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.