Emails: Brown prez offered loan to WBRU in bid to avoid FM signal sale

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The president of Brown University offered the school’s financial support to alt-rock station WBRU and cautioned students about the legal and ethical implications of selling their coveted 95.5 FM signal, Eyewitness News has learned.

In an April 27 email obtained by Eyewitness News, Brown President Christina Paxson told student members of WBRU that the university would financially assist the station if necessary, asking them to “carefully consider the view that the station can indeed be brought back to health.”

“As you know, Brown stands ready to provide the station with a loan that will give you the time to make the necessary changes to the station’s operations,” Paxson wrote. “We have done this in the past, and it has worked out well.”

Brown spokesman Brian Clark confirmed the authenticity of the email, and said the loan would have been in the form of a line of credit, a pre-determined amount over a specific amount of time that Brown Broadcasting Services Inc., the nonprofit that owns WBRU, would have had to repay. Clark wouldn’t disclose the proposed amount of the line of credit.

Art Norwalk, a spokesman for WBRU, told Eyewitness News on Wednesday that ongoing discussions with the university about a line of credit have yet to result in an agreement.

In the same April email, Paxson also cautioned students against selling the station’s biggest asset: the 95.5 FM signal, which WBRU announced Tuesday has been sold for $5.63 million to a Christian music network, which will begin broadcasting on it Friday.

“I want to raise one additional point,” Paxson wrote. “Which is that the financial assets of the station (mainly the signal) were created through the generosity of generations of alumni and friends of WBRU. I believe that the WBRU Board has an obligation to do all it can to honor the intent of those who have given to the station over the years.”

“I assume the WBRU Board has looked into the complex legal issues associated with a substantial change in the mission of a non-profit organization,” she continued. “But even putting the legalities aside, it’s important to consider the ethical issues associated with taking assets that were given to support a radio station and using them for another purpose, unless there are clearly no other alternatives.”

Norwalk said WBRU has had multiple attorneys look into the legality of the sale and found no issues.

Although the 501(c)3 that operates WBRU is independent of Brown, Clark said the university has a vested interest in the station.

“As staff and board members at WBRU considered the independent station’s future over the last year, our interest has been in the sustainable, long-term ability of Brown Broadcasting Services to fulfill its mission of running a vibrant educational workshop for students,” Clark wrote in an email. “The future of the station was ultimately a decision for the students and board members at WBRU to make.”

WBRU has held a place on the FM dial since 1966, but the students who run it have said decreasing revenue and other issues led to the decision to sell.

On Tuesday, WBRU confirmed the sale of the FM signal to the Educational Media Foundation (EMF), a California-based nonprofit that broadcasts Christian adult-contemporary music. The profits from the sale will go towards an endowment to fund the educational workshop that powers the station, which will now be broadcast entirely online. It’s also possible some WBRU programming will air on a new low-power FM station in Providence.

Tucker Hamilton, a former member of the WBRU team and a recent Brown graduate, said the students’ vote to sell came after the station’s professional board, comprised of industry professionals and alumni, voted in favor of the sale.

“They felt that the financial problem was so bad that we need to vote to sell the signal, which was our most valuable asset as a terrestrial radio station,” Hamilton told Eyewitness News. “They said that they looked at all the options and tried to pursue them and the only option was to sell.”

Students, alumni and a professional business consultant came up with a second option: a “financial turnaround” plan that included the line of credit Paxson offered last spring.

In late April, the student board voted 25-14 in favor of exploring the sale – one vote short of gaining a two-third’s majority approval. Hamilton said he thought the station’s leaders would pursue the financial turnaround plan, but instead, the station’s general manager sent out an email suggesting they take the vote again.

In a separate email, she called the financial turnaround plan “unwise” and announced a new vote would be taken that week. Other students responded to the email voicing concern that the vote would be swayed.

But just days after the initial failed vote, the WBRU student board was preparing to convene to vote again – which is when Paxson’s email was delivered.

“I would have liked to meet with you to discuss this issue before the vote this evening – unfortunately, I learned of this meeting only late yesterday,” Paxson wrote after expressing her concerns over the sale.

At 8 p.m. that evening, the WBRU student board took a by-proxy vote and were instructed to attach their names to the ballots. The final tally was 30-8 in favor of the sale.

“Our corporate structure required separate approvals from the board of directors and the student membership,” Norwalk said in a statement. “Both were given.”

WBRU will go off the air at 11:59 p.m. on Thursday. Norwalk said they’ve entered into an agreement to broadcast EMF programmming on WBRU starting Sept. 1 until the FCC officially approves the station transfer at a later date.