Leaders meet to discuss WLRN’s future. Instead they ask about diversity and coverage.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools owns the broadcasting license for WLRN, 91.3 FM.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools owns the broadcasting license for WLRN, 91.3 FM. Miami Herald file photo

After a year of inactivity, Miami-Dade County school district leaders and an ad-hoc panel made little progress Wednesday in forging a path for the future of South Florida’s sole public radio news station.

The conversation surrounding the School Board’s tenuous and often tense relationship with WLRN, as the owner of its broadcasting license, instead delved into and at times criticized the station’s diversity of programming, donors’ influence and coverage area.

Four options are on the table and will ultimately go to the School Board for deliberation and approval: Stick to the status quo, which neither party seemed to favor; sell the broadcasting license, which would be subject to the district’s legal procedures; bolster the station’s community advisory board and increase its influence on the station, or create another nonprofit that would manage the station as a third-party entity.

WLRN has a news partnership with the Miami Herald, sharing office space with the newspaper staff in Doral, collaborating on some journalistic work and sharing some content.

A panel of community members and former journalists appointed by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho regrouped to go over the options since their last meeting in October 2017. The panel was created after the district in 2016 drafted a new operating agreement that would force 19 WLRN reporters and editors now employed by an independent nonprofit to reapply for jobs and work directly for the school district. It also opened the door for the district to dictate programming and broadcast content.

School district spokeswoman and chief communications officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said the panel tried to meet in April but was still waiting for reports on the matter. She said it was difficult working around the schedules of Carvalho and the panel members.

Friends of WLRN, the nonprofit fundraising arm for the station, has been in favor of either buying WLRN Radio or creating a separate nonprofit to manage the station. It commissioned a report with Public Media Co. that emphasized the importance of the station’s independence and valued the radio station at $12.1 million.

The school district commissioned its own report with GrayRobinson, which leaned toward retaining the district’s ownership of the broadcasting license and increasing oversight over finances, the “amount of original programming” and beefing up its community advisory board. There were several mentions of strengthening the “firewall” between the newsroom and Friends of WLRN.

Gonzalez-Diego said the district’s report would cost around $20,000. Friends of WLRN chair Dwight Hill did not return calls.

Carvalho said that the sale of WLRN was not popular among board members, according to individual conversations he said he had with them. He said that the broadcasting license included valuable assets, specifically the station’s downtown Miami headquarters.

“As you may have read widely there are grand plans for the redevelopment of our area and the moving of all of our assets away from this very profitable entity,” Carvalho said, hinting at a possible move for the school district headquarters. WLRN’S newsroom, situated adjacent to district headquarters and owned by the school district, however, is not tied to the broadcasting license.

Carvalho said he would defer to board members, who would hold a workshop on the matter in the new year.

School board members present at the meeting, Martin Karp, who sits on the Friends of WLRN board as a School Board appointee, Mari Tere Rojas and Lawrence Feldman, said they were advised by the school board attorney to not comment because the matter had not been discussed publicly with other board members.

Task force members questioned WLRN General Manager John Labonia on the station’s expansion to Palm Beach and its minority programming and listenership. They asked Hill, Friends of WLRN’s chair, about its $14 million endowment.

“There is a sense that there is a lack of voices on WLRN that represents, and I’m speaking of Miami-Dade County, pockets of minority voices in Miami-Dade County,” said Leonie Hermantin, who admitted she didn’t read the district’s commissioned report.

Labonia said WLRN’s minority listenership, which extends from Key West to Jupiter, is 48 percent — a high mark for a radio station, he said. Minority is defined by broadcast ratings giant Nielsen as “non-white.” He also said most of the station’s donations come from outside of Miami-Dade County, but that it does not influence coverage.

“Our focus has been, we’re not a station that wants to cover the entire waterfront,” Labonia said. “Our mission is to tell the truth and to make where we live better. It’s no more complicated than that. Telling the truth is becoming a rarity and if telling the truth means getting a law changed, getting someone fired, saving someone’s life, helping someone build a home, that’s what we do.”

Labonia, a school district employee, declined further comment.

Colleen Wright returned to the Miami Herald in May 2018 to cover all things education, including Miami-Dade and Broward schools, colleges and universities. The Herald was her first internship before she left her hometown of South Miami to earn a journalism degree from the University of Florida. She previously covered education for the Tampa Bay Times.