PBC could lose NPR broadcasting in radio station sale

Palm Beach County could lose the only radio station that broadcasts National Public Radio, if the sale of WPBI-FM by American Public Media Group goes through. But there’s a chance the sale might fail.

Board members of Classical South Florida, the subsidiary that owns WPBI and its broadcast license, were not consulted about the sale by parent American Public Media as it was being crafted. They only were notified of the deal a couple of weeks ago.

Now some members of the board, which is scheduled to meet this Thursday, are upset. They include Palm Beach accountant Richard Rampell, who wants to stop the station’s sale to a religious broadcaster in favor of finding a buyer willing to keep public news programming.

Without an NPR affiliate based in Palm Beach County, residents “do not have any other radio alternative for fact-based news, and I think that’s critical,” Rampell said.

Upon hearing news of the deal to sell, board member Arthur Knight of Naples resigned, Rampell said. Others, including Rampell and and Palm Beach resident Vicki Kellogg, are so steamed by the deal they are working on a plan to find another buyer for WPBI.

In 2011, Barry University sold Boynton Beach-based public radio station WXEL-FM to Classical South Florida, a subsidiary of American Public Media, or APMG. St. Paul, Minn.-based APMG is the largest station-based public radio organization in the U.S. Its portfolio includes A Prairie Home Companion and Marketplace, plus classicical music programming.

When the sale took place, the call letters were changed to WPBI-FM 90.7 and the format to classical music.

The public radio format on WXEL was shifted to 101.9 FM, but is also available on HD radio at 90.7. Listeners to broadcast radio complain that the 101.9 signal is weak and can only be heard in the greater West Palm Beach area.

Rampell said the Classical South Florida stations have been losing money, and Educational Media Foundation, a religious broadcasting company based in Rockland, Calif., has offered to buy them from APMG.

However, Rampell says the sale is bad for Palm Beach County residents. Many soon won’t be able to hear programs such as All Things Considered and Morning Edition. “We need a well-informed electorate to make informed decisions about the country,” Rampell said. “And we want that to happen here, too.”

“NPR is a worldwide news organization,” Rampell added. “It has 17 foreign bureaus, more than any other news organization, and over 800 member stations contributing news reporting. ”

Rampell thinks WPBI, valued at $6.5 million, could be a moneymaker with the right buyer.

One of those potential buyers: WLRN, the Miami public radio station that also broadcasts NPR. Some private investors, who do not wish to be named, also have expressed interest, Rampell said. WLRN’s signal is strong enough to be heard in parts of Palm Beach County.

Angie Andresen, APMG director of communications, said Tuesday the company does not comment “on opportunities to acquire or sell radio stations.” An Educational Media Foundation executive could not be reached for comment by presstime.

The radio station sale contains a confidentiality clause, but Rampell said board members have determined they are not bound by it. The sale is expected to close within weeks.

A Classical South Florida board meeting is set for Thursday, June 25. At that time, Rampell said the board could either vote to approve the station’s sale, vote against the sale or vote to table the matter.

If the board does not approve the sale, Rampell said the board has been warned by APMG general counsel Sylvia L. Strobel that it could be fired and a new board appointed by APMG. Board members also could be sued, the board was told.

When asked for comment, Andresen said in an email: “Like all Boards, the Trustees of the (Classical South Florida) CSF Board have fiduciary responsibilities they must uphold. Ms. Strobel periodically reminds all Trustees of these responsibilities through training sessions - the last being at the CSF Board Meeting on November 18, 2014.”

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