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WCBU stays: Intends to partner with WGLT to reduce costs

Photo by William Craine.

After several months of negotiations and community uproar, Bradley University said it has intentions to partner its licensed Peoria public radio station, WCBU-FM, with WGLT-FM in Bloomington.

Bradley’s Chief Information Officer, Zach Gorman, said that it’s important to understand that this would be a partnership and not a merger, and the intention was never to discontinue the station.

“Our intent is to maintain an individual identity – that’s critical that WCBU remains, 89.9 remains, towers remain, transmissions remain,” Gorman said. “We always joked our original goal was if nobody ever knew that this agreement was ever in place, nobody would ever know the agreement was in place. And the day the switch happens, we still broadcast as WCBU, part of Bradley University.”

The station is currently housed in Jobst Hall, which will soon be replaced by the new Business and Engineering Complex, and Bradley will need to make a decision before the Jobst Hall is demolished.

Phillip Weinberg, who also started the Slane College of Communications and Fine Arts and Department of Electronic Engineering at Bradley, first established WCBU-FM. The station has been responsible for local coverage, National Public Radio, Public Radio International and “covers nearly 1 million residents of central Illinois.”

Renee Charles, university spokesperson, said the choice to look into potential partners simply came down to a business decision after the university evaluated the cost to relocate the station.

“When you look at $700,000 to move it and build a station that we can continue to broadcast from somewhere else on campus, that’s a lot of money,” Charles said. “When you’re looking at $300,000 plus a year in subsidizing, that doesn’t add up, so we’ve got to look at ways to streamline what we do with our finances so we can deal with our budget deficits.”

Gorman said the idea behind partnering with WGLT-FM is to reduce overhead costs by sharing some of the back end services required to run the station with WGLT-FM while still maintaining an on-campus presence.

“By the nature of reducing overhead costs, we literally don’t need all the equipment or the total number of studios because we can leverage organizations, but yes, a physical space, newsroom, the ability to go live all has to remain here,” Gorman said.

According to Gorman, station partnerships have become a regular occurrence in the world of radio stations.

“In order for public radio to maintain a successful model into the future, partnerships like this are starting to really become a thing, some of them on a much larger scale,” Gorman said.

Despite Bradley’s intention, members of the community have expressed their concerns about the future of the station during the discussion process. According to Ambra Haake, chairperson of the WCBU-FM Community Advisory Board, the primary concern she’s seen is in the partnership preserving local coverage and donations.

“We want to maintain a local WCBU studio that has adequate resourcing to provide thoughtful, local journalism,” Haake said. “The board also wants to ensure that donations designated for WCBU or Peoria Public Radio will stay locally.”

Gorman said that the university keeping the license ensures that this won’t change and the newsroom will stay in Peoria.

“The one thing off the table is the license,” Gorman said. “Our intent is to make sure Peoria Public Radio stays in the Peoria area. If we don’t have that license, I can’t tell you that that’s going to continue to happen. If I have the license, Peoria Public Radio stays.”

R.C. McBride, general manager of WGLT-FM, has been a part of the WCBU-FM relocation discussion since May of 2018. He believes the partnership will provide an opportunity to expand coverage.

“Now obviously, there are all sorts of overhead costs as there currently are to run the station,” McBride said. “It’s my hope that if we enter into a partnership, then over time, both of us can increase local radio and local content.”

The university began exploring its partnership options in the fall of 2018 and discussions continued through December.

Bill Porter, interim executive director and chief engineer for WCBU-FM, said the station will still sound the same and read 89.9.

“It’ll be pretty seamless for the listeners as long as [they] get everything built before they take the wrecking ball to the building,” Porter said.

Porter, who joined Bradley in 1998, said he feels good about the partnership.

“I’ve put in a lot of time with WGLT over the years and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather partner with; it’s got a lot of potential,” Porter said.

Throughout the process, Haake said she felt a lot of the early discussions weren’t communicated with public.

“It was only in August when Gary Roberts announced to faculty that Bradley would not fund a station move on campus,” Haake said. “We didn’t know of Bradley’s discussions with WGLT until it was reported in the local newspaper.”

She said community members also felt there was no effort to seek out community input or work with the community on proposals.

“Given all the facts, we may have arrived at the same conclusion to partner with WGLT, but the blatant decision to keep discussions behind closed doors caused many people to wonder what Bradley is trying to hide,” Haake said.

Peoria local and regular WCBU-FM listener Wayne Nowlan echoed this concern, and said he hopes for more transparency going forward.

“I don’t think things were communicated well at all,” Nowlan said. “The decision [to partner] with WGLT caught a lot of people off guard and I think there are some people who are still not aware of what’s happening.”

While the university has announced its intentions in partnering with WGLT-FM, many details remain unknown. According to Charles, these details include the number of employees, the location of the WCBU-FM campus presence or what the presence itself will look like.

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