PEORIA — As chairwoman of the WCBU Community Advisory Board, Ambra Haake watched closely as Peoria's public radio station came under scrutiny last year.
"It was both surprising and disappointing to watch it all unfold," she said, pointing out that the advisory group has no governing authority.
"I think it was really unfortunate the way things went down. It was extremely frustrating. I questioned if one hand knew what the other hand was doing regarding the station," said Haake, adding she appreciated hearing from R.C. McBride, station manager at Bloomington-Normal's WGLT-FM, who attended the group's January meeting.
"I feel more comfortable having WGLT as a partner after hearing from him. (McBride) placed a strong focus on local journalism, one of the areas which we lack," said Haake.
But Haake still had questions regarding the station. "I don't understand why public radio doesn't line up with the school's strategic plan. I'm confused why other options weren't on the table. They could have used the advisory board to come up with a plan. We didn't get anything but reassurances on the station all through 2018," she said.
Coming out of the last advisory board meeting that was also attended by Zach Gorman, BU's chief information officer, and Renee Charles, school spokeswoman, Haake listed four shared objectives that Bradley has for the new radio partnership:
* Bradley University will maintain a pared-down WCBU studio on campus as Jobst Hall is demolished. A more permanent location for the station will be determined.
* Donations designated for WCBU or Peoria Public Radio will continue to support the programming, operation and local news efforts of WCBU.
* WCBU will continue providing Peoria-area news coverage with the intent to grow local coverage.
* The new partnership will commit to developing additional local and regional programming on WBCU.
While Peoria public radio's fate awaits details of a proposed partnership with WGLT, the public radio outlet in Bloomington-Normal, station supporters still wonder what lies ahead.
Concern began last year when Bradley University, the institution that has hosted WCBU-FM 89.9 since 1970, failed to announce any plans for the station's relocation even though its longtime campus home in Jobst Hall is slated for demolition this fall.
What BU did communicate was that it would cost a lot to move the station and WCBU didn't fit with Bradley's mission. The latter was a statement made by Gary Roberts before some 800 people at the Thanksgiving Luncheon held at the Peoria Civic Center in November.
That kind of uncertainty triggered anxiety among WCBU listeners who felt they might lose the public radio outlet that they've been supporting financially for almost 50 years. Two-thirds of the station's costs are covered by funds raised in the community.
A number of members of that community became alarmed at BU's indecision regarding the station's future. A website was formed to rally support for the station, while a meeting on WCBU's fate drew an overflow crowd at a Peoria library earlier this month.
"We've got no details. Who knows what's going to happen?" said Mary Beth Nebel, owner of I Know You Like a Book bookstore in Peoria Heights and a longtime supporter of the station.
"I've been an underwriter on the station since 2006, when I opened the store. But if the station gets absorbed by the Bloomington station, I can't underwrite it. It would just encourage people to go to a bookshop in Bloomington-Normal," she said.
Cass Herrington worked as a news reporter at the station for three years before leaving last year. "It was already a sinking ship when I started," she recalled, speaking from her home in Asheville, N.C., where she and her husband now live.
"It doesn't make sense to me that a city the size of Peoria shouldn't have a vital public radio station. I see public radio stations succeeding in towns like Lexington, Ky., and Evansville, Ind. Bradley should be so appreciative to have a public radio station," she said.
Instead, the school held back on hiring, she said, failing to replace news staff members when they left. Meanwhile, Bill Porter, the station's longtime chief engineer, has served as interim station manager since 2015, when Tom Hunt retired.
Hunt addressed the Peoria City Council earlier this month with his own concerns. “The Bradley administration is not seeing the value in the station. All they’re seeing is the expense,” he said.
Several members of the Bradley faculty, who didn't want to be identified because they weren't authorized to talk about their attendance at meetings with school officials about the subject, questioned the school's commitment to the public radio station. "I suspect that they wanted to kill WCBU, and the convergence center gave them an excuse to do it," said one faculty member, referring to the massive business-engineering complex going up on campus, replacing Baker and Jobst halls.
"How was relocating WCBU not part of the planning process?" asked the faculty member.
Another faculty member agreed that a decision on the radio station was made "years ago." "They wanted the station to be so thin and failing that when we put together another deal we wouldn't burden the partner with a lot of salaries or commitments. Think about the public relations in all of this. Donors will be upset."
Some faculty members also questioned if Bradley was fully appreciative of what a public radio outlet has to offer.
The latest Nielsen ratings of Peoria's radio market identified WCBU with a 4.7 share of the radio audience, good enough for eighth place among area stations.
"With the decline in local news coverage across all media, why not make WCBU a flagship station?" asked another faculty member.
Some WCBU supporters have questioned why the station didn't find a home with WTVP-TV Channel 47, the public television outlet in Peoria.
"Negotiations never really got started," said Moss Bresnahan, CEO of WTVP as well as WILL-TV, WILL-AM and WILL-FM, public broadcast outlets on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana.
"I initially thought they were looking for space, but we found out they were looking for much more," said Bresnahan, noting that WTVP pitched Bradley on combining the public entities in one place, just as they were when Bradley dean Phil Weinberg first conceived them.
"We believe combining Peoria public TV and Peoria public radio into a single, highly visible public media campus in the Warehouse District would improve sustainability for WCBU and WTVP, improve local news and public affairs coverage and increase community engagement," noted Bresnahan in a Sept. 20 letter to Bradley.
"A merger would integrate TV and radio in a highly competitive, multi-platform organization and combine the best in PBS, NPR and local content. Most important it would ensure the continuation and sustainability of quality, locally-owned public media service for Peoria," he continued in the letter.
"We are eager to begin discussions as soon as possible," offered Bresnahan in that letter, but Bradley never responded to the invitation, he said.
Bresnahan, who already runs two radio stations on the Urbana campus, is bullish on radio in Illinois, having help set up Illinois Newsroom, a regional journalism collaboration involving public broadcast units — both TV and radio — across the state.
As an example of public radio's potential, Bresnahan pointed to WVIK-FM, a public radio station serving the Quad Cities that's "thriving" on the campus of Augustana College, a school half the size of Bradley that lists nine student interns on the station's website.
Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.