooling resources and increase the public service to listeners of both stations.
According to RC McBride, GM of WGLT, the conversations between ISU and BU have been cordial and focused on the future.
McBride told Spark News that the negotiations are confidential and he could not provide more information at this time.
The absence of information has caused rumors and speculation to spread.
This has made life difficult for employees of both stations.
Things escalated in December when BU President Gary Roberts told the Peoria Journal-Star [link]:
"The deal is all but done but for a few remaining details.”
Since then a few WCBU members have organized a Save Peoria Public Radio campaign via Facebook [link]. One rumor that isn’t true is that WCBU will be leaving Peoria. Neither party has any intention of moving WBCU away from Peoria.
Human nature being what it is, there is a tendency for people to imagine worst-case scenarios when they do not have current information. Because of non-disclosure agreements signed by people from both organizations, the public has been told little about what is being discussed.
WHY BRADLEY UNIVERSITY IS GETTING OUT OF THE RADIO BUSINESS
|BU President Gary Roberts|
According to public comments made by BU President Roberts, the university is focusing on its core mission.
Like many private universities, Bradley’s leaders are asking themselves a key existential question:
What business are we in?
The answer to this question at BU is that they don’t want to be in the radio business. BU believes public radio is not part of its core mission.
Some people don’t like this decision but at least BU has made a decision.
So, the pending agreement with ISU will shift the financial burden of operating the station to ISU. Plus, BU saves face by maintaining ownership of WCBU’s FCC license.
Crafting the final agreement is difficult because the two schools operate very differently. ISU is a public institution with over 21,000 students. Public institutions want to be as transparent as possible in their business dealings.
Bradley University is a private, not-for-profit organization that values its privacy. BU, with around 5,500 students, is much smaller than ISU. BU invests heavily in specific academic programs such as Education, Health Sciences and Business.
BU is the home of the Foster College of Business, a nationally known program that has become a magnet for fund raising. So the priority at BU is Business; WCBU is not.
WCBU’s current home on campus, Jobst Hall, is being demolished later in 2019 to make room for a new business and engineering complex. The new complex does not have room for the radio station.
WCBU COSTS BU A LOT OF MONEY
Since it became a charter member of NPR in the 1970s, WCBU has grown very little. WCBU has fewer than 10 fulltime staff members. The station’s total revenue in FY 2017, according to WCBU’s FY 2017 audited financial statement, was approximately $1.1 million. This is small for a NPR station in a market the size of Peoria.
In FY 2017, BU provided $347,000 to WCBU and the station still ran a deficit. This has been the situation for many years. WCBU is a long way from becoming self-sustaining.
WCBU’s Nielsen ratings are anemic. The schedule is a miss-mash of programs and genres. WCBU produces little local news.
WCBU has already lost significant listening in Peoria to WGLT via a translator signal.
When BU learned in May 2018 that the cost of moving WCBU could be almost a million dollars, President Roberts told an internal University meeting that move was prohibitive. Roberts said the time had come for: “…difficult decisions about the future of WCBU.”
Robert’s comment stirred angst with WCBU’s members and underwriters. The comment caused near panic among WCBU’s staff.
Then BU began looking at its options for the station. After talking with several other universities that own NPR member stations, BU thought a partnership with nearby WGLT offered the best “fit.”
Some people in Peoria feel BU has “sold out” by making an operating agreement with out-of-town ISU. Two WCBU underwriters (including a former member of WCBU’s advisory board) published an editorial in a weekly Peoria newspaper just after Christmas. The editorial did not go easy on BU:
“Bradley’s decision fails to acknowledge the public interest and financial support for WCBU. Bradley has also ignored the community’s investment and the University’s accountability for that investment. Bradley’s actions regarding WCBU are extraordinarily disappointing.”
“As such, we believe Bradley has a clear fiduciary responsibility to the public that provides it’s funding. Allowing fundraising to continue while such uncertainty exists… does not put Bradley’s actions in a positive light.”
KEN SAYS: Look for a “go or no go” decision soon because the wrecking ball waits for no one. Plus, the ongoing uncertainty has put a blemish on BU’s local reputation.
When/if the partnership moves forward, which is expected, citizens will have input on WGLT’s plans for WCBU. If the deal doesn't move forward BU will be in the radio business a bit longer.