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Public radio boosters to buy WRNI

UPDATE II: Since the ProJo has gotten up to speed, WRNI GM Joe O'Connor has made an announcement via e-mail. Here's most of the accompanying news release:

(Boston) -WBUR, 90.9 FM, Boston's NPR news station, today announced it will sell WRNI, 1290 AM, to Rhode Island Public Radio (RIPR) for $2 million, fulfilling its commitment to secure the future of public radio in the Ocean State.  This agreement, pending state and federal approvals, provides Rhode Island with its first-ever locally owned and operated National Public Radio (NPR) network.

RIPR also announced that it will purchase WAKX, 102.7 FM in Narragansett, dramatically expanding the station's coverage to include nearly all of southern Rhode Island.  RIPR's purchase of WAKX will be financed through a loan from The Rhode Island Foundation, and the acquisition is expected to be completed within 60 days.    

"Our goal and belief is that public radio in Rhode Island is best served by local ownership and control," said WBUR Group General Manager Paul La Camera.  "This agreement creates that opportunity, and from my perspective, it provides the best of both worlds: The people of Rhode Island own and direct the future of their public radio station while allowing us to provide continuing support through what will be some formative, but exciting years."

Under the terms of the agreement, the Boston University-owned WBUR, which has made a $3.6 million capital investment in its Rhode Island public radio operation since 1998, will receive the $2 million from the non-profit organization over a 10-year period, while continuing to provide programming and engineering support to the new broadcast entity for a period of five years.

 "This historic agreement ensures that Rhode Islanders will control the destiny of this important media outlet," said RIPR President Eugene Mihaly, who acknowledged Boston University for its critical role in incubating WRNI for the past nine years.  "Local NPR stations are the crown jewels of communities across the country.  RIPR is thrilled to bring WRNI home." 

Mihaly noted that the Rhode Island Foundation has "stood by" the NPR station since its inception.

 "The foundation has been a staunch supporter of the effort to create a locally directed and controlled NPR station since WRNI arrived in Rhode Island," said Ronald V. Gallo Ed.D, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. "The establishment of Rhode Island Public Radio assures the development of local programs bringing fresh perspectives to the tough challenges facing our communities, and connecting Rhode Islanders from Westerly to Woonsocket.  We are delighted to be a partner in this important venture."

Once WAKX is on the air throughout the region, said La Camera, the university will sell WXNI, 1230 AM, the Westerly-based station which currently carries WRNI programming but will no longer be needed.  He said the proceeds of that sale will be credited towards the $2 million RIPR is paying for WRNI.  WBUR also will facilitate and support in the transition and assist with regulatory and related licensing matters in the coming months.

"I am appreciative of the strong support of Boston University, The Rhode Island Foundation, and the Board of Rhode Island Public Radio for their willingness to create Rhode Island's first locally owned NPR network," said WRNI General Manager Joe O'Connor, who has been asked to remain in his post.  "I must also thank the growing number of listeners and the dedicated WRNI staff who have contributed significantly to the station since its inception.

 "Once the purchase and approval are complete, RIPR will need to sustain this exciting community resource.  I'm confident we Rhode Islanders will enthusiastically support these stations that are uniquely and now truly Rhode Island's NPR stations.  Stay tuned!"

. . . .

N4N has learned that a Rhode Island-based group of public radio supporters, led by Gene Mihaly, are buying WRNI (1290 AM), the public radio station whose license is held by Boston University.

[UPDATE: Mihaly confirmed that his group is acquiring WRNI, saying, "That's true," although he declined further comment until Sunday, when the ProJo plans to publish a story about this.]

WRNI has had an up-and-down history since being established in 1998, eliminating Rhode Island's dubious status as one of only two states without its own public radio station.

Mihaly has led the Foundation for Ocean State Public Radio, which worked with Boston-based WBUR (90.9 FM) to create WRNI. After steadily beefing up the Providence-based station, in part by hiring talented journalists (Jon Saltzman, now with the Boston Globe; Pam Watts, now with WPRI-TV; Ellen Liberman, now a contributor to RI Monthly), WBUR made continued cuts to WRNI after 9-11. Although the need to cover the news at hand was obvious, the reductions signaled an abrupt change in course and WRNI has yet to return to its former strength.

After an outcry when BU planned to sell WRNI's license, the university backtracked and said in June 2005 that it would continue to operate the station indefinitely. Mihaly reacted skeptically at the time, telling me: "I think I will await elaboration. We have heard several reports over several months — the station is for sale, the station is not for sale. Given recent performance, I do not think that Rhode Island would be optimally served by the continuation of WBUR management. I would be delighted to be proved wrong in my concern."

WRNI has been on an upward trend in the time since, with the hiring of GM Joe O'Connor, an experienced news veteran, and reporter Nancy Cook, and the continued presence of longtime stalwart Mark Degon.

Now, as it turns out, Mihaly and his fellow public radio boosters will have the opportunity to operate the station themselves.

The Sunday Providence Journal will have a story about this (unless Fountain Street decides to move a little faster).

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