Sixty-one years after it was first licensed to what was then known as Columbia Union College, a Seventh-day Adventist radio station will be spun off from the school into a separate, nonprofit organization.
The radio station, WGTS-FM, will be owned by a nonprofit corporation known as Atlantic Gateway Communications, Inc. The transfer requires the approval of the Federal Communications Commission.
The deal involves a price of $12 million for the broadcast license. According to the All Access radio industry news website, that price includes “$1 million [in] cash, $1 million [in] loan forgiveness, [and] $10 million in a promissory note.”
An announcement posted on the radio station’s website quotes officials of the station and the Columbia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, parent body of Washington Adventist University, the current name of the school.
“While ownership will change, our mission, programming, team and focus remains on bringing our listeners in the Washington, D.C., region a message of hope and encouragement,” says Kevin Krueger, vice president and general manager. “We are so thankful for the foundation which has been built over the last 60 years at WAU. Now, much like a college student coming of age and moving out of mom and dad’s house, WGTS 91.9 is moving forward and expanding.”
Rob Vandeman, Columbia Union executive secretary, has served as WGTS-FM board chair for the last seven years. He will continue in that role and said, “This governance shift will facilitate a nimbler operation, which will enable the ministry to stay relevant in the ever-changing, fast-paced arena of media and digital communication. Overall, the change will provide the room and tools necessary for the team to grow stronger and serve the community in even greater ways.”
The station currently has all of its operations on the WAU campus, but officials said “much of the media ministry operations will be relocated to a larger space that will provide greater access to advanced technology, equipment and the broadcast tower.”
The statement added, “WGTS 91.9 will maintain studios on the WAU campus to continue its training and mentoring work with the university’s students, as well as for backup studio and transmission needs.”
This latest move marks another interesting milestone in the station’s history, a journey one might even call an evolution. Originally, the station was a general broadcaster offering public radio news programming and classical music, along with some Christian programming such as worship services from nearby Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church.
But in 1997, one year after the late John Konrad became vice president and general manager of the FM outlet, the classical programming was abruptly dropped, with the station going silent for five days before switching to its current format of contemporary Christian music programming. According to an article in The Washington Post at the time, WGTS’s religious programming raised more than 5.5 times as much in donations each year — $1950,000 — than the $35,000 listeners were donating for classical music programming.
Ten years later, Columbia Union leadership reportedly considered outside offers to buy the WGTS license for as much as $20 million, with the proceeds going to reduce some $5 million in debt at Washington Adventist University. The Washington Times reported the school board was to weigh an offer from American Public Media, a Minnesota company. Ultimately, however, the station remained with the school, which later announced a massive restructuring to resolve the financial crisis. Ironically, part of that restructuring temporarily cut the school’s communications program, although WAU now offers degrees in the field.
By December of 2008, WGTS was also faring better. The Washington Post noted that a change in radio ratings systems gave the outlet a boost.
“Last month, according to audience-rating firm Arbitron, WGTS ranked sixth among the region’s 40 or so radio stations,” media reporter Paul Farhi wrote as the year drew to a close. “That means WGTS had a larger audience (about 20,000 listeners per hour, on average) than Washington’s biggest rock station (DC 101), the top country station (WMZQ-FM) and the leading oldies outfit (WBIG-FM). It beat sports talk, classical music and conservative political talk stations, too.”
One of the station’s most difficult moments came in 2013 when Konrad, a popular leader at the station, died suddenly from a “bilateral pneumonia of unknown origin, as The Washington Post noted in its obituary.
Now, the historic radio station, whose call sign WGTS incorporated its founding college’s motto, “Gateway to Service,” will ostensibly become a property of the Columbia Union Conference. Union president Dave Weigley said in a statement, ““Through the ministry of WGTS, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is able to share Christ’s message of hope and wholeness with 600,000 listeners each week, which is remarkable! As it continues to grow, this valued ministry will maintain its denominational status and strong ties to the union.”
A further “big announcement” for the station to be made July 7 was teased on its website, but no details were suggested.