Possible auction of WKAR-TV spectrum triggers resistance, questions

Jan 4, 2016

Viewers of WKAR-TV learned recently there’s a chance the station could stop broadcasting in 2016. MSU will decide soon whether to offer the station’s broadband spectrum in a federal auction that could make millions of dollars for the University. We talk with stakeholders about the upcoming decision.


Current State talks about the possibility of WKAR-TV ending its broadcast function with Mitch Lyons, Vice Chair of the MSU Board of Trustees, and longtime WKAR supporters Rich Weingartner and Jessica Wortley Adler, both of whom served on the now defunct WKAR Community Advisory Board.

Public forums are scheduled for Jan. 4 and Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. in room 147 of MSU's Communication Arts and Sciences Building, 404 Wilson Road.

TRANSCRIPT

MARK BASHORE: Some viewers of WKAR-TV are upset the station’s broadcasting operation could end in 2016. Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon has until next Tuesday [Jan. 12, 2016] to decide whether to offer the station’s broadband spectrum in a Federal Communications Commission reverse auction scheduled to begin in late March.

Wireless companies are eager for more spectrum. The FCC values WKAR-TV’s at up to $206 million, though it’s not known whether bids would reach that level. Some are saying WKAR’s status as a public TV station means it should remain available over the air.  Meanwhile, President Simon and others  comment that content is becoming increasingly available online.

We welcome three guests to share their thoughts on an auction and the possibility that WKAR-TV may end its broadcast function.

Mitch Lyons is the current Vice Chair of the MSU Board of Trustees. Welcome.

MITCH LYONS: Hi Mark, good morning. Happy New Year.

and longtime WKAR supporters Rich Weingartner and Jessica Wortley Adler, both of whom served on the now defunct WKAR Community Advisory Board.

BASHORE: Same to you. We'll also point out that the Board of Trustees holds the license for WKAR TV and Radio and that the Board recently authorized President Simon to make the decision whether to participate in the auction.

Our two other guests are long time WKAR supporters. Rich Weingartner is a longtime WKAR volunteer. He and Jessica Wortley Adler were also members of the now-defunct WKAR Community Advisory Board.

BASHORE: Rich and Jessica, welcome.

RICH WEINGARTNER: Good morning.

JESSICA ADLER: Good morning.

BASHORE: We'll point out that there are two public meetings in the next week about this possibility. The first is tonight here in the MSU Communication Arts Building, room 147 at 7pm. The second is a week from tonight.

Mitch Lyons, talk to us about what you think of this option that MSU has to auction off the WKAR-TV spectrum. What do you make of this?

LYONS: Well it's all kind of happening kind of quickly in terms of when we were made aware of this opportunity and still a lot of unknowns that we're still exploring. And I think that going ahead and giving President Simon the opportunity to at least explore this further is why we decided to go ahead and authorize, as there is a lot of things that need consideration. And this decision to move forward on the twelfth certainly doesn't lock us in to doing anything other than giving us the right to do so if we decided to move forward.

BASHORE: President Simon and other Trustees that I've spoken with about this --  and late last week I spoke with both Joel Furgeson and Dianne Byrum -- they have emphasized to me that a decision to participate in the auction merely preserves the option to participate. Yes, it could lead to WKAR-TV stopping broadcasting, but it's not a guarantee of that. It sounds as if your taking the same kind of mindset, is that right?

LYONS: Yeah, I think were all on lock step in regards to that. There's just a lot to digest here and a lot we don't know and won't know frankly even if we decided to move forward. It doesn't mean we're going to get an offer on the auction that meets whatever number that is, that we came up with. Obviously, if we decided to move forward and decided that selling was an option, you've got to come up with a number that you think is fair and there's no guarantee that that figure would even be met in the auction. So, a lot of unknowns and this at least keeps the door open for us.

BASHORE: Rich Weingartner you served on WKAR Community Advisory Board for around five years. What do you think of this whole scenario?

WEINGARTNER: First, it caught me completely off guard when I got the email in mid-December that this was even an option and that it was available. All media pretty much around the Lansing area at least has been silent. Because this affects not just public TV stations, but all TV stations and I hadn't heard anything about it at all. I was shocked that anyone would even be considering selling the spectrum that WKAR-TV broadcasts on, because to me there is no price that you can put on public TV and the educational opportunity it provides to the community. 

BASHORE: Jessi Adler what do you think?

ADLER: I have the same opinion that Rich does. I too was caught off guard, Although, in doing my research, I saw that many other stations around the country had had public forums in, way back in October and November. So the fact that we here, in the mid-Michigan area, were just learning about it over the holiday seemed a bit of a surprise to me. And I, you know, didn't help but have some conspiracy thoughts about whether MSU was doing that on purpose or not and I hope not. But I do find that I can't, like Rich said, how do you put a price on free educational programming for both children and adults? I know my nieces watch, you know, PBS and WKAR all the time and my husband and I watch it, and not everybody has access to cable or the Internet. So in the Lansing area 25% of people don't have the internet so if they don't have the internet then they probably don't have cable either, which means they're watching free public broadcasting.

BASHORE: Mitch Lyons, we're hearing from a lot of people who have those general kinds of views. How do you respond to those? What do you make of them?

LYONS: Well I think it is a valid concern and certaintly one shared by the board. We do understand our responsibility to provide that content to the public. You know, the thing we are trying to get our arms around is, if that ceased to exist on our end what happens? Is there another provider of some sort that can come in and provide that? And I don't know those answers yet and that's really why we want to explore this further and see that, along with some other issues, obliviously, that I know you've addressed with President Simon on your interview with her, that all fall under the consideration. But that is certainly is one that we are very much aware of and concerned about as well.

BASHORE: Mitch, what role does the board play once the auction gets started? Is that clear to you?

LYONS: Well again like I said, I think if it got to that point then I think we need to be on a consensus in terms of what is fair value for that spectrum. And that's a hard thing to really to come up with in my mind because who knows what the future holds, you know. It's kind of like we've equated it to owning lakefront property on Lake Michigan. Is the value only continue to go up? But with that,  unfortunately we can't control a future sale either; it's got to be directed by the FCC. It's not like we own it outright. We essentially lease it from the FCC.

BASHORE: But do you expect the board to have a thumbs up or a thumbs down role here in terms of values that might come in should we pursue the auction? Will the board have that authority?      

LYONS: I don't know that we have the authority necessarily but I know it's certainly… Lou Anna is going to, you know, speak with us, share with us, and I don't think she will move forward without a consensus on the board. But you know it's really... Again if it gets to that point, what is that number that we're comfortable saying, 'okay this makes sense'? If we got an offer and we've appeased ourselves in terms of thinking 'alright there is another way to provide this content to the public and through the educational opportunities through College of Communication and Arts' you know… If we move forward, what's that number? That's the thing I'm struggling with personally. You know, how do you put a value on that? And I'm not sure you can and be hundred percent sure that that's the right decision.

BASHORE: Mitch Lyons is the Vice Chair of the MSU Board of Trustees. We're also joined by Rich Weingartner and Jessica Wortley Adler, former members of the WKAR Community Advisory Board. We're talking about the possibility of an FCC reverse auction that would allow bidders to bid on the broadband spectrum currently used by WKAR-TV. Rich, when President Simon was on the show a few weeks ago she pointed to all the cord cutting taking place and that involves content consumers getting programming from sources, say on the internet rather than on broadcast signals or subscription or cable TV. Doesn't she have a point? I mean, isn't the future of… more web-delivered content? Isn't that likely? Isn't that evolving right now? 

WEINGARTNER: I completely agree that, yes, the deliver of content is definitely changing and switching more to online delivery. Although, part of the cord cutting is that people are going away from cable and satellite to more over-the-air because it is free. So that's… usually people cord cut in combination with over-the-air broadcast along with Internet delivery. And while that is also the case, more affluent people tend to be the ones that are able to cut the cord and switch to internet delivery more readily because they can afford the internet, it's more readily available at higher speeds for them.

Part of what public broadcasting has always meant to me is that it's available to everyone no matter their state in life. To the affluent, to the minorities, to the ones who are not well off, because it was always available free of charge over the air. So while in a regular commercial sense you might want to look at the possibility and think, 'well we might lose some viewership,' but public broadcasting is supposed to be available to the entire public no matter their ability to pay to receive content and the only way we can reach everyone across the area without paying is free over-the-air broadcast. So that is why I think there is not a price we can put.   

BASHORE: Jessi, anything to add to that?

ADLER: I just think we don't know what technology is changing. I mean look at what we've had in the last two years, ten years, fifteen years, and I know in Lou Anna's comments last week she said, 'we don't know what it will look like in ten years,' and that's exactly it. We don't know what it's going to look like in ten years. So is the FCC really going to need all of this spectrum in another ten years? Are we going to have a completely different type of technology all together that we all need to be changing for? So are we giving up something prematurely that we don't even know what's going to exist or not going to exist? So I'd hate to see the station sell off only to find out in a couple of years that it really was unnecessary. And you know we're not the only station. Every station is facing this. So whether you're a PBS, NBC, ABC, a FOX, every station around the country is facing something similar. So if we're talking losing public broadcasting, we're talking about losing a lot of news information and educational programming that is going out to our listeners and our viewers.

BASHORE: We want to point out that our listeners that we are available on social media here, if you have questions for any of our guests, you can reach us on Twitter @KARCurrentState or also on FaceBook at Current State from WKAR.

Mitch Lyons, another point that critics are raising involves the likelihood that the spectrum will move from a non-profit, public entity as we've pointed out -- public broadcasting -- and likely end up in the hands of a for-profit wireless company and some people view this as pretty inappropriate. Any response to those complaints?

LYONS: I'm not a hundred percent sure I understand the concerns there to make a comment on that. But you know I think again it comes down to… All these concerns that are being raised are valid concerns and that again, we're still in the exploratory mode. This board has not come consensus that yes it makes sense to sell or anything. We're still trying to weigh the waters here. We're looking forward to the public comments and continuing to hear from the public and people as they raise concerns. So I don't want to give people the impression that we're leaning one way or another. It's simply just looking at the issue. Because as you look forward ten to twenty years down the road…you know what, it could be a situation we're we looked at it and oh jeeze that was unnecessary or it could be a situation where, jeeze, the spectrum you know maybe it's not even needed due to advancing technology and we missed out on a opportunity you know to get a significant amount of money for something that maybe down the road isn't valued as highly. So that's the unknown unfortunately and you would love to have a crystal ball and know exactly the right way to move on this but we're just going to have make some educated guesses, if you will, and make a decision from there.   

BASHORE: Rich, some numbers of skeptics and opponents who've weighed in online and else where, appear convinced that this already a done deal. Are you among those people or are you more hopeful than that given how you feel about that?

WEINGARTNER: I'm more hopeful than that. I tend to believe people when they say what they say. So I believe that the board is still considering this although I am very concerned that they may make the decision to sell. They keep saying…well we'll sell…or they have to come up with a number if they decide to proceed in the auction. I don't know how you can up with that number in a couple months. You know they talk about possibly getting the money putting it in an endowment and being able to run whatever the future is of WKAR-TV off that endowment. Without having concrete numbers and a strong plan I don't know how we can go forward. To me that's a bad business decision much less a decision for the public good without knowing what your plans are for the future if you were to decide to sell. So with that, to me you just can't sell.

BASHORE: Some are not so quick to assume that it will be that easy to switch to different media to get PBS programming as well. Another former member of the Community Advisory Board complained to me that President Simon, and I'll quote here, "President Simon overstates the ease with which viewers will be able to find their favorite shows if WKAR-TV goes dark. As one who depends on over-the-air television I can say that it's not easy to find complete shows on the internet and in many cases they do not exist online." Any thoughts on that Jessi?

ADLER: I think that's a valid point. I don't know how many times I've gone looking for something online only to discover it wasn't there and it was only a one time broadcast from 8 to 9pm. And maybe there's a snippet or preview online but not an actual show or the full content. And so while the internet is a wonderful thing it's not the end-all-be-all at least we're not there yet. As Rich and I talked about earlier offline, when we all switched from the analog to digital a number of years ago, it was a very rough transition especially for public broadcasters and public viewers who had no idea where to find their stations, how to find WKAR. And I have to imagine that this is just going to be just as painful and worse than that transition was.

BASHORE: Mitch Lyons I take it that the board and the administration is consulting with Mr. Larry Patrick of Patrick Communications in Elkridge, Maryland, about all this. He's a longtime broadcast broker and longtime broadcaster. Can you talk to us about the role that he is playing?

LYONS: Well again just trying to give us as much information as possible in areas that, you known, for me personally I certaintly don't have a PhD in spectrum broadband technology. So just trying to get outside opinions as to, you know, the value, the future value, where the industry is headed. Just, again, so we can just try to make the wisest decision possible.

BASHORE: We will point out there are two public meetings here in the next week about the possibility of a broadband spectrum auction of WKAR-TV spectrum. The first is tonight here in the MSU Communication Arts Building, room 147 at 7pm. The second is a week from tonight, same time and same place. We want to thank our guests. Mitch Lyons is Vice Chair of the MSU Board of Trustees, Rich Weingartner and Jessica Wortley Adler are longtime WKAR supporters and were members of the now-defunct WKAR Community Advisory Board. Thank you all for joining me!

ADLER: Thank you.

LYONS: Thank you.

WEINGARTNER: Thank you.

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WKAR transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of WKAR's programming is the audio.