Minnesota's Listener-Supported Clear Channel?

When a public radio chain buys out a competitor, is it serving the public or serving itself? Listeners were left asking this question last week after St. Olaf College's tiny, freewheeling classical music station WCAL-FM (89.3) announced that it had been sold to 35-station powerhouse Minnesota Public Radio, which owns rival classical station KSJN-FM (99.5) and a growing production empire in Southern California.

Within 48 hours, WCAL was inundated with hundreds of e-mails and calls. "There's sadness," says St. Olaf spokesperson Amy Gage. "And people are expressing their personal relationship with this station and with the announcers. They felt like the announcers were friends."

The 82-year-old station's personal approach to programming is almost surely headed for extinction. KSJN is more or less bound by a playlist, and broadcasts blocks of the homogenized Classical 24 service that it creates for stations around the country. WCAL's on-air hosts, by contrast, have been freer to follow their whims.

"We hope to hire as many of them as we can," says MPR executive vice president Tom Kigin. But MPR won't promise that Classical 89.3 will stay classical after the FCC approves the sale. The St. Paul-based public-radio giant hasn't ruled out adopting the evolving AAA (adult album alternative) format of New York's WFUV and Philadelphia's WXPN. Oriented toward younger listeners (by public radio's gray standards), AAA would deliver a steady rotation of Wilco, Norah Jones, Natalie Merchant, and Ben Harper, with other country, folk, jazz, and world music mixed in.

MPR had expressed interest in buying WCAL for a decade. "We wanted to make sure that WCAL remained as a public radio station," says Kigin. "We've checked in with them on and off over the years just to see what they were thinking, most recently late last year. And they responded at that time."

The buyout comes during a year in which MPR is looking more and more like any other giant media corporation. In January, MPR sold off Minneapolis-based AM station WMNN and the Minnesota News Network for a combined $10 million. (Their bid price for WCAL was $10.5 million.) In May, a Business Journal story prompted MPR to admit that the Lake of the Isles mansion the company had purchased earlier in the year belonged to the daughter of a board member. The radio service's unlikely venture into residential real estate involves refurbishing the $1.7 million house and selling it off at a profit.

In June construction began on a new $41 million headquarters, in a space previously owned by Public Housing St. Paul. The purchase was helped along with a forgivable $3.3 million loan, plied from the city to keep the operation from leaving town. And since July, MPR has gone into competition with locally based Public Radio International, which formerly distributed many of its programs, such as A Prairie Home Companion.

MPR has long trumpeted itself as an intelligent alternative on the state's impoverished radio dial. With the WCAL takeover, there's one less alternative to the alternative.

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