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Prairie Public radio to end broadcasts from UND

KFJM radio host Mike Olson. JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD

UND is preparing to sell its long-held radio station licenses to Prairie Public Radio as it readies plans to tear down the building which houses the local studio.

Bill Thomas, director of Prairie Public Radio, said the public radio service is currently in talks with the university about transferring the licensing for its two stations, KFJM and KUND-FM, to the main network. Thomas said local production would relocate from Grand Forks to the main Prairie Public offices in Fargo, though he said viewers “won’t be able to tell any difference on the air.”

Thomas said the transition away from the university license has been in the making for some time.

“UND has been a partner in the network,” Thomas said. “They’ve helped oversee it but haven’t had a real active role for a while. I think they finally decided that it was time to pass on the license.”

An early hub

Grand Forks is noteworthy as an early radio hub. The original KUND station hit the AM airwaves in the 1920s as part of the nation’s first wave of college radio stations and was one of the oldest stations to operate in North Dakota. The AM channel was sold off in 2004.

UND spokesman Peter Johnson said the university has owned the licenses for at least the past few decades. A general lack of use coupled with changing curricula, particularly in broadcasting, reduced the need to maintain the licenses to the point where it “doesn’t make much sense” to retain them, Johnson said.

He said keeping the licenses comes with obligations to the Federal Communications Commission in terms of actual usage of the airspace and other compliance measures. About 1999, UND entered into an agreement wherein Prairie Public gained the right to use the licenses.

Johnson said the public radio network also took up management of the licenses about that time, a task for which they were paid in some budgetary bienniums. He believed it had been more than two years since Prairie Public had been paid.

With the ongoing commitments paired against low usage, Johnson said the university saw little rationale to keep its ownership of the licenses.

“The idea here is the licenses would continue, the programs would continue through Prairie Public, which is already managing the programming,” he said.

University leadership began discussions of selling off the licenses last spring, he said, with talks gaining momentum through late fall. Johnson couldn’t put a definitive timeline on the remainder of the process but said UND is “continuing to move ahead” with the sale.

On demo list

Though the full studio in 314 Cambridge would shut down -- the building itself was marked by the university in January for potential demolition -- Johnson said the university now is looking to modify some space in its television station to make room for a small “studioette” for the purpose of conducting local interviews. Johnson said such a space might also be used for some functions of the philosophy-steeped “Why?” program hosted by UND professor Jack Russell Weinstein.

“I think it’ll play out quite well,” Johnson said. “We’ve had a very good relationship with Prairie Public Radio, and I think we’ll continue to have that.”

Though “Why?” will be subject to change, the move mainly will affect longtime radio host Mike Olson, who has broadcast from Grand Forks since 1984. Olson started his radio presence in the former UND building known as Old Science, which was demolished in 1999. He is now the sole occupant of 314 Cambridge.

Olson’s program, Into the Music, airs weekdays and explores various musical genres through the ages. He wrote in an email that his family has lived in their Grand Forks home for the past 26 years, so it “goes without saying we have lots of feelings about our move.”

But at the same time, Olson wrote, “I really don’t feel like I’m leaving at all.”

“So much of my world has been over the airwaves with my friends, our listeners. And I don't think that is going to change at all,” he wrote. “You'll still be able to find us at the same place on the dial. And I'm very thankful for that. So we accept the change and look forward to the future.”

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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