Still At 88.1 FM On Your Dial:

Local Nonprofit Takes Over NPR Radio Station

by Alice Cherbonnier
Hopkins got $5 million for its nonprofit 10K watt station. Its overhead costs are fierce. Can Baltimore sustain WYPR?

How much is it worth to Baltimore philanthropists to have ready access to National Public Radio (NPR) programming? Try $5 million—and that's just for the radio frequency signal and some 15-year-old equipment. Add to that the annual cost of $425,000 for program fees for NPR shows—such as "All Things Considered," "A Prairie Home Companion," and the "Diane Rehm Show"—plus $7,500 annual dues to NPR. And then there's $73,000 a year to pay to Public Radio International (PRI) for rights to broadcast World Radio Network programming from midnight to 5 a.m. every day.

Local radio personality Marc Steiner, whose eponymous talk show has been airing on WJHU-FM 88.1 for many years, was among those who spearheaded the successful effort to buy that station when Johns Hopkins University announced its intention to sell. The ownership changed hands officially on January 31, and the station now has a new name—WYPR, for Your Public Radio.

At first glance, it appears that Hopkins was paid very handsomely for its 10,000 watt signal that reaches roughly a 40-mile radius. Moreover, the signal's potential for expansion is limited because the same frequency is assigned to WJTM in Frederick and WMUC at the University of Maryland College Park. It even has a nonprofit competitor for sponsorships: WBJC, a non-NPR classical music station affiliated with Baltimore City Community College since 1951, has a 50,000 watt signal.

However, with a scarcity of radio frequencies available, even non-commercial ones with limited reach can command a premium price. Potential buyers include wealthy religious groups and nonprofit broadcasters that want to reach a wider audience. The University of the District of Columbia, for purposes of comparison with the WJHU-WYPR transaction, sold its frequency in 1997 for $13 million.

To meet the $5 million price, WYPR raised just over $1 million in donations. The remaining $4 million has been obtained through a loan from Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust, secured by the personal guarantees of WYPR's eight-member board of directors.

Steiner expressed confidence that the 10-employee station will be able to meet its heavy fiscal obligations. "We have a total annual revenue stream of $2.1 million," he said. About $1.2 million of that comes from sponsorships, with the balance from membership contributions. Once grants are secured, he said the station plans to "build a local news department and do feature stories on people and local businesses." Until then, WYPR programming additions will be limited to new five-minute local shows as budget permits.

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This story was published on March 2, 2002.