Last fall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel flatly rejected a suggestion I made here to sell the license of WYCC-Channel 20 in a government-sponsored auction, which could result in a potential windfall for the financially strapped City Colleges of Chicago.
“Chicago should sell the station because the city is in desperate financial straits, and the marketplace is offering an extraordinary premium for Channel 20's broadcast bandwidth,” the Chicago Tribune editorial board wrote in support of my idea. “There are other ways to teach college kids the media business besides operating a little-watched TV station via the 20th century technology of a broadcast transmitter and rabbit ears.”
But even as the Tribune and other prominent voices agreed with me that a sale could reap as much as $474.2 million without compromising the educational mission of the station, the mayor seemed to be missing the point: “Why would you auction something off for financial gain when our kids, our students are making huge educational gains learning at the station?” Emanuel said at a news conference. In other words, he was adamantly opposed to it.
Until he changed his mind.
On Thursday, the City Colleges board of trustees, with the blessing of City Hall, quietly authorized participation in the Federal Communications Commission incentive auction for WYCC's piece of the broadcast spectrum. The news was buried in a small note on the board’s website.
The decision to put the license on the block marks a reversal of the position publicly stated last November by executive vice chancellor Laurent Pernot, who said: “City Colleges of Chicago and WYCC are not planning to participate in the FCC spectrum auction.” After that, officials of City Colleges and WYCC did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Since December auction participants have been in a “quiet period” during which the FCC prohibits communicating information that could influence the bidding. But the anti-collusion rules do not prevent acknowledging whether a licensee has applied to participate.
It’s still not certain that the station will be sold. Under the auction rules, City Colleges has the right to reject any bids. But at least they'll find out what the license can fetch.
As I pointed out last fall, leaving the broadcast spectrum would not mean the end of WYCC. The same programming produced by the station’s full-time staff of 37 (with an annual budget of $5.2 million) could be shifted to online streaming or public-access cable. What the mayor calls the “tremendous educational opportunity” would remain intact without using a signal seen by an average of only 2,200 viewers (the last time I checked the ratings).
On the air since 1983, WYCC bills itself as Chicago’s outlet for PBS programming. But it's not alone. The Chicago area has two other PBS-affiliated stations — WTTW-Channel 11, owned by nonprofit Window to the World Communications, and WYIN-Channel 56, licensed to Lakeshore Public Television of northwest Indiana.