WKSU, Ideastream merger approved by Kent State Board of Trustees

The Kent State Board of Trustees at their Wednesday meeting.  

Kent State’s NPR-affiliated radio station WKSU will be operated by Cleveland-based Ideastream Public Media beginning Oct. 1, 2021. The board approved the management transfer as part of a public service operating agreement during its meeting Wednesday.

“One bottom line was that this agreement would need to enhance journalism, enhance reporting, enhance public affairs journalism,” Kent State President Todd Diacon said. “We wanted to maintain and expand our students’ access to internships, professional experience, and joining with Ideastream will ensure that and expand access both into radio and into television.”

It’s unclear how the operating agreement ensures this, since it has not been made public.

WKSU General Manager Wendy Turner delivered a presentation at the meeting to discuss the logistics and purpose of the merger. 

“The local news business model has been on a downward trajectory for a few decades,” Turner said. “Our North Star for this entire effort is to reverse that trajectory to invest in local reporting throughout the region.” 

In August 2020, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarded the stations a $100,000 grant to study “opportunities for growth and expansion” in Northeast Ohio.

Turner and Ideastream CEO Kevin Martin told Current the stations began talks in February 2020 about working together more closely. Both stations often send reporters to cover the same major events, duplicating each other’s coverage, and a partnership would free up journalists to pursue other stories in communities that receive less coverage, Turner said. 

“Under the new operating agreement, the population served by Ideastream Public Media’s news and information programming will increase from 2.4 million to 3.6 million and serve 22 counties throughout Northeast Ohio,” according to a joint press release issued by WKSU and Ideastream. 

Beginning in 2022, WKSU will become the sole NPR-affiliated station broadcasting news and information in Northeast Ohio. Ideastream currently owns WCPN (90.3 FM), WCLV (104.9 FM) and the public television station WVIZ (channel 25). Under the agreement, WCPN’s call letters will change to WCLV and WCLV’s current 104.9 FM signal will be used as a repeater station that extends the WKSU coverage, which will be accessible on 89.7 FM and 104.9 FM. WCLV will move to 90.3 FM, WCPN’s former signal, “making classical music available to a significantly larger listening area,” according to the press release. 

“All members of WKSU’s staff are being offered positions at Ideastream Public Media’s expanded operation,” the press release stated. “The combined organization will employ approximately 150 employees, including more than 40 new staff members in a new unified newsroom.” 

The merger, met with support and optimism from the university, has drawn criticism on social media from WKSU members, supporters and former staff. 

Elizabeth Bartz, a past member of WKSU’s Community Advisory Council and alumna of Kent State, was opposed to the merger since its inception. She attended the board meeting in person, hoping for a chance for public discussion. The chance never came. 

At the end of the trustees meeting, Bartz tried to ask why there was no public discussion regarding the merger, but the board adjourned without taking questions.  

“I can’t tell you how disappointing I believe this will be to all loyal KSU and WKSU supporters,” Bartz said in a texted statement to a KentWIred reporter. “But I have no reservations in saying if you go forward with this ‘one-sided’ deal for Ideastream, our warnings will surely be replaced with ‘we told you so.’”

In a 23-minute-long media session following the trustees meeting, Diacon said there was no public discussion of the merger because the collaborators wanted to avoid potential harm and “maintain privacy” for WKSU employees if information got released while it was still in development. 

“Our approach to this has been to maintain privacy as we work through all of the details,” Diacon said. 

Diacon, Turner and Martin attended the session — no board members were present to take questions.

Martin said he was surprised to read and hear speculation that WKSU and Ideastream weren’t planning to continue student internship programs, when this was at the core of the board’s thinking. 

“We can really begin to help KSU to develop the next generation of reporters,” he said. 

The WKSU building on campus will still be used during the transition period, Turner said. There has been talk with the College of Communication and Information about how that space can be utilized best to keep a presence on campus, she said. 

According to the press release, Kent State and Ideastream will “build on the nationally recognized journalism program offered by the university, using resources to focus especially on developing more diversified talent for the journalism profession.”

After the transition is complete, Kent State will devote the roughly $450,000 a year appropriation it normally contributes to the station to paying off about a $4 million deficit the station accumulated over several years, Diacon said. 

KentWired reported Sept. 9 on the potential merger and documented that employees of WKSU were directed to keep the pending agreement secret. The Portager, a reporting partner of KentWired, is still waiting for fulfillment of several public records requests related to the agreement, including one for documents that contain the findings of the grant-funded study that explored potential opportunities to grow and expand the two stations.

Emma Andrus is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected].

Alexandra Golden is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected]