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The death of a community radio station by

September 27th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

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.

16 Responses to “The death of a community radio station”

  1. Antarius says:

    “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”

    That would be incorrect. Below are the reasons posted on the first day. You may want to check your facts before hitting the “publish button”

    http://www.media.rice.edu/media/NewsBot.asp?MODE=VIEW&ID=14644

  2. Moondog says:

    I did check my facts, and in the process of doing research for this post, I did not come across an article that articulated Rice’s reasons for selling the frequency. The link above doesn’t go anywhere, but if you have another source that explains the sale, I’d love to read it.

    • Antarius says:

      The link goes to an FAQ issued by Rice concerning the sale. Here’s the first paragraph of the page:

      KTRU FAQs
      1. Why is Rice selling the KTRU tower, FM frequency and license?

      KTRU began as a student experiment and has been part of Rice for nearly 40 years. After Rice received a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), KTRU began broadcasting in 1971. It eventually grew from 10 watts to 50,000 watts. In evaluating the situation, we realized that it doesn’t need 50,000 watts to reach its audience, which is often too small to be measured by Arbitron, the research firm that measures network and local radio audiences to compile ratings for the radio industry. Rice will use the proceeds from the sale of the KTRU license and frequency and the broadcast tower located near Humble, Texas, on campuswide enhancements that benefit all students, and students will continue to operate KTRU online at http://www.ktru.org.

  3. Moondog says:

    Whoops, found it! Kind of backs up my point anyway, especially this bit:

    “There’s a widespread consensus that the value of broadcasting licenses and the engagement of people with FM as a way to access their music is declining, and we certainly see that in our own student body,” Leebron said. “It is not fulfilling our responsibility to wait until the asset has no value suddenly – or very little value – and to decide to sell.”

    http://media.www.ricethresher.org/media/storage/paper1290/news/2010/08/27/News/President.David.Leebron.Responds.To.Thresher.Staff.Editorial.Student.And.Alumni-3925540.shtml

    • curlydan says:

      “Whereas I can only speculate that Rice is selling KTRU’s frequency because they’re greedy bastards*”

      And yes, they are greedy. The Rice admins are selling a 50,000W tower than was donated to the university in the early nineties (previous tower was 650W) and maintained through an external endowment at no cost to the university. If not for the 20 years of volunteer efforts of the student run radio station, KTRU would not have received the tower in the early nineties. The $9.5M is an example of rent-seeking behavior on the part of the administration–getting something for nothing.

  4. Klax says:

    If I remember correctly, WRVU has several links to KWUR in that our old media adviser left WashU to go work for them.
    In this process, they also ended up hiring some KWUR engineers who made some software for them that was the same/very similar/based on the (now old/past) auto-rotation/playlist tracker that was originally made at KWUR.
    It’s a good station. I used to always listen to it while driving to/from St. Louis when I passed through the Nashville area.

    Sad. Thanks for the good post.

  5. Jim Ballowe says:

    I spent six years as a DJ, five years as chief (student) engineer of WRVU in the early nineties, one year involved with VSC through another media outlet (Vanderbilt Video Production), although not as a voting member.

    Essentially, print ad revenue is in the toilet and the print outlets have managed to accomplish disproportionate representation on the VSC board. Essentially, with the current VSC leadership being print-heavy, they see selling the WRVU frequency as an opportunity to create an endowment. Specifically, that endowment will disproportionately support the print media outlets that truly need to undergo online transformation.

    The Irony (in the Alanis Morissette sense) is exceeded only by the myopia of VSC in this case. The alumni of WRVU are in a full swing battle to save the station, because that’s what it boils down to – if WRVU goes off the air, there will be very little motivation or reason for any level of participation. Beyond that, Vanderbilt will lose perhaps the one last thread of connection to its community, something for which Vandy and its students have famously and traditionally lacked.

    Oh, well. Maybe I won’t go to the 20 year reunion after all…

  6. [...] Read the full post here > Share/Bookmark –> [...]

  7. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Erickson, Jeff Erickson, William Marsh Rice, Evan Mintz, William Marsh Rice and others. William Marsh Rice said: RT @KWUR: thoughts on the impending sales of KTRU + WRVU: http://ht.ly/2KeXU @savektru @wrvunashville [...]

  8. Fact Comment says:

    So again in the comments, the official line of the administration continues regurgitated about the arbitron ratings being the primary justification for sale of KTRU. Therefore, according to this justification, all Rice sports and arts should be terminated do to the size of their audiences being smaller than KTRU’s audience. Maybe there wouldn’t be so much resistance by so many people to the sale of KTRU if they felt they weren’t being lied to.

  9. [...] much more, well worth the read. And in other developments, this post from Washington University’s KWUR radio (St. Louis) spoke of solidarity with those remaining [...]

  10. Chris Knutson says:

    I finally got to read the FAQ/justification statement and I have to say my intelligence has been insulted. Twice KTRU was called an “experiment” as if the results could be measured in a laboratory. This so-called experiment has been rockin’ H-town longer than Rice’s current president could hope to remain in his position, and it is my sincere hope that it will continue to do so long after he has died of old age, alone and forgotten. The fact is, the frequency and tower are not his to sell, and the attempt to do so is a crime against Rice students and the city of Houston. Bring on the noise.

  11. Kate says:

    So, beyond the fact that this whole plight is awful, can I just say, well done to whoever wrote this article. Solid job, almost brought me to tears. Definitely made me tell everyone I know about this whole nonsense.

  12. Great article. This is a tough time for all non-profit stations. I’m involved with one here in Bridgeport, CT that has been going since 1963. We are no longer affiliated with the University of Bridgeport except that our offices are still here. We ware nearly 100% listerner-supported and all volunteer except for a paid GM. We must all keep the word out about community radio and also remember…it is important to keep the programming fresh and updated. We are in a tough bind trying to raise money…our budget is $280,000 and we should wold love to find an angel! Peace

  13. by the way …our great 10,000 watt station is WPKN streaming at wpkn.org

  14. [...] webcasting is not suitable for the kind of radio station that KUSF,  KTRU and WRVU embody in a previous post, and USF's administration is reusing many of the excuses put forth by VU and Rice: radio [...]

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