As WMFE prepares to sell out to a religious broadcaster, the community wonders what’s next for public television in Orlando
Published: May 26, 2011
At first, David Odahowski says, he wasn’t sure whether to take José Fajardo seriously.
“I got a call on April 1,” he says, “so I almost immediately thought it was an April Fool’s joke. It was a very frantic, fast-talking José Fajardo calling, and he said that the television station [WMFE-TV] had been sold.”
Once Odahowski, president and CEO of Winter Park’s Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation, realized Fajardo wasn’t joking at all, he was stunned. His foundation has been a significant donor to WMFE, which operates Orlando’s National Public Radio (NPR) station, WMFE 90.7, and Central Florida’s only full-power Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) TV station, WMFE-TV Channel 24. He estimates that over the years the foundation has donated more than $600,000 to support WMFE, so he was taken aback that he had no inkling that the station was up for sale. He says he didn’t even know WMFE was struggling financially. His surprise was compounded when, after asking who was buying the station, Fajardo wouldn’t tell him.
“I was asking all the journalistic questions,” Odahowski says, “the who, what, when, where, why, how. And he said, ‘I can’t say, it’s under confidential agreement.’”
Fajardo told Odahowski that the only reason he called now was because the New York Times had leaked the story, so he wanted to let major donors know, presumably before they heard it secondhand.
“So he did want to give me the heads up – but after the fact – that the station had been sold,” Odahowski says. “But at that point, why bother calling? What was the point?”
To Fajardo and the WMFE board, it seems, there really wouldn’t need to be a point – without so much as a community meeting or public acknowledgment that the station was on the auction block, they announced later that day that they’d sold Channel 24 for $3 million (a paltry sum, some say, for a full-power broadcasting license) to an undisclosed buyer. The announcement was made as if the deal had been sealed, and if anyone objected, they could take it up with the Federal Communications Commission, which has to approve the sale of WMFE’s broadcasting license before it can be transferred to a new owner.
Fajardo says in an emailed response to questions about the sale that there have been “no formal petitions to deny the sale of WMFE-TV” so it seems he’s confident things will move forward. However, more than 500 public complaints about the sale have been filed with the FCC since it started taking them in April. They come from hundreds of disappointed viewers, donors and former WMFE volunteers and employees who say the WMFE board doesn’t have a right to sell a community asset – something the board has been entrusted with and supported primarily by public donations – that doesn’t really belong to it at all.
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