Radio Free Herald

Miami's Only Daily has taken delight in exposing the school board's foibles, and now the two could be business partners in WLRN-FM

Every weekday morning for two years Becky Wyatt's monotone voice radiated from thousands of South Florida clock radios tuned to WLRN-FM (91.3), repeating a condensed version of the local news. Twice an hour between 6:00 and 10:00 a.m. (during Morning Edition), she would read to public-radio fans stuck in rush-hour traffic stories lifted from the pages of the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and other news sources. But this past December Wyatt was notified by her bosses at Miami's National Public Radio affiliate that her rip-and-read days were numbered. The station was trading up -- a news partnership was in the works between the station and the Miami Herald.

For Wyatt this was a major disappointment. "[Station manager] Ted Eldredge came to me at the end of my shift and said he got a voice mail from [general manager] John LaBonia that the news division would stop at the end of the year to save room in the budget for the Herald coming in," Wyatt recalls.

Thus ended several months of speculation. The Herald rumor had been floating around the station since at least September, when radio-station employees began hearing that the newspaper had approached WLRN about some kind of news partnership. Several staffers remember watching a Herald contingent, including publisher Alberto Ibargüen, strolling through on a station tour one afternoon. Although unusual in the world of public radio, the notion of a news partnership isn't novel; LaBonia himself pioneered a similar deal with the Sun-Sentinel more than two years ago when he was general manager of another NPR affiliate, WXEL-FM (90.7) in Boynton Beach.

WLRN general manager John LaBonia won't discuss his negotiations with the Miami Herald
Steve Satterwhite
WLRN general manager John LaBonia won't discuss his negotiations with the Miami Herald

But WLRN is not just any public-radio station. It is owned by the Miami-Dade County Public Schools and ultimately governed by the highly political, often cantankerous school board. Because the Herald has spent the better part of the last couple of years pointing out scandalous operations at the big ugly bureaucracy, a cozy business relationship would seem odd, potentially even unhealthy. LaBonia won't discuss details. "Yes, we are talking to the Herald, but we don't have anything to say at this time," he hedges. Same with LaBonia's boss, school district spokesman Mayco Villafaña, who stresses that the talks are preliminary. "It's got a lot of hurdles," he emphasizes. "It hasn't gotten to the level of the board yet. The superintendent hasn't even been briefed on the details yet."

Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler is equally tentative: "We are more than a little interested, but an agreement remains a ways off and there are many details to work out, not least of which is the separation between the station and the school board."

School board chairman Michael Krop was alerted to the discussions by Wyatt. Upset that she was being driven out the door, and uncomfortable with the idea of a private newspaper entering the public-radio domain, she e-mailed Krop (her kids' orthodontist) just before Christmas. Krop's response was to call the station and ask that management hold off on any decisions until he could get more information, according to his assistant, Judy Matz.

Any effort to gain school-board approval for a Herald deal will require general manager LaBonia to undertake a most delicate public-relations campaign. He's already been trying to lead the board toward a more hands-off stewardship of its TV and radio stations. Last year LaBonia managed to persuade school-board members to adopt an editorial-integrity policy for the stations that essentially gives him the last word on broadcast content and protects WLRN from political meddling.

This past December the board was encouraged to discuss whether hours of valuable radio and television airtime should be spent broadcasting the entire monthly school-board meeting. This idea hit the board right in its tender ego. Board member Frank Cobo, for instance, believes more school-related news should be aired. On the issue of letting the board's pet radio station do business with the Herald, Cobo says he's open to the idea as long as it's a good deal. "You think they're willing to spend a billion dollars to get us out of the red?" he jokes. "Maybe I'll propose that." Board colleague Frank Bolaños is a bit more wary. "I would want to make sure whatever's done is in the best interests of the school district and not just a promotional tool for the Miami Herald," he says.

Inside the radio station, several staffers express reservations ranging from a loss of editorial independence to consolidation of local media sources to the uneasy potential of being caught between the school board and the Herald in a political situation. "Where does a 300-pound gorilla sit?" quips one long-time staffer. "And where do you put two gorillas?" Steve Malagodi, an on-air jazz host and engineer at the station since 1979, says he's not sure how it would work. "I don't know how you make a news organization out of a private operation like the Herald and a public radio station owned by the school board," he muses. "Uncomfortable partners, I would think."

Wyatt sees the partnership, which she was told would include a news division of five Herald employees, as a loss of the station's editorial autonomy. She thinks the relationship is already too cozy, remembering this fall; the station loaned a micro recorder to former Herald schools reporter Daniel Grech, who, she recalls, was heading to South America and needed to know how to use it. "The station asked me: 'As soon as you're done using that [recorder], could you drop it off at the Herald?'" she recites. "It put me in a bind later because the equipment wasn't there. The Herald had it."

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