in Houston, Texas
University officials plotted, bickered as KTRU sale to University of Houston finalized
Friday, Nov 12, 2010, 09:24AM CST
By Steve Miller
WSM tower

As the sale of Rice University's student radio station KTRU to the University of Houston was finalized this summer, public relations teams from the University of Houston and Rice worried over possible leaks of the news and an ensuing "press frenzy."

 

Before the story of the pending sale was broken by the Houston Press on Aug. 16, the teams – Karen Clarke and Richard Bonnin at UH and Linda Thrane and B.J. Almond at Rice – fretted that information had gotten out ahead of schedule, according to e-mails obtained by Texas Watchdog.

 

A staffer at KUHF, the University of Houston’s public radio station, had told a DJ at KTRU about the pending sale as both schools fought to keep the news private, fearing public sentiment could ruin the deal.

 

On Aug. 8, Thrane sent an e-mail to John Proffitt, general manager of KUHF: "Will [Robedee, KTRU general manager] says someone from KUHF told a KTRU deejay about the sale. Let's try to batten down the hatches."

 

Later that day, Thrane again e-mailed Proffitt: "Will isn't offering any more info about your leaker. Hope nothing messes up the deal twixt now and the full board meeting."

 

Proffitt had responded, "So far so good -- no inquiries, and nothing in the blogosphere as far as I can tell with some Google searching. In my overnight investigations, we’ve come up with a possible suspect on our staff.”

 

In the same e-mail, Proffitt said that the agenda for U of H’s finance and administration committee meeting was posted on Aug. 6, which included mention of the purchase of an unnamed radio station.

 

“Doesn’t identify the seller, but one doesn’t need a PhD from RU to figure it out,” Proffitt wrote.

 

Almond, of the Rice PR team, said in an interview that the sale of KTRU was done under a "special circumstance" but declined to describe that condition.

 

“We have said consistently that this was an isolated exception to the way Rice conducts business,” Almond said. “Usually, there is a very transparent procedure. This business transaction required confidentiality.”

 

Thrane did not return an e-mail.


'PROBING QUESTIONS' FROM DISSENTING REGENT


The deal didn't get out for another week, and UH’s effort to keep the $9.9 million sale from the public until the last possible minute succeeded. At one point, an agent of the school encouraged Rice to concoct a "cover story" to keep students from guessing the real reason a consultant needed access to the KTRU station, Texas Watchdog reported Thursday.

 

The meeting of the finance and administration committee included some testy moments, although it was not covered by any media outlet. Had one been present, there would have been no concern about a leaker – a regent, unnamed in the e-mails but most likely committee member Nandita Berryprotested the sale.

 

"The vote was not unanimous," Bonnin wrote to Thrane. "One of our regents opposed the proposal and asked very pointed and probing questions. It’s fortunate that no media attended."

 

“Do you expect that regent to try to recruit others to his point of view ahead of the full board meeting?” Thrane asked Bonnin. "Can you give me a sense of what the questions were?”

 

“I don’t think her point of view will gain any traction,” Bonnin wrote back. “Her questions were focused on the specific benefits to UH of operating two public radio stations. She also noted that KUHF currently devotes only a small fraction of its programming to UH news and events.”

 

Berry later said she did not agree with the dealShe did not return a call Thursday.

 

On Aug. 16, Houston Press reporter Chris Gray called both Rice and U of H, asking about the sale, according to e-mails.

 

The PR teams huddled. A press release had been drafted, and Houston Chronicle reporter Jeannie Kever had been told of the deal, according to an e-mail to everyone from Bonnin, and had agreed to withhold the information until Aug. 17, the day of the Board of Regents meeting.

 

“If the Houston Press or some other media outlet breaks the story, then the embargo can’t be enforced. We will not distribute the release until after the BOR vote,” Bonnin instructed.

 

Thrane e-mailed the team at UH and asked if Kever had been given the sale information, naming KTRU. She advised against telling anyone, “including the KTRU folks, until tomorrow morning. That way, we don’t risk the KTRU folks going into full roar, and triggering a press frenzy, ahead of your regents’ action. … However, Richard said you are thinking about giving the story to Kever now.”

 

Clarke responded that it had already been discussed among the team that Kever would be given the story under embargo: “I am perplexed, since I recall you saying that you agreed that for both Rice and UH, preserving our relationship with her is in both of our best interests.”


PR TEAMS AT UH, RICE BICKER OVER PUBLIC PERCEPTION


The Houston Press item prompted an outcry from angry KTRU supporters.

 

On Aug. 17, after the deal had been approved by the Board of Regents, the team bickered again, this time over public perception. Clarke e-mailed Thrane, asking her if a letter sent by Rice to its alumni stated that UH had pursued the KTRU sale: “This appears to be fueling lots of chatter about UH pursuing ‘the destruction of KTRU.’ If true, it’s important for you to be aware of the negative impact this is having at the leadership and board level.”

 

Thrane shot back:

“Per our previous conversations, we agreed not to go down this route. You are raising a whole new set of questions and issues. The agreed on, and true, story is that Rice decided about a year ago to test market interest in KTRU. It wasn’t until earlier that this year (sic) that discussions with UH grew serious enough for the Rice administration to seek approval from its board of trustees in March to proceed with the negotiations, which led to a UH offer and culminated in the current agreement just approved by the UH board. ...

"I don’t think trying to say we pushed the tower on you, or you pushed the sale on us, helps either of us.”

Other stories arose, including a Texas Watchdog story that noted UH regents may have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by failing to name KTRU as the station of purchase on the agenda

 

An e-mail from Thrane to Clarke and Bonnin at UH on Monday, Aug. 23, noted the Texas Watchdog story, and said she was “very concerned about several statements that seem to be showing up in several places."

 

She urged the two to "stop saying the deal is not done, which only motivates people trying to scuttle the deal. … I know you share my concern that UH and Rice will appear at odds, rather than united, and further fuel our various critics. If this falls apart, we’ll both be left with the worst of both worlds – plenty of criticism, loss of credibility and no deal.”

 

Last month, UH and Rice signed papers to finalize the deal, pending approval from the Federal Communications Commission.

 

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.


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Photo of the WSM radio tower in Brentwood, Tenn., by Garrett A. Wollman, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, we'd love to hear about it. E-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Comments
Radio Head
Friday, 11/12/2010 - 10:44AM

How is any of this news? 2 organizations trying to keep confidentiality in order to get a deal done? Hate to say it folks... that's life as normal. No multi-million dollar deal ever tries to be negotiated in the public eye. That's bad business... pure and simple.

Fred Cantu
Friday, 11/12/2010 - 10:47AM

The tower in the picture used with the story is not KTRU's tower or even a broadcast tower but a microwave tower, probably a phone company.

Lee Ann O'Neal
Friday, 11/12/2010 - 11:07AM

Dear Mr. Cantu, thank you for pointing out the distinction in the photo, which I did not notice when selecting it. Because we don't have a photographer on staff, we use stock photos that are licensed under Creative Commons or in the public domain. I searched for a photo of KTRU's tower based on these limitations and did not turn one up so I opted for this photo that was licensed for re-use.

Thanks to everyone for reading and writing in.

-- Lee Ann O'Neal, deputy editor, Texas Watchdog

Radio Head
Friday, 11/12/2010 - 11:27AM

Great point Fred! Maybe it's trying to hint that you can still get KTRU over the "radio tower" of the future... Cell Towers and mobile devices. ;-)

vs Radio Head
Friday, 11/12/2010 - 11:33AM

RadioHead: the difference being these are not two private corporations doing a deal. Rather it was one very large public organization, and one Private University that locked its own constituents (students, KTRU Friendly board committee, and Alumni) out of the the process.

The fact that UH concealed info very likely violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act - they failed to name KTRU as the station of purchase on the agenda.

The fact that Rice didn't involve, and in fact sought to create a cover story, for its constituents, after a public "Call for Conversation" reeks of hypocrisy at the highest levels of that University. It also points to some very disturbing financial footing when that University needs to liquidate an asset they held IN TRUST for the students and community, simply because they had some real-estate deals go bad (see BRC building vacancy) and lost a large chunk of their endowment. But you dont see other universities liquidating student assets in this way.

A very sad day for higher education in Houston.

Robert
Friday, 11/12/2010 - 11:45AM

I think the Texas Attorney General and/or the Harris County DA needs to investigate the whole matter. I think there is credible suspicion that laws were violated involving the proposed sale of KTRU.

Radio Head
Friday, 11/12/2010 - 01:15PM

@ vs. Radio Head

OK, fair point on UH and Texas Open Meetings Act. But last time I checked, Rice is a private institution so they are exempt, not to mention the fact that everything I am reading is telling me that UH requested that Rice come up with a story to tell its constituents. I haven't read anything that said Rice actually did. How is the story getting turned around? That seems too convenient to me.

"you don't see other universities liquidating student assets in this way." Perhaps Rice should have done what everyone else did... perhaps they should have cut 5% of the workforce and raise tuition significantly, because that would benefit the students far more than not being able to listen to music over a radio tower. Last I checked, universities were supposed to be about keeping top faculty around so our children could get a top notch education.

You can argue the point that the station was a learning tool for students, but with millions of dollars being put back into programs for the students, I feel more secure that my child will receive the education that I am paying for. ( My son attends Rice, and from what he tells me, students on campus never really cared about KTRU until this all came up... kids will always look for something to protest, for my generation it was at least something that really mattered: war. ) The more things change, the more they stay the same.

credibility lost
Friday, 11/12/2010 - 01:17PM

What's more repugnant? The lying... or the attempt at cover-up?

Lee Ann O'Neal
Friday, 11/12/2010 - 02:16PM

We've changed out the photo. Thanks to Fred Cantu for pointing out the problem with the previous picture.

-- Lee Ann O'Neal, deputy editor, Texas Watchdog

El Gordo
Friday, 11/12/2010 - 04:11PM

Rice has historically included all interested "stakeholders" in it's major decision making process. This incident is the first in my 50 years or so where such a breach of trust has been committed by the Administration. And believe me, if Rice just needed a quick $10 million, a couple of phone calls should take care of that - the money is peanuts, particularly in view of the damage to (1) the University's credibility with its stakeholders and (2) the size of its endowment. Heck, the President's(University owned) house is worth more than that even in this market, and no student labor was involved in putting it together. No, this will be a blight on Rice for a long time, or at least until President Leebron gets on the toy train and rides it up to the bus station and catches the smoking gray dog northbound.

“funny business” with KUHF
Saturday, 11/13/2010 - 08:12AM

Isn’t KUHF the station that’s been force-feeding us all HD RADIO for years?! And now all the sudden they need another FM channel? They already have all classical and all news – on those HD channels they’ve been blowing money on for years.

I bet people that give money to KUHF would be shocked to learn the ENORMOUS amount of money that the station has spent on HD radio the past 5-6 years…all for what? For a service no one asked for our uses.

I’ve heard there’s been “funny business” on spending with that station for years.

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