Bankruptcy puts Maine radio properties on auction block

Posted April 20, 2012, at 7:30 p.m.

A number of Maine radio stations are heading to the auction block next month, including the classical WBACH stations that span the state’s coastline from York County to the Down East.

The auction results from the bankruptcy of Nassau Broadcasting’s properties. Nassau has 50 stations in the Northeast, from Maine to Maryland. The company has 10 stations in Maine, including the three WBACH stations, other FM stations including The Wolf, The Bone and Frank, and The Oldies Channel on AM.

Nassau was forced into bankruptcy by its debtors last year. According to reports in RBR.com, a news site covering the broadcast industry, Nassau owed nearly $284 million to lenders including Goldman Sachs, Fortress Credit Opportunities I LLC and P.E. Capital LLC.

The various radio broadcast licenses, radio tower leases, intellectual property and other businesses assets are being sold off to the highest bidders. The Delaware bankruptcy court is accepting bids until May 1, with the auction set to start on May 8, according to court documents. Nassau President Louis Mercatanti did not return a call for comment.

There’s at least some interest in the state in what happens to the classical stations — WBQW 104.7 in Southern Maine, WBQX 106.9 in midcoast, and WBQI 107.7 in Down East Maine.

Mark Vogelzang, president and CEO of Maine Public Broadcasting Network, said his organization has followed the proceedings “very closely,” with a particular eye on the WBACH properties.

“We have no intention of making a bid — this is serious money,” said Vogelzang. “But if we could play a role, we’d be very interested in saving classical music in Maine. How we might do that, I don’t know.”

He noted that the public radio station in Boston, WGBH, purchased a commercial classical station there, WCRB, and operates it as its own business.

In Maine, the WBACH stations are important for summer visitors to the coast, and also works with a number of cultural groups in the state, said Vogelzang.

“WBACH is an important classical outlet, and because it is such a key partner with many of Maine’s cultural organizations, it really plays an important role — just like MPBN does — in the cultural life of Maine,” said Vogelzang, “so we think that it would be very important not to lose classical music on the radio dial.”

He said that perhaps by expressing interest in working somehow to keep the WBACH properties operating as classical stations, possibilities may arise.

“If there’s some way MPBN could be part of saving classical music, extending classical music across the state, on its own channel, that would be a wonderful thing,” said Vogelzang.

Scott Fybush, who covers the industry through his northeastradiowatch site, said the bankers owed money by Nassau are driving the process, and will put up the debt they hold against any bidders — so they will wind up repossessing the properties and, most importantly, the radio broadcast licenses. Those licenses have the potential to be valuable, he said, because there’s a limited number of them. It’s unlikely any of the stations in Maine will go off the air, he added. There’s still money to be made in radio, he said.

It’s hard to determine exactly what those bankers will do with the properties and licenses, he said, but a possibility is they will lease them out until radio station values increase and then try to sell them.

“There’s the potential on the part of MPBN to get their hands on operating a station, even if they don’t own it,” suggested Fybush.

There have been other models that commercial radio stations have taken, he added. In some markets, the stations have entered partnership with public radio stations. In others, the radio stations have become nonprofits.

Vogelzang said he has made MPBN’s board aware of what’s going on with the stations, he said, but hasn’t had any discussions with potential partners or groups interested in WBACH.

“We’ve had our own set of challenges here in Augusta,” he said.

MPBN had faced a $1.7 million budget cut, proposed by Gov. Paul LePage, but rejected by the Legislature in favor of language to move the state to a fee-for-service model of funding for the public broadcast network over the next five years.

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