Unwilling to sell broadcast license, Miami-Dade School Board discusses WLRN’s future

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

Miami-Dade County School Board members met Wednesday to chart the path of WLRN, South Florida’s sole public radio news station, as its license holder.

After a nearly four-hour workshop, board members appeared to inch closer to the idea of either overhauling the station’s community advisory board and expanding its power or creating a new separate non-profit entity to manage the station. Selling the broadcasting license and maintaining status quo were not entertained as possibilities.

WLRN and the Miami Herald have a news partnership, with journalists of both organizations working in either newsroom and sharing some news content.

The district brought in Evan Carb, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer specializing in Federal Communications Commission matters, to brief the board on its obligations as the license holder.

“The school board can’t escape its responsibility,” he said. “It must control the programming policies at a minimum. That’s not to say it needs to get involved in the editorial decisions.”

District officials also presented the need for revising the general manager’s job description, which they said hadn’t been updated in 17 years, and creating a business operations manager position to oversee budgeting, hiring and procurement.

Board members appeared to be in favor of stressing the editorial independence of WLRN. Board chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman, however, said she would appreciate updates from the district.

“We as board members, we’re never invited, we never have any participation,” she said. “I could not walk in there and do anything. If we are the owners, if we are the ones who own the license, we’re the owners of the station and board members don’t have anything to say on it, never have.”

The district also drew attention to WLRN newsroom employees who fall into a “gray zone.” Those 25 staff members are employed by South Florida Public Media, a subsidiary of Friends of WLRN, the nonprofit fundraising arm of WLRN. District officials say South Florida Public Media never went through the district’s procurement process to become an official vendor.

Friends of WLRN had previously been in favor of the district selling its broadcasting license but, “we’re not ready for that,” said Friends Chairman Dwight Hill.

“I’m absolutely OK with moving toward a new chapter here,” he said.

Hill says he prefers creating a new third-party entity to ensure editorial independence, although it’s not clear what role Friends would have if a new nonprofit is created.

“It’s the best option in our opinion,” he said.

Wednesday’s meeting was the latest chapter in an ongoing discussion of the future of WLRN that began three years ago when the district 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 influence programming and broadcast content.

That memo sparked a contentious relationship between the station and the district. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho created a panel of community members that met in December to brainstorm options that would go before the school board.

“Over the past two years we’ve emerged from that type of scenario to one of true collaboration and respect,” said Carvalho.

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.