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SaveWCAL group wins one battle in ongoing dispute with St. Olaf

A new report gives more weight than ever to the claims of SaveWCAL, the organization that continues to oppose the 2004 sale of the St. Olaf College classical music station to Minnesota Public Radio.

But even the biggest finding — that the college should reserve some $5 million in assets and past listener donations for the station (which no longer exists) instead of using it for other things — may not resurrect the station, now known as 89.3 The Current.

That’ll depend on a judge’s upcoming decision, which isn’t obligated to include any of the findings from the independent report, known as the Special Master’s Report, the first comprehensive legal document that details the history of both the case and the specifics of the donations in the WCAL trust. (To read a PDF copy of the report, along with the exhibits and findings, click here). 

Group considers ruling a victory
Regardless, Ruth Sylte, the president of SaveWCAL, called the report a victory for her organization, which has fought tirelessly against the sale it says should never have been allowed.

“This is just yet another step in a very long journey,” she said. ” … Our effort has not been completed, and we will continue until [SaveWCAL] feels we have exhausted all our efforts.”

The college is waiting for the final ruling and won’t comment on anything in the report until then.

“Out of respect for the court and the proceedings yet to come, we feel it inappropriate, as well as premature, to address the specifics of those recommendations at this time,” said Steve Blodgett, a spokesperson for St. Olaf.

A brief background
For those who haven’t followed the myriad twists and turns of this case, now in its fifth year, here’s an abbreviated version of the back story:

— In August 2004, St. Olaf agreed to sell WCAL, along with KMSE, the sister station it owned in Rochester, to Minnesota Public Radio for $10.5 million. At the time, the college said the sale came because the 82-year-old station was no longer central to the college’s mission of educating undergraduates, which any assets from a sale would go toward.

— Shortly afterward, SaveWCAL formed to fight the sale, suggesting that the station’s demise resulted in a monopoly situation for classical music. The Federal Communications Commission disagreed. The sale was finalized in late 2004. In 2005, MPR converted the two stations (89.3 in the Twin Cities, 88.7 in Rochester) into the Current, a mix of independent and local music, largely in the rock and pop vein.

— In January 2006, St. Olaf filed a legal petition to release the restrictions of all donations earmarked for the station’s activities. In other words, the college wanted to use the money that funded the former station for other things, including endowed chairs.

— SaveWCAL caught wind of the petition. The group requested and got a seat at the table when a judge determined that the nonprofit had legal authority to represent past donors and supporters of the station. In late 2007, at the organization’s request, the judge ordered the Special Master’s Report, which was completed earlier this month.

The next step
The next hearing on the petition hasn’t been announced yet. Even if the judge decides to adopt many of the findings in the report, the most probable ruling wouldn’t nullify the sale, nor would it require the college to start a similar classical music station in order to fulfill donors’ wishes.

MPR isn’t involved in the petition, and experts and lawyers involved in the case have said the sale is practically untouchable at this point. And the report recommended that if the $5 million remains restricted, it should be used to bolster funding for the college’s broadcast media department and provide additional money for the campus radio station and for music ensembles that broadcast performances on satellite radio, among other things.

That doesn’t mean that SaveWCAL is going to cease fighting anytime soon, though. “We surprise people a little bit that we’re still around,” Sylte said. “But we wouldn’t be around if there weren’t good reasons for it.”

Members of the group have strong ties to the station. Sylte, for example, as a St. Olaf grad and longtime WCAL supporter, recounted her first experience with the station.

“One of the bittersweet things is that my mother told me that WCAL is one of the first stations I heard as a human being, because my parents listened to the station when i was an infant,” she said.

After college, Sylte spent some time in California before returning to Northfield, and even while thousands of miles away, she tuned in regularly over the Internet.

 “It was my link to the college,” she said. “It was my link to home.”


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