This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Three years after being taken over by a local group, public radio station KCPW is in another fight for its life. And again, the National Public Radio affiliate finds itself turning to its supporters for an infusion of cash. Deadline? The end of September.
The problem, says KCPW President Ed Sweeney, is familiar to any small business struggling through a recession. "This is a tough economy," Sweeney says. "What we report on air is what I'm living small, local businesses can't find lenders."
When Community Wireless of Park City divested itself of the station in 2008, Wasatch Public Media, a hastily organized Salt Lake City-based group, raised enough money to pay a $200,000 down payment and secure $2.2 million in short term interest-only loans from National Cooperative Bank to meet the $2.4 million asking price. Community Wireless still operates public radio station KPCW in Park City.
But Sweeney says the economic downturn that hit shortly after the acquisition altered the financial landscape and has put the station on the edge of a crises. On one hand, NCB wants to get out of the business of public-radio financing. To make matters worse, recession-pressed donors have reneged on $236,000 in donor pledges, he says.
Now, Sweeney says the station must raise $265,000 by Sept. 30 to allow it to pay off one of its loans. That would permit the station to focus on reducing the second loan enough to allow refinancing the balance through a local bank.
Even though KCPW raised $828,000 in pledges $228,000 beyond the $600,000 it needed to begin the purchase the station only has been able to collect $592,000. Unpaid pledges include $175,000 from one donor, Sweeney says.
Financially solid •Sweeney emphasizes that, outside of refinancing the loans that bought station, KCPW is on solid financial footing.
Since Wasatch Public Media bought the station, it has raised $1 million in donations and $1.2 million in program underwriting and pledges are increasing, he says. KCPW also has expanded its offices in Library Square, negotiated new agreements on its broadcast towers and installed a satellite dish.
A major problem, he says, is that public radio listeners are used to regular pledge drives for operating expenses, but are confused when a station asks them to also give in a capital fund drive.
"The challenge we have is how often can you ask your donors for help," Sweeney says. Worse, the station needs the money by Sept. 30, but fears that calling emergency public meetings and soliciting donations on air could create the impression that KCPW is financially foundering.
"I walk a fine line. How do you message this without yelling, 'Fire!'?" Sweeney says.
Two NPR stations? •One question that often comes up is how many NPR stations does Salt Lake City need? Besides KCPW downtown, the city also has KUER at the University of Utah. KUER receives some state funding through the University of Utah, while KCPW gets no state money.
Besides those two news stations, there's also the KRCL community radio station, which isn't an NPR affiliate.
"It's rare for a market this size to have two NPR-licensed stations," says John Greene, station manager at KUER. But Greene points out that Salt Lake City also supports other cultural and arts organizations in numbers out of proportion with its size.
KCPW works to avoid duplicating the service offered statewide by KUER by focusing on Salt Lake City and County, Sweeney says.
Greene says research shows that having competing public radio stations increases overall listenership, but that may not be true for donors. "That doesn't equate to the money pool supporting it all," Greene says. "That gets kind of dicey."
Salt Lake City council member Carlton Christensen, who attended a KCPW meeting last week, says that the station fills an important need for local news and political debate.
"They do play a critical role in the city in news reporting and have a unique niche as the news media has transformed," he says. "If we want the role to continue, we will need to step up in helping them retire the debt."
Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, who opposes government subsidies to broadcasters, says the market should decide how many stations Utah needs.
"It should be left up to what the consumers want to pay for," Dougall says, but adds, "Do we need more than one kind of burger joint? Obviously, people think we do."
Sweeney doesn't mince words: "I'm committed to making this station stay alive. It's a damn good station and we need to preserve it. If the community likes us, we need their help now."
Public radio stationin peril
For more information on KCPW's financial crisis and public meetings, visit kcpw.org.
To download more detailed information about the capital campaign, visit: http://bit.ly/qDv5zK.