Kent State trustees expected to vote on WKSU ‘merger’ with Ideastream next week

image of a radio station exterior
Eventually, WKSU will be the public radio news and information station for Northeast Ohio, and Ideastream’s WCPN will become a classical music station, the source said. Lyndsey Brennan/The Portager

By Emma Andrus and Lyndsey Brennan

The Kent State Board of Trustees is expected to vote at its Wednesday meeting to merge WKSU, the university’s NPR-affiliated radio station, and Cleveland-based Ideastream, according to a person with knowledge of the plan. 

The proposal, called a “public service operating agreement,” would essentially combine the two stations into one starting Oct. 1, said the source, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. WKSU employees expect to receive job offers from Ideastream ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, and most could eventually work from Cleveland, the source said. 

Ideastream currently owns WCPN (90.3 FM), WCLV (104.9 FM) and the public television station WVIZ (channel 25).

Kent State would still own the FCC license under which WKSU operates, but Ideastream would apparently take over management of the station and its six regional stations that broadcast to 22 counties in Northeast Ohio

The agenda for Wednesday’s trustees’ meeting is not yet published, and the university has not released any details about a proposal that is already controversial among the small group of WKSU supporters who are aware of it. 

Representatives from Ideastream and WKSU, including WKSU General Manager Wendy Turner, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. WKSU Communications Director Lindsay Kuntzman Hilewick referred reporters to university spokesperson Eric Mansfield, who shared a statement that did not acknowledge any public service operating agreement. 

The university has “identified potential opportunities for Ideastream and WKSU, and we are continuing to review those possibilities,” Mansfield said. “Both entities recognize the need to refortify public service reporting in Northeast Ohio, and we continue to discuss ways to leverage these two strong public media organizations for the benefit of listeners in the region.”

Management shared information about the merger verbally with WKSU employees during staff meetings and during meetings with Ideastream representatives. The employees also received a booklet with information about the benefits offered by Ideastream, the source said. 

WKSU employees were instructed not to discuss the agreement outside the station. The source said WKSU leadership had invited staff to a meeting this week to ask questions about the merger, but it was postponed to Tuesday.

Second to Ideastream’

Elizabeth Bartz served on the WKSU Community Advisory Council from 2008 until her term ended in May. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the university in 1980 and her Master of Arts in 1982. After graduation, her first job out of college was at WKSU. 

“It’s been a huge part of me,” Bartz said, “and I just feel that this treasure is leaving Northeast Ohio.”

At her last meeting as a member of the council, Bartz said Turner announced a merger between WKSU and Ideastream. Ever since, she said she has been vocally against the idea and has tried to share her concerns with the university administration. 

“I heard the university’s comments about needing Ideastream because of the cost of running an NPR station,” Bartz said. “I know it’s expensive. I know we pay for programming. I know we pay for duplicate programming that Ideastream has. But we’ve always been able to remain our own, and our reporters have always been recognized for the work that they’ve done.”

Bartz sent two emails to Kent State President Todd Diacon in the early summer, but she was not given an appointment. She then reached out to Nick Gattozzi, the university’s executive director of government and community relations, hoping to find a way to speak with Diacon. Gattozzi told her Diacon wanted her to talk with as many people as she could about the potential merger before he would meet with her. 

In July, Bartz met with Turner, Gattozzi and Rebecca Murphy, the university’s associate vice president for university communications and external affairs. Following the meeting, Bartz was told those she had met with were planning to meet with Diacon. She has not heard anything since.

“I really felt that my contribution to the university at least warranted a telephone call from President Diacon, so I’m a little disappointed,” said Bartz, who served on the National Alumni Board, the School of Media and Journalism’s Professional Advisory Board and started scholarships for students attending Kent State Trumbull and studying abroad in Florence, Italy.

“Merging with Ideastream sounds nice and bright and shiny right now, but after they take over the station, I don’t feel that they will have any qualms about getting rid of our staff.”

Bartz said she has been told that following the merger, “nothing is going to change” and that everyone employed by WKSU will still be working in their current positions. But, she said, “if you read about a lot of mergers and acquisitions, not everything works out the way people thought it was going to work out.” 

Currently, any donations to WKSU go to the station, not the university that owns it. Under the merger, Bartz said money from donors would instead go to Ideastream.

“It is a gem. It is a treasure in Northeast Ohio, and it covers a part of Ohio that Ideastream doesn’t cover,” Bartz said. “We have developed such a station that is revered, and now, it’s just going to be second to Ideastream. I know there are financial issues. But the university should be proud to have an NPR station on its campus, not try to get rid of it.”

Study recommended more collaboration

Lyndsey Brennan/The Portager

In August 2020, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarded the stations a $100,000 grant to study “opportunities for growth and expansion” in Northeast Ohio. 

WKSU’s Turner and Ideastream CEO Kevin Martin told Current the stations began talks in February 2020 about working together more closely. Both stations often send reporters to cover the same major events, duplicating each other’s coverage, and a partnership would free up journalists to pursue other stories in communities that receive less coverage, Turner said. 

As journalism jobs in Northeast Ohio become more scarce, Turner told Current a partnership could potentially reverse that trajectory. 

If the board of trustees approves the agreement Wednesday, WKSU employees will make at least their current wages, and some will be offered increases to raise them to Ideastream’s compensation levels. Employees who accept the job offers will begin work for Ideastream Oct. 1 when its fiscal year begins. 

While the WKSU staff members will no longer be Kent State employees, the university will continue to contribute to their state retirement benefits, according to the person familiar with the agreement. It’s unclear how this would work, given they would no longer be employees of the state of Ohio.

Eventually, WKSU will be the public radio news and information station for Northeast Ohio, and Ideastream’s WCPN will become a classical music station, the source said.

WKSU has been a fixture of the Akron-area for the past 70 years and is among the most highly respected awardwinning radio stations in the state. 

Ideastream was officially formed in 2001 when the boards of the PBS member station WVIZ and the NPR member station WCPN voted to merge. In 2012, the classical radio station WCLV was added to the group, which shares a facility at Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland. 

Records requests pending

KentWired made a public records request seeking any “contract or memorandum of understanding between Kent State University and Ideastream Public Media, also known as WCPN, an arm of Cleveland Public Broadcasting, that details the merger of WKSU and WCPN’s operations.” Kent State responded Tuesday that “there are no records responsive” to the request at this time.

The Portager also requested the following documents:

  • The public service operating agreement between WSKU and Ideastream, and any draft copies presented for consideration to the Kent State Board of Trustees. 
  • Documents, including emails among university administrators, trustees and/or WKSU leadership, related to any negotiation, partnership, merger, acquisition or cooperation of any kind between WKSU and Ideastream.
  • Documents containing the findings of this grant-funded study that explored potential opportunities to grow and expand WKSU and Ideastream.

The university has not yet responded to the request.

The university’s full statement regarding a potential partnership between WKSU and Ideastream is below: 

“In August, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarded a grant to explore opportunities for growth and expansion of public media in Northeast Ohio. That analysis identified potential opportunities for Ideastream and WKSU, and we are continuing to review those possibilities. One example is the recently completed collaboration, Learning Curve. Both entities recognize the need to refortify public service reporting in Northeast Ohio, and we continue to discuss ways to leverage these two strong public media organizations for the benefit of listeners in the region.”

Stations under the umbrella of WKSU throughout Northeast Ohio, which would be part of the agreement:

  • 89.1 WKSV Thompson
  • 89.3 WKRW Wooster
  • 91.5 WKRJ New Philadelphia
  • 90.7 WNRK Norwalk
  • 95.7 W239AZ Ashland
  • 94.7 W234CX Mansfield

Owen MacMillan and Zaria Johnson contributed reporting. This article was produced in cooperation with the NewsLab at Kent State University, KentWired and The Portager.