Imagine the Hamptons without the ocean.
Residents of one of the world’s best known playground for the haves and have-mores use the dramatic comparison when talking about a public radio station that has been a beacon for community groups, artists and entertainers.
Actor Alec Baldwin, comedian Joy Behar, publisher Jann Wenner are among the celebrities who are pushing to keep afloat the National Public Radio affiliate WLIU-FM, which is up for sale this week.
Despite ready access to cash from deep-pocketed supporters, many fear they may be outbid by well-financed religious broadcasters, who might scrap the region’s only public radio station.
“It would be a very deep loss,” says sculptor Dorothy Frankel. “Almost like having the beauty of the ocean taken away. It feeds our souls, feeds our intellect.”
Long Island University, which has owned the radio station since it began broadcasting from the campus of Southampton College in 1963, announced in August that it could no longer sustain annual losses of about $1 million to help operate the FM station, putting it on the auction block.
The university sold Southampton College three years ago to the state-run Stony Brook University, which has no interest in the station.
Bids on the station are due by Wednesday. An announcement on a new owner could follow within days or weeks. Either way, the station has been told it needs to clear out of the Southampton campus by the end of the year.
“The Hamptons is the center of arts and culture on Long Island,” adds author and Hamptons aficianado Steven Gaines, who hosts an interview program on WLIU each weekend from the American Hotel in Sag Harbor. “How can we allow the only NPR station on Long Island to go away?”
Robert Altholz, Long Island University’s treasurer and vice president for finance, said his first obligation is to students and faculty at two other nearby campuses. Subsidizing a public radio station in Southampton, where it no longer has a campus, is not much of a priority for the university, said Altholz, who personally donates to station fundraisers.
Altholz has said he has a fiduciary responsibility to accept the highest bid, but those trying to save WLIU as a public radio station are hoping community goodwill will also be a factor.
“We have tried to structure a bid that gives them the highest price, but the problem the politicians and we have is we don’t know who else is out there,” said Porter Bibb, an investment banker specializing in media, entertainment, and technology ventures. He is serving as a volunteer adviser to Peconic Public Broadcasting Inc., the company station supporters formed to bid on the station. Bibb, who lives in Southampton, is a former White House correspondent for Newsweek magazine; the first publisher of Rolling Stone Magazine; and former corporate development director for The New York Times Co.
He is confident he can marshal the resources of his ultra-rich neighbors to finance a purchase.
“I can tell you that any offer we put on the table will be fully funded,” he said. “So the myth that these people, that these rich people out here won’t support something like public radio is crazy.”
Baldwin, a Long Island native, was one of the first celebrities to donate to the “Save Public Radio on the East End.” Other supporters include Loews Hotels’ CEO Jonathan Tisch, U.S. Rep Tim Bishop, and photographer Peter Beard.
But a well-financed religious broadcaster with reputations for buying out financially strapped public radio stations may swamp other bidders, Bibb said. Because the religious stations simulcast the same programming on hundreds of stations, they could keep their overhead low, he said.
Station general manager Wally Smith, a 40-year public radio veteran, noted WLIU is the last radio station on Long Island that produces a local news program. A half hour of local news airs daily, in addition to hourly reports from NPR or the BBC. The station’s staff also takes advantage of the local glitterati, regularly featuring interviews with celebrities and entertainers.
“We just had a two-hour feature on Larry Gatlin,” the country music star, said Smith, who added many of the local interviews are picked up nationally by NPR.
In the past five years, between 50 and 100 nonprofit stations have been sold annually, most transactions involving religious broadcasters, said Marc Hand, managing director of Public Radio Capital, which is helping to broker the sale for the university.
Bibb says the “Save Public Radio on the East End” committee is not anti-religion, but pro-public radio.
“There may be a lot of sinners here on eastern Long Island,” he said, “but there aren’t a lot of people who would pay attention to evangelical broadcasters.”
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.