By Jenny Staletovich
MIAMI —The sale of WXEL, the station started more than 40 years ago to educate local migrant workers, moved closer to joining the nation’s biggest team in public radio when the Florida Board of Education granted a lease transfer Dec. 17.
The sale, which has pitted listeners against Barry University and its suitor, Classical South Florida, now goes to the Federal Communications Commission.
Barry and Classical South Florida, owned by American Public Media, expect to submit an application this month, triggering another round of hearings by the FCC.
While opponents and the station’s advisory board argued against the deal at the Board of Education’s meeting at Miami Dade College, Barry persuaded commissioners with the help of former Gov. Bob Martinez, now a lobbyist working for the university. Selling the station, Martinez said, will pay off a million-dollar loan and pump $2.85 million back into the Miami Shores school, where 90 percent of its full-time students get financial help.
“This is only going to help a lot of students who wouldn’t go to college otherwise,” Martinez told commissioners.
In a concession to opponents, commissioners stipulated that a majority of the station’s new board live in WXEL’s listening area.
But critics insist it could end a tradition of hometown radio that aired the first Spanish broadcast of a space launch.
“If you relegate that to a company run out of Minnesota, then shame on you and shame on the citizens of Palm Beach County for not making you reject this deal,” said Bryce Combs.
Commissioner Roberto Martinez, a former U.S. attorney who characterized some of the opponents as “unhappy suitors,” explained the board had no stake in the licensing, only the lease. The state provided $5 million to build the station in 1989.
But attorney Matt Leibowitz, representing the Community Broadcast Foundation, which wants to buy the station, argued Barry could be violating the terms of its lease because it requires the station serve Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast.
Barry’s relationship with the advisory board has grown bitter after it announced plans to sell in 2004.
The station’s value had shrunk to $350,000 when Barry bought it in 1997. But after pumping $5.3 million into both the radio and television stations, Barry’s trustees decided it no longer fit the school’s mission. New York’s WNET-TV teamed up with the CBF as its community-based partner to buy it, but the deal died when the FCC failed to consider the license application.
When bidding was re-opened in 2009, Classical South Florida won with a $3.85 million offer. Incensed, the CBF — who said it made its own offer for the same amount — started a petition to stop the sale and won an endorsement from the station’s state-mandated advisory board. Barry, the CBF said, ignored their offer. Barry insisted the CBF never submitted a proposal.
Classical South Florida’s offer, Barry spokesman Michael Laderman said, was the only one with solid financing. American Public Media, home to A Prairie Home Companion, operates 43 stations in seven states, making it the largest owner of public radio stations.
“It’s the radio equivalent of the Yankees coming into Boynton Beach,” former WXEL host Jason Lautar told the board. But critics insist that large portfolio is what endangers the station.
“The issue isn’t public broadcasting. It’s local programming,” said James R. Roth. “Legally there may be nothing going on that’s wrong. Morally and ethically, there is.”