By Thomas R. Collins
Barry University took over the license of the WXEL radio and TV stations 11 years ago — and seven years later, put up a for-sale sign.
The sign is still up. The four-year effort at a sale has left the future of Palm Beach County public broadcasting up in the air.
Now, there might be an end in sight.
The Palm Beach County School District is making a bid to buy the station. And Miami-based WPBT, which runs the public station Channel 2, says that a joint agreement between itself and the district would give WXEL, supported by many donors in the coastal towns of southern Palm Beach County, a bright future. “It is our mission to educate,” School District spokesman Nat Harrington said. “This is an asset that would allow us to program for numerous student groups simultaneously.”
WPBT’s president and CEO, Rick Schneider, said linking his station and WXEL makes perfect sense. “There’s no question in my mind that in today’s media environment these stations ought to be working together,” he said.
Deals have come and gone before. Barry initially sought to sell WXEL to a New York buyer for $5 million, but the deal fell through when the Federal Communications Commission decided it was best that the station not be sold to a group that wasn’t local.
The Community Broadcast Foundation, a group of local residents, also is now making a bid to buy the station. Harrington said the foundation would likely have a role in any deal the School District would strike. “With substantive financial support, we are bringing back local control of WXEL TV and radio, to ensure high-quality educational and enlightened programming continues to serve the Palm Beaches and the Treasure Coast,” the foundation writes in its proposal posted on its Web site. “We will cause the WXEL communities to galvanize behind its cause.”
The foundation’s leader, Murray Green, didn’t return repeated calls for comment.
The Palm Beach County School Board recently approved spending $4.5 million on a potential purchase of the WXEL license, over the objections of the teachers union, which called it a “boondoggle” that would come at the expense of teacher salaries. Harrington said one of the district’s main points in negotiating a deal is that, “We don’t want to have any operating expenses related to this station.”
WXEL station manager Jerry Carr has said the up-in-the-air status of the station has made it tough to get big donations. Barry spokesman Mike Laderman said donations are down but that they’re down at many organizations because of the economy and it’s hard to know what’s due to the limbo status of the station.
“We’ve probably suffered some, but in terms of how much, I wouldn’t know how to calculate that,” he said.
He said there isn’t much to say about the negotiations with the Palm Beach County School District because it is so early.
“We want what’s best for the community up there as well as all the employees of the station,” Laderman said. “We don’t want to rush anything.”
Schneider of WPBT said he doesn’t expect any deal to be struck until “January at the earliest.”
He said that a partnership between WXEL and WPBT would mean less redundant programming and pooling the two stations’ resources to put together more quality products.
It would also allow each station to better target its core audience. “WXEL could truly be aimed at the Palm Beach County market and WPBT could do some things differently as well,” he said.
Teaming up in the non-profit sector is different from the for-profit sector, he said, casting aside comparisons to joint agreements between local newspapers and other media outlets that are widely seen as generating inferior news coverage
“I just think there is a benefit in combining resources,” he said, “and it is not a competitive benefit, the way it is in the commercial marketplace.”