Chattanooga's public radio, TV stations may merge

Chattanooga's public radio, TV stations may merge

April 25th, 2015 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News
“This is unsustainable given the return on investment for students and the UTC academic enterprise.”
Chancellor Steve Angle

SELECTED UTC BUDGET RECOMMENDATIONS

* Possible merger of WUTC and WTCI Channel 45
* Reduce operational costs for Cadek Music Conservatory
* Move various departments, including the economics department, to the College of Business
* Merge departments, including combining the music and theater programs
Source: University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

POLL: Do you listen to public radio?

They're miles apart, across town from each other, but Chattanooga's public radio station, WUTC, and its public TV station, WTCI, may someday merge.

That's one idea to come up in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's "budget rebalancing" process underway now. The process is meant to save $5.8 million annually through such measures as early retirement offered recently to employees.

"The question is how to retain an NPR radio station in Chattanooga and not have UTC subsidize such a huge portion of the costs," UTC Chancellor Steve Angle wrote in a list of budget recommendations distributed to university employees via email earlier this month.

The university is on track in 2016 to spend about $500,000 on WUTC, the university's 30,000-watt FM public radio station, plus such "soft costs" as providing electricity and rent-free space. The public radio station used to have a $1 million surplus. But that's been drawn down, Angle wrote, and it should run out in 2016.

"This is unsustainable," Angle wrote, "given the return on investment for students and the UTC academic enterprise."

University spokesman Chuck Cantrell said students haven't had much on-air time on WUTC until the debut a year ago of "Mocs Mix," a one-hour segment each weeknight from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. when students get to be DJs and play music.

From its broadcast antenna on Signal Mountain, the station's signal reaches past Knoxville, well into North Carolina and the fringes of Nashville and Atlanta. Local hosts Richard Winham, Mark Colbert and Cleveland Carlson have a devoted audience, Cantrell said.

The merger could offer "synergies" for WUTC and WTCI, officials from both stations say, such as combining fundraising drives and allowing more sharing of locally produced content.

"We're looking forward to exploring opportunities that this may present," said Paul Grove, president and CEO of WTCI, located on Bonnyshire Drive not far from the Volkswagen assembly plant. "We've met a couple times just to talk about ways to work together."

Dr. Steve Angle, Chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, walks across the campus in this 2014 file photo.

Dr. Steve Angle, Chancellor of the University of...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Radio and TV mergers have worked elsewhere, Grove said, including in Cleveland, Ohio, where the public TV and radio stations successfully morphed in 2001 into what's known now as "ideastream."

However, Grove cautioned that Chattanooga's public TV station doesn't have enough money to subsidize the radio station.

"WTCI is not sitting on a pile of money," he said.

WTCI's annual budget varies from $2.5 million to $4.5 million, Grove said. WTCI has a staff of 20 employees, he said, and the six-year average for all of membership and major giving is $417,300 a year.

The radio station's annual budget is about $1 million, Cantrell said, with nine full-time employees and two part-timers. UTC now gives $253,000 annually in cash to WUTC, plus about $100,000 in soft costs, he said. Pledge drives generate about $250,000 a year and underwriting, or paid sponsorships, provides the radio station another $250,000. The remainder is from such sources as a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Cantrell said.

So the university's cash now pays about one quarter of the annual budget for the radio station.

Even if talks don't result in a merger or a money-saving strategy, UTC won't abandon WUTC, Cantrell said.

"We want to keep both stations strong and healthy," he said.

Another cost-cutting option that UTC eventually might pursue, Cantrell said, would be to strengthen the radio station's connection with student learning by giving students more on-air time.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.


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