Last week, KTRU and investigative reporting blog Texas Watchdog each released the documents they received from their separate open records requests to the University of Houston regarding the sale of KTRU's broadcast tower, FM frequency and operating license to UH. As a public institution, UH was obligated to comply with these requests and provide the relevant correspondence, but Rice, a private university, is not bound by public information laws and would not be required to fulfill such a request if it were made of them. The 667 scanned images of printed emails between Rice and UH revealed how both parties sought to keep details of the deal from reaching the public for as long as possible.President David Leebron announced news of the sale in an email to students, faculty and alumni on Aug. 17. In an interview with the Thresher that week, Leebron elaborated on the necessity of not releasing information of the sale earlier.
"Occasionally we have to consider the needs of confi dentiality to realize the maximum possible value for [an] asset," Leebron said.
Preventing transmission of the news
On May 3, 2010, Erik Langner of Public Radio Capital, the representative for UH in the deal, sent an e-mail regarding due diligence to Greg Guy at Patrick Communications, the agency representing Rice. In this message, Langner called for the creation of a false pretense under which to collect logistics data to avoid raising suspicions while also moving the sale forward.
"We recognize that Rice is going to have a hard time generating a complete list of assets without some of the station personnel's input, and we agree that tipping some of those individuals may not be advisable," Langner said. "[...] We request that Rice provide a cover story for an independent third party engineering consultant, to be chosen by UH, to perform an inspection of the transmitter building, transmitter equipment, transmission line, tower and antennae. Rice should actually hire the consultant we specify, so there will be no question as to the source of the inspection, which of course will have to be coordinated with the station engineer somehow. Rice can use any reason it chooses, some of which can include change of insurance, inventory needs or any other plausible explanation."
Despite this attempt to keep things quiet, news of the sale fi rst leaked from UH on Aug. 7. In an e-mail the next day, Vice President for Public Affairs Linda Thrane instructed KUHF General Manager John Prott to try to contain the spread of information.
"[KTRU General Manager] Will [Robedee] says someone from KUHF told a KTRU deejay about the sale," Thrane said. "Let's try to batten down the hatches and touch base on our announcement tomorrow."
Shaping the story as it breaks
Upon hearing that Houston Chronicle reporter Jeannie Kever had begun investigating rumors of the sale, UH Associate Vice President for University Relations Karen Clarke sent an e-mail on Aug. 9 to UH President Renu Khator about how to control the initial media coverage of the sale.
"Instead of waiting for her to 'find out' - which may put us in a more defensive position - Carl [Carlucci, Vice President for Administration and Finance at UH] agreed with my suggestion that we proactively release the information," Clarke said.
Richard Bonnin, Director of Media Relations at UH, corresponded on Aug. 16 with B.J. Almond, Director of News and Media Relations at Rice, regarding an embargo with Kever. Under this agreement, the two universities would provide information for Kever's article so long as she postponed its publication until the purchase's approval in the Aug. 17 public meeting of the UH Board of Regents' Finance and Administration Committee.
"This has been sent only to Jeannie Kever, who agreed to the embargo. If the Houston Press or some other media outlet breaks the story, then the embargo can't be informed."
Both the Aug. 11 and Aug. 17 Regents' meeting agendas had items referencing the purchase of a radio station for use by KUHF but did not explicitly identify the station as KTRU. On the evening of Aug. 16, Houston Press reporter Chris Gray published a speculative article surmising that the station was in fact KTRU, and the next day, two hours after the Press posted an update confi rming this suspicion, the Chronicle released their report on the sale under the headline "UH Signals Boost to Public Radio."
Blanket tax failures
In addition to these details regarding the sale's disclosure, the two open records requests revealed an incongruency between one of Leebron's points supporting the deal and the timeline of relevant events. While the earliest e-mail released regarding UH's intent to purchase a radio station is dated May 14, 2009, the first mention of KTRU specifically by name is June 18, 2009. On Feb. 22, voting closed on the 2009 Student Association General Elections, and of 1,610 student votes, only 45 percent were in favor of increasing the KTRU blanket tax by $3. When voting closed on the 2010 SA General Elections on Feb. 24, 55 percent of the 972 votes were in favor of increasing the blanket tax from $5.50 to $7.50. Neither of these results met the two-thirds majority required for the proposals to pass, and in his Aug. 19 letter responding to opposition of the sale, Leebron cited the failure of these funding requests as evidence for the lack of student support.
"It is not irrelevant in this context that the students have voted down KTRU blanket tax increases," Leebron said. "These votes have indeed indicated the need to expand our resources for student opportunities in other areas."
Timeline of the sale
Rice and UH signed a confi dentiality agreement on July 7, 2009. The fi rst version of the letter of intent regarding the sale appeared Sept. 11, 2009, and the fi nal version was agreed upon and signed on April 12, 2010, with a 30-day extension granted on June 11, 2010. The process of due diligence began May 19, 2010, and by July 29, 2010, the majority of this property organization and inventory had been addressed. Rice and UH each published press releases on Aug. 17 announcing the plans for UH to purchase the radio frequency and transmission facilities from Rice. Former KTRU Station Manager Nick Schlossman fi led a public records request on Aug. 25. Rice published another press release on Oct. 13 reporting the signing of the fi nal agreement with UH. The Federal Communications Commission received paperwork for the transfer of ownership of the operating license on Oct. 29, and the 30- day public comment period will end on Dec. 2.