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As WMFE prepares to sell out to a religious broadcaster, the community wonders what’s next for public television in Orlando

Photo: Illustration by Noah Scalin, License: N/A

Illustration by Noah Scalin

Photo: , License: N/A

“Assuming that both of these are accepted, the PBS franchise will become WUCF on July 1, 2011,” Robert Schell, vice president of the UCF board of trustees, wrote in the email.

If approved, it will be perfect timing for PBS fans, as WMFE is scheduled to cease programming as of June 30 if the sale of its TV license goes through.

But that doesn’t necessarily resolve concerns from members of the community who simply feel betrayed by WMFE, the station they helped to build, promote and support – some say that public outrage may hurt the organization when the next pledge drive comes around.

Mary Elizabeth McIlvane of Altamonte Springs, a longtime volunteer and supporter of both WMFE-TV and WMFE 90.7, says she called the station shortly after the sale was announced to express her anger and was rebuffed. “I was furious, absolutely furious,” she says. “I know these people because I have done a lot of volunteer work with them, so I called and they said, ‘Well there’s nothing you can do about it.’ … From my perspective, this is not their money. They do not own the money. The money is public money that’s come to them.”

A point that’s worth raising: Some of the money that’s been given to WMFE over time has come in the form of grants from government sources. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting gave the station $590,849 in fiscal year 2010 and $560,146 in fiscal year 2011. According to CPB spokeswoman Nicole Mezlo, “discussions with WMFE are still ongoing,” so she can’t say whether the station will be asked to pay back any of the grants it’s been given should the sale of the station go through. “Generally speaking, public broadcasting stations (radio and television), as a condition of the Community Service Grants they receive from CPB, are required to provide a public broadcasting service,” she says. “In the event of a sale to a commercial entity or if a station goes dark, the CSG general provisions of eligibility – the agreement between CPB and the station – could require the station to return all or a portion of the grant amount.”

It’s not entirely clear how long it will take the FCC to review the sale application – the agency says it does not have a strict timeframe for the application-review process – but many observers think that, frustrated as the community may be, the sale if WMFE will likely be approved since Daystar, technically speaking, is a noncommercial, educational broadcaster.

But some of WMFE’s supporters hope that, at the very least, the FCC forces a bit more public discussion before letting the sale go forward.

“Here’s my hope for the FCC,” Odahowski says. “I hope that they will say, ‘All right, this looks all well and good, but we’d like you to have a community meeting. We’d like you to have a public airing of this so we can make sure the community is well aware of what is going on.’”

He says that one of the things he finds most disappointing is that the board didn’t even try to consult the people who were most heavily invested – emotionally and financially – in the station’s welfare.

“You have to ask yourself, you know, if the board and the CEO did everything in its power, did they use the best business practices, to try to reach the best decision possible,” Odahowski says. “It really begs the question, why the board didn’t explore every alternative before making this clandestine sale. I can only imagine that Mr. Rogers would be turning over in his grave right now.”

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