Ruth Sylte has spent almost her entire adult life as one of St. Olaf College's most enthusiastic boosters. She attended the school in the '70s, worked there as an admissions counselor in the '80s, and, at the tender age of 24, set up a life insurance policy with her alma mater as the sole beneficiary. "I didn't know what my financial situation might be throughout my life," she explains, "but I made the commitment that in life eternal I would leave a gift to my college."
No longer. A few months ago, Sylte notified the school not to expect a penny from her when she dies. The reason is simple, she says: St. Olaf's "secretive and hasty" sale of its longtime radio station, WCAL, and its unwillingness to "repent" for what she says amounts to a terrible betrayal of trust.
Nearly three years after the sale of WCAL to Minnesota Public Radio, which converted the classical music station to the Current, anger over the transaction still runs deep. Critics say the college leaders responsible for the $10.5 million deal ignored where the station's money came from and what WCAL did to connect generations of alumni to the school. Now, in what has the potential to become a highly disruptive court case, a judge is weighing whether the sale ought to be voided for violating the wishes of WCAL's donors.
WCAL was founded on St. Olaf's campus by a group of students, but it has never enjoyed a free ride from the college. In 1924, two years after WCAL gained its federal broadcasting license, St. Olaf's president announced that the station would go off the air for lack of funds. But the class of '24 fought back. It raised enough money to keep the station in business. Within two years, contributors from around the upper Midwest followed their lead, making WCAL the first listener-supported radio station in the country.
It is a legacy Phil Voxland takes personally. When looking over a list of WCAL donors from the early 1930s, the class of '66 graduate found the names of his great-grandfather and godfather, both farmers in Goodhue County. Each had contributed three dollars. "That might not seem like much, but it was the start of the Depression," says Voxland, a staunch opponent of the sale. "Finding that was heartwarming."
In more recent years, WCAL had built on its loyal following with a sophisticated approach to classical music. Although it never drew as many listeners as KSJN, MPR's classical music station, WCAL was credited with having a more adventurous play list, as well as on-air talent that took the music it selected personally.
It all came to a sudden end in 2004. At the time, the station "was at something of a crossroads," says then-St. Olaf President Christopher Thomforde. Plans to go digital promised to be costly, and he feared the school might be on the hook for at least part of the expense. Moreover, the station was "less and less" a part of the school's core mission of educating students. "We needed to make use of all of our resources for that central activity," he says.
When a multimillion-dollar offer for the station arrived at his desk in the fall of 2004, it represented a chance to endow faculty positions, as well as to help the president in his overarching goal: enriching the school's coffers, which today hold about $225 million.
Still, the decision to sell such an asset was too big for him to make alone. The bowtie-wearing president brought the offer to the executive committee of St. Olaf's board of regents. The committiee, after several meetings, voted to sell. Thomforde then took the matter to the full board of regents. By the end of a 45-minute meeting, the board voted to sell the station, ending its 86-year affiliation with St. Olaf. All that remained was to inform WCAL's management, 20-odd staffers, donors, and listeners that the station no longer existed.
The offer had come from MPR boss Bill Kling. Kling, whose empire includes 38 MPR stations, had long coveted WCAL, the state's last powerful public radio license not yet in his portfolio. He'd first tried to acquire the station in 1971, shortly after it went FM and became one of the 90 charter member stations of National Public Radio. School officials, mindful of WCAL's deep ties to the college, had consistently rebuffed him.
Now that WCAL was finally his, Kling transformed it into the Current, an eclectic music station intended to tap a younger audience.
More than two years later, things have not gone quite as planned. According to Arbitron, a radio ratings service, the Current has lost almost 40 percent of its listeners since it went on the air in early 2005.
The sale of WCAL continues to roil St. Olaf. Thomforde, along with his top deputy, is out, in a move the regents maintain had nothing to do with the sale. An organization that grew out of an attempt to stop the sale, SaveWCAL, has gathered more than 5,000 signatures condemning the school for unloading the station. The group is now putting up a spirited fight in court. Leading the charge is Michael McNabb, a low-key attorney out of Burnsville who was a longtime contributor to and volunteer for WCAL.
McNabb argues that WCAL was a charitable trust created by donors to the station and held by St. Olaf. He cites school histories going back decades that detail donations from students, alumni, and listeners. The money helped build the station's infrastructure, including the campus building that housed it beginning in 1931, as well as the major transmitter erected 60 years later in Rosemount that made WCAL's signal crystal-clear throughout the metro area.
In order to sell the station, the school should have gone to a judge to ask permission to liquidate its charitable trust, McNabb argues. "I don't think any of those people knew they were dealing with a charitable trust. I don't think they listened to the station or knew the history of it."
As early as 2004, he sent letters to the Attorney General's Office imploring it to look into the sale. But it wasn't until St. Olaf went to court late last year—to get permission to put the remainder of the money donated to WCAL over the years into the school's own endowment—that McNabb saw his chance to argue his case before a judge.
St. Olaf officials declined to comment for this story, directing all inquiries to the school's director of marketing-communications, Amy Gage. "It doesn't strike us as being in anyone's interest to debate this in the press right now," she said.
The school's position, spelled out in court papers, is that the station was never a separate entity from the college—it had its own budget and board, but was subject to college oversight—and that the school thus had no need to get permission to sell it.
Robert Stein, a University of Minnesota law professor, isn't so sure. "The key question is the legal status of the station," he says. "Was it an asset of the educational institution that could be sold, or did it constitute a public charitable trust? It's worthy of exploration."
Both sides will file final arguments with the court on July 20. The case will then be in Judge Gerald Wolf's hands.
No matter the outcome, the school is sure to be the worse for wear. At the very least, the clumsy handling of the sale has hurt St. Olaf's image as a principled church school.
"This looks like a terrible blunder. They got millions of dollars from the sale, but what did they lose?" says Voxland, the alum whose predecessors had donated to St. Olaf during the Depression. "I was looking forward to always being in contact with and nurtured by a station of that quality. It's a broken promise."