Radio Privatization: Don't Touch that Dial!

school employee
A school employee operates broadcasting equipment at the station's headquarters in Detroit. The sale of WDTR could net the Detroit Public Schools $3 million.

The Detroit Public Schools have a troubled history of misplaced and misspent money, crumbling facilities, low test scores, and high dropout rates. In the face of so many serious problems that need attention, the Detroit Board of Education sets aside roughly $500,000 from its budget each year to operate a radio station. Privatization of this station, WDTR, could free up valuable resources that the board could allocate toward solving the district’s problems.

WDTR, owned and operated by the Detroit Board of Education, is in disrepair despite the annual half-million dollar subsidy it receives. The station broadcasts from 6:25 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, to a weekly audience of about 4,000 listeners. The school subsidy alone is $2.40 per listener per week.

WDTR is not currently operated the way radio stations on college and university campuses are operated—that is, it is not used to teach students broadcasting or give them experience at being deejays. Station Manager Cliff Russell is unaware how many Detroit students, if any, benefit directly from the station.

WDTR’s daily programming schedule includes talk shows which cater to a miniscule audience, but the station has not been successful in increasing its market share and has, in fact, been criticized in The Detroit News for airing "quasi-commercials and political rhetoric." For example, school board members N. Charles Anderson and Margaret Betts, who are up for re-election this year, host their own respective programs on WDTR.

Despite these problems, Detroit school officials have called WDTR a "crown jewel" and refused to relinquish ownership of the station, or even to consider contracting its use out to a private firm.

A recent opportunity for privatization was missed when officials from the Classical Radio Corporation (CRC) offered earlier this year to lease the station. CRC believed that WDTR could be made profitable through CRC’s financial support, broadcasting expertise, and choice of music (the demise of Detroit’s WQRS left the classical music market wide open).

Though the district stands to gain as much as $3 million from the outright sale of WDTR, the school board declined even to enter into a partnership with CRC.

WDTR, in its current format, could not remain on the air without the massive subsidies provided by the Detroit Public Schools. In the absence of any obvious educational value to the students of Detroit, WDTR appears to be little more than a bureaucratic and political toy.

The problems plaguing the Detroit Public Schools will not all be solved by the privatization of WDTR. But faced with a morass of unpaid bills, poor accounting controls, political infighting, the rationing of such basic supplies as toilet paper, and an abysmal 38% districtwide graduation rate, the Detroit Board of Education should focus all of its resources on its original mission: providing a safe and stimulating environment in which school children can learn. Now that would be music to parent’s ears.