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The ongoing saga of Save WCAL: an update

You might remember WCAL-FM, St. Olaf College’s classical music station. It was sold to Minnesota Public Radio four years ago and turned into hipster heaven, The Current.

Then again, you might not remember it. But some of WCAL’s listeners will apparently never forget their station and never give up the fight to have its sale overturned.

In this case, Beethoven refuses to roll over. Save WCAL, a group dedicated to reversing the transaction, is asking a Rice County District Court to rescind the $10.5 million sale and turn the proceeds over to a charitable trust.

“The resolution our organization has always preferred, and we have never wavered from this position, is that the sale would be voided,” said Ruth Sylte, director of Save WCAL.

She said it’s now clear that St. Olaf never really wanted to run the station and can no longer be depended on to run the charitable trust that once funded the station’s operations.

“We are asking St. Olaf to be removed as trustee,” she said.

The case is expected to be heard in October.

“The problem is that WCAL radio station, which was a National Public Radio station … was a charitable trust built over the course of 80-plus years with literally the donations of tens of thousands of donors and millions and millions of dollars,” Sylte said.

Measuring sighs
The response from management at The Current and St. Olaf to this latest legal maneuver by Save WCAL is, essentially, a sigh. Years have passed since the sale — years in which The Current has established itself as yet another successful arm of noncommercial  MPR’s empire.

Save WCAL’s efforts to overturn the sale were bolstered this past June when a Rice County District judge stated in a ruling on the disposal of some WCAL funds that the station was, as Save WCAL has long maintained, part of a charitable trust and that St. Olaf was the trustee of that trust.

The judge wrote that he was “absolutely mystified as to why the State Attorney General did not become involved in a sale of trust assets valued at $12 million when it is its statutory obligation to do so. Let’s hope this type of activity never happens again.”

Steve Blodgett, director of marketing and communications for St. Olaf, said “St. Olaf has from Day One maintained that this was not a charitable trust situation.”

He said the judge was expressing a nonbinding opinion in that ruling and that the final determination of whether or not WCAL was a charitable trust asset has yet to be determined.

MPR Senior Communications Specialist Christina Schmitt likewise speaks with a bit of a patient, long-suffering tone as she again discusses the saga of WCAL. “The sale, everything about it was transparent. All the facts, all the funding — everything was completely transparent. We applied to the FCC, and they approved it. Everything was completely on the up and up.”

Schmitt says MPR has no intention of seeing The Current’s license or property returned to St. Olaf or any other entity.

“We believe the sale is completely valid and there will be no reason for the sale not to be valid.”

An official statement from the school is dismissive: “We have every reason to expect that Save WCAL will not be any more successful in their efforts now than in the past and that the merits of their complaints will be found to be baseless.”

Passionate about classical music
Schmitt isn’t entirely indifferent to thorny Save WCAL, however. “They’re very passionate about classical music and they didn’t want to lose their station,” she said. “We understand that. We love classical music, too.” 

Sylte refuses to listen to MPR’s classical music station. She now avoids the radio, preferring to load up her iPod with classical music, as well as reggae, jazz and other genres.

“Believe me, I never planned on being involved in this for four years,” the Northfield resident and St. Olaf alum said with a laugh. A minute later, though, she discusses the emotion fueling her group.

“Angry? Are we angry at what has happened? Yes. Is it a kind of a rabid anger that is driving us? Absolutely not. It is a sense of a justice,” she said.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Reggie McGurt on 09/30/2008 - 11:57 am.

    I hope the sale gets reversed just because The Current sucks. They stole a bunch of Radio K staff. Then they stole Radio K’s format and watered it down into unlistenable indie rock lite. Oh but hey, once every two hours they’ll throw in an Aretha Franklin or Bob Marley song you’ve heard a million times just so they can say, “we don’t only play white music!!”

  2. Submitted by Tim Lundahl on 09/30/2008 - 06:16 pm.

    Those backing Save WCAL are not working in a very productive manner to bring more classical music back onto local airwaves. My parents were long-time WCAL supporters and they too were disappointed with this sale and I understand this viewpoint. However, the Current is a station that I much prefer to the old WCAL or worse, an evangelical Christian station (another option St. Olaf considered). Radio stations change format all the time to attract more listeners, and the Twin Cities simply did not have enough classical music listeners to justify two stations. If their goal is to revive WCAL’s format, then it is time for Save WCAL to apply their efforts in a positive direction. Perhaps with increasing numbers of digital radio stations, they could initiate a new WCAL radio station as a digital and/or streaming internet station.

  3. Submitted by Ruth Sylte (SaveWCAL) on 10/08/2008 - 05:32 pm.

    In the article above, St. Olaf College’s Director of Marketing and Communications Steve Blodgett is quoted:

    “St. Olaf has from Day One maintained that this was not a charitable trust situation.”

    Apparently, Blodgett has never read paragraph 26 of St. Olaf’s Original Petition, filed on December 28, 2006 in which St. Olaf claims that WCAL is a charitable trust. St. Olaf then hastily amended the petition to deny that same claim on March 6, 2007 — just seven days after SaveWCAL informed the court what St. Olaf’s admission of the existence of the trust meant.

    It is only St. Olaf College that denies this existence of the trust because any such admission on their part would self-incriminate them regarding their malfeasance and breach of fiduciary duty.

    We at SaveWCAL would prefer to think that Blodgett’s comment was made in ignorance of the facts and was not a deliberate attempt to mislead the press, the St. Olaf community and the public. We suggest Blodgett and others might want to review the information available on SaveWCAL’s web site (http://savewcal.net) to get another perspective.

    As for Lundahl’s assertion that the “Twin Cities simply did not have enough classical music listeners to justify two stations”, it is unsupported by the facts and propagated by those determined to “sell” the WCAL sale to the public.

    FACT: When the Twin Cities listeners had a choice of two classical stations, they supported both WCAL and KSJN.

    The facts show that WCAL operated with no budget deficit due to the generosity of donors (many of whom also donated to MPR). After St. Olaf cut off all of their minimal direct financial support to WCAL in May 2004, donors stepped up and not only met, they EXCEEDED the financial needs WCAL for the remainder of the fiscal year — as they had done for 80+ years.

    So when classical music listeners in the region had a choice, they chose to support two stations. It is St. Olaf and MPR, not the listeners, who took that choice away.

    As for “initiating a new station”, why should WCAL donors give any more money at this point to “start” what already existed for 80+ years and they were already amply supporting?? And why should they now allow the trustee to get away with the act of illegally destroying that trust, selling the assets and pocketing the funds for other uses (which is what St. Olaf really wants)??

    In his June 10, 2008 Order, Rice County District Court Judge Gerald Wolf wrote:

    “The only watchdog looking out for the interests of the trust in this case was the Respondent, the non-profit organization SaveWCAL. SaveWCAL raised the alarm when they first learned of the sale of WCAL by St. Olaf, but neither St. Olaf nor the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office paid any heed to SaveWCAL’s warning.”

    Most people would be outraged if a trustee had done this with the inheritance from their grandmother. In this case, the trustee shamelessly did this to an inheritance built over generations that benefited an entire region through a unique National Public Radio station, WCAL. We are all the poorer for it.

    That is why SaveWCAL has now asked the court to determine the full extent of the trust, void the sale and to remove St. Olaf College as the trustee of the WCAL Charitable Trust.

    Until these things are determined by the court, SaveWCAL feels it is inappropriate to be discussing “future plans”.

    It is St. Olaf College — not SaveWCAL — that has been consistently working in an unproductive manner. That is unfortunate, but the St. Olaf administration and Board of Regents have no one to blame but themselves for the situation that exists.

    SaveWCAL continues to work to protect and defend the millions of dollars given by tens of thousands of donors over the course of more than 80 years. We can do no less for generations who unselfishly gave their hard-earned money to create a radio service long considered to be among the best in the nation — silenced and destroyed by the greed of its trustee in 2004.

  4. Submitted by Diana Cumming on 10/24/2008 - 12:24 pm.

    I listened to WCAL every day – woke up with it, listened on my way home from work. I would be so happy if the shows and the hosts were able to work on the air again. They played music that is not played on other stations. MPR plays what we’ve already heard. If you want to broaden your horizons, MPR is not the place to go.

    To say that there were not enough listeners to keep WCAL going is disingenuous. St. Olaf did not know nor care how many listeners there were – it just went after the sale for the money. I am very sad to have less choice on the airwaves. Independent radio is important to democracy.

    I realize that things change, but this change was no improvement.

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