Author Archive

The death of a community radio station

Monday, September 27th, 2010

A little over a month ago, I picked up on the plight of KTRU 91.7 FM, Rice University’s 50,000 watt student run radio station.  According to savektru.org, Rice is attempting to sell the station’s broadcast license to KUHF, the University of Houston’s radio station and an NPR affiliate, for almost $10 million.  The announcement has been met with serious criticism from KTRU staff, the Houston community, and even a group of University of Houston students and alumni.  The sale has yet to be approved by the FCC, and the parties above are still fighting for KTRU to keep their frequency, but the situation looks dire.

Today, while browsing Facebook, I noticed a link to a page called “Save WRVU.”  WRVU 91.1 FM, which broadcasts at 10,000 watts, is another student run station based out of Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  Apparently, the non-profit of which WRVU is a part – Vanderbilt Student Communications, Inc. (VSC) – is looking to sell off the station’s license, which could be worth up to $5 million.  Not unlike the situation with KTRU, the response from the station’s staff, alumni and the Nashville community has been overwhelmingly negative.

There are a number of issues worth discussing here, and now that the facts are on the table, I’m going to touch on as many issues as I can, using as few obscenities as possible (it’s going to be tough, so forgive me if I slip up).  First and foremost, this seems like an issue of money.  Whereas I can only speculate that Rice is selling KTRU’s frequency because they’re greedy bastards* – no one in a position of power has stepped forward with a reason for the sale – VSC has been quite clear regarding their rationale.  The chairman of the VSC, Mark Wollaeger, said this: “Currently, operating revenue for student media is mostly generated from print advertising whose future is less than certain. We want to explore whether a sale would help protect our students’ future interests better.”  Yet, in both cases, I doubt very much that none but a few would benefit in any meaningful way from the sale of the frequencies.  There certainly isn’t a clear benefit to the Rice students – no one knows where the money would go, and the station itself would be forced to switch to an online-only format (I’ll touch on this later).  Vanderbilt makes the case that the sale would benefit all student media groups, but again, I have my doubts.  Selling the 91.1 frequency takes something away from the staff at WRVU and the Nashville community at large, and offers little reassurance of the continued existence of WRVU, even online.

At this point, I think that it’s worth asking what exactly losing a terrestrial broadcast frequency means these days, especially in the advent of internet radio.  I work at a station that broadcasts at 10 watts (or, as we like to say, 10,000 milliwatts) and to us, internet broadcasts have become an invaluable way to let people listen in.  KTRU and WRVU, on the other hand, have a much larger reach (~100 miles and 45 miles, respectively), which allows anyone in the surrounding area to listen in while they drive, at home on a radio, etc.  And make no mistake, people still listen to their radios; according to Arbitron, as of 2004, 94.1% of the US population listens to radio every week, and spend 19 1/2 hours every week doing so.  Radio technology is relatively cheap to own and maintain, and I would venture a guess that every single car in the United States has a working radio in it.  Thus, the high wattage of both stations, the number of potential listeners and the high quality of both makes it likely that a lot of people are listening in on over the airwaves.  For either station to lose their frequency would very probably result in a significant drop in listenership.

The argument above certainly doesn’t speak to the value of stations with lesser wattage losing their licenses and moving to an online-only format.  There are only 25 – twenty five – independently owned and operated radio stations in the United States.  In addition, there are about 200 college stations, a small fraction of which are completely student run (which represents, I would argue, some manner of independence).  By comparison, Clear Channel Communications owns and operates 900 stations in the United States, so what you hear on a Clear Channel station in Anchorage is going to be exactly the same as what you hear on one in Birmingham.  Corporate radio is a bland wasteland, and since most radio stations in the United States are corporately owned, so too is, by extension, the American radio landscape.  By selling off KTRU’s and WRVU’s frequency, Rice and Vanderbilt are doing nothing to improve this.  Although neither can legally be acquired by Clear Channel or any of its ilk, the next likely candidate is NPR, which, like Clear Channel, is pretty much the same anywhere you go.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy NPR as much as the next soccer mom, but I do not think that Houston or Nashville needs another NPR affiliate, especially when the loss that would result in this gain is so great.

What Nashville and Houston really stand to lose, though, is not just independent radio, but local independent radio.  Historically, independent and local radio have tended to go hand in hand; a station that focuses on community events and local artists is independent by virtue of the fact that their main concern is serving their community, not serving their own interests.  Local corporate radio is an impossibility – corporate radio is interested in reaching as many people as possible, because higher ratings translate directly into more money from advertising.  It follows, then, that a corporate radio entity will broadcast content that appeals to a broad audience; whether or not that content is local is moot.  The rise of Internet radio offers a third option: non-local independent radio.  With perhaps a few exceptions, local Internet radio does not exist, because Internet radio simply isn’t tied to geography the same way that broadcast radio is.  If Marshall McLuhan is to be believed, the medium cannot be separated from the message that it carries, and I think that this holds especially true in this case.  Internet radio potentially allows anyone to broadcast great content from anywhere in the world, and this is a good thing.  Yet, when I tune into a stream online, I don’t get the same feeling as when I turn my radio dial to KWUR 90.3 or KDHX 88.1 in St. Louis.  I can listen to anything online, but I can only hear those stations when I’m in St. Louis (or, in the case of KWUR, when I’m in my back yard).  According to InsideVandy.com, the online outlet of Vanderbilt’s student newspaper, Wollaeger said of the switch to an online format: “Our surveys indicate that each year fewer Vanderbilt students are listening to over-the-air radio.  It is time to explore how WRVU could be transformed… in order to keep pace with the times and anticipate new developments.”  His statement misses the point entirely, and his metric – students who listen on-air – is misleading.  The loss of KTRU and WRVU is a loss for the entire communities of Houston and Nashville, one that cannot be amended by a switch to online radio.

And so this isn’t, or perhaps shouldn’t be, an issue of money, but rather one of values.  I value local, independent radio and the freedom of expression that it provides, and I’m sure that the staff at KTRU and WRVU do too.  Rice and Vanderbilt do not, but they should.  The sale of KTRU’s and WRVU’s broadcast licenses – or that of any local, independent radio station – is a nasty thing any way you look at it.  Radio is, by and large, controlled by a few companies who don’t give a fuck** about diverse opinions or interesting music, and taking away one of the few stations that does is shameful and truly reprehensible.  If you feel the same way, visit the sites each station has set up to save their frequencies (listed above), and write a letter or sign a petition.  Wherever you live, remember that when something like this happens, we all lose.

*I submit that this, by current FCC obscenity guidelines, is not obscene.
**Sorry, couldn’t help it.

STACK SESSIONS – FEMALE DEMAND

Saturday, July 10th, 2010

Female Demand is a two piece out of Houston, and they play loud loud loud rock and roll music. Like, when we were recording their session, shit-was-falling-out-of-the-ceiling-loud. How do two people make so much noise? While you contemplate that mystery, go ahead and download three tracks below. If the link doesn’t work or the file won’t open, leave a comment and I’ll fix it.

Female Demand session

Oh yeah, I guess we’re back. More to come, soon.

The future of rock and roll

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

This morning, I, like many others, awoke to discover that the long revered WOXY.com had been shut down. This is a massive blow to independent music and media, both of which we at KWUR hold dearly – but beyond that, we’ve also lost an outlet for great music, which I have turned to time after time for the very best tunes, new and old. Needless to say, I’m bummed out about the whole thing. As Matt Shiverdecker, WOXY’s music director and a good friend, said, “It is, to be perfectly honest, quite a kick in the dick.”

I had the great fortune to discover WOXY back in 2007, when I was writing an article for my high school newspaper about interesting places in Cincinnati. On a whim, a friend and I decided to head down to Longworth Hall, where the station was located at the time. Shiv, Mike and Joe were incredibly welcoming and kind, and answered all of our questions and let us hang out for an Lounge Act performance they hosted that day with David Vandervelde. I was blown away by the place and the experience – it was the coolest place I had ever seen, run by the coolest people I had ever met – and on my way out, I asked if they needed any help around the station. One thing led to another, and soon after, I was at the station once or twice a week, reviewing CDs and editing old Lounge Acts.

Meanwhile, I was listening whenever I could, damaging my hearing with all sorts of incredible new music. Shiv and everyone else there became the hip older brothers I never had. After I graduated and moved to St. Louis for college, I immediately located the radio station on campus and since then I’ve spent as much time here as I possibly could. As I became more involved, I constantly looked back to my experience at WOXY, and the station itself, as a guide. Stack Sessions, which we kicked off over the summer, is based largely on the Lounge Acts I used to watch and still listen to. Music has been an extremely important part of my life, and probably always will be, and I owe much of that to the folks at WOXY.

So, what does all of this rambling add up to? I know that lot of people are saddened and frustrated by Future Sounds’ decision to take WOXY off the air; I count myself among that group. And while I cannot see a bright side to this situation – I don’t think there is one – I want Shiv, Mike, Joe, Bryan Jay and everyone else that worked there to know that you have been a huge inspiration to me and many, many others. I hope with my entire being that WOXY finds its way back on the air – it’s happened before! it can happen again! – but even so, the hard work you all put in over so many years has had an immeasurable impact on so many lives, mine included. Thank you, viva la WOXY, and viva la musica.

-Kenny

STACK SESSIONS: REBOOT

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Hey all –

stack sessions is back and out of beta! we have a couple of new staff members workin’ real hard to bring all sorts of live music to the masses via the KWUR studios. Here’s what’s set up so far:

February 8: Theodore
February 12: Two Man Gentlemen Band
February 13: Generationals
February 20: Title Tracks

and there’s more to come….

OH YEAH DON’T FORGET KWUR Week is coming, too. Check below for the details, okay.

SPRING 2010 SCHEDULE

Friday, February 5th, 2010

HERE IT IS

We are live as I write this, folks. The schedule is packed – most nights go until 4 or 5 AM – so if you happen to make an early morning commute along Forest Park Parkway, tune in for 15 minutes. Also I can say, completely without bias, that this is one of the best semesters of programming we’ve lined up since I’ve been involved at KWUR. PLEASE LISTEN (here)!