Beating the Borg

Paul Riismandel, of the excellent Radio Survivor blog, is all over the story out of Houston this week — the impending back-door sale of Rice University’s student-run KTRU to the University of Houston, beginning with this post. Writing in a story entitled “Rice University Plans to Sell Off KTRU’s FM Frequency,” Survivor’s Jennifer Waits says, in part:

Schools have argued that college radio is unimportant since few students are involved and few listen. And this argument is aided by the fact that radio listenership is generally on the decline. Adding to the equation are the willing suitors (with cash in hand) waiting in the wings, including public radio and religious broadcasters who are both eager to spread their reach across the radio dial.

Jennifer has written extensively on the trend in college radio — accompanied by much the same mealy-mouthing and back-door behavior — most notably here, in Texas at Texas Tech University:

One of the most disturbing stories was the unexpected shutdown of Texas Tech station KTXT in December 2008. The nearly 50-year-old college radio station was described by university officials as a financial drain and not as relevant as other forms of media. Control of the station was transferred to Texas Tech’s other station, NPR-affiliate KOHM, and beginning in June the new KTXT started to air programming from Public Radio International and jazz music run on automation.

Jennifer has detailed the other stations also absorbed into the borg: Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, also dropping its KAUR-FM broadcast and would transforming into an online-only station. “By September 2009 control of the station (but not ownership) was passed on to Minnesota Public Radio. KAUR now airs an all news and talk format of syndicated public radio programs and the college abandoned plans to even host an online-only student radio station.”

Also linked is the story about KVTI in Tacoma, Washington: “In another sad sign of the times, Clover Park Technical College in Tacoma, Washington has decided to cut costs by passing along control of its 51,000 watt college radio station KVTI to Washington State University’s Northwest Public Radio. As a result of this change, the formerly top 40 station known as I-91 FM began piping in classical music programming and NPR news on June 21st.” These were noted here in this report.

Add to that the incursions into college radio — aided and abetted by the CPB-funded depredations of HD radio — chronicled herein to local radio stations such as KUT in Austin and WUMB in Boston. And now at KTRU, which is, according to a post on radio-info.com, the third-most-powerful of all the educational non-comms. As Jennifer concludes: “Personally I’m disappointed to see another example of a university selling off a station for some quick cash. The result of this particular transaction will be that the Houston airwaves will become less diverse, with yet another public radio station (and presumably national programming) taking the place of a long-standing, well-respected local college radio station. FM does still matter, why else would University of Houston offer to pay over 9 million dollars for it.”

The discussion on the Houston radio-info.com board noted the trend to all-talk: “FM talk stations signed on in Denver, Fresno, San Antonio, Louisville and Mobile last year. And the trend continued in 2010 with Raleigh, Greensboro, Dallas, Chico, Austin and Syracuse. Las Vegas is now home to two competing FM talk outlets and Atlanta got its first yesterday.”

It’s no small wonder that the NPR borg is involved: The HD radio offensive the CPB has been greasing with taxpayer funds seems to be bogged down in the reality that nobody is really interested in spending more money for something they don’t really need or want — to listen to canned music or rehashed blather.

But even more prescient is the comment therein that this is the new trend in response to the soggy sales of the HD radio scam, following a model used at WUSF in Forida:

Pretty much every NPR station in the country has been moving towards this model ever since stations like WBUR and WAMU found success with it in the 1990s. Why else have NPR stations been pioneers of multicasting with HD? The prevalent thought was that once HD takes off, you could put the talk (which attracts a younger, lucrative audience) on the main channel and move the music (which attracts an older, but still important audience) on the subchannels and make both audiences happy.

Only problem is, the only people who own HD radios work for radio stations, and it’s really tough to buy one. Last week’s Radio World had a spectacular rant from WOR’s Tom Ray (who engineered if not the first, an early HD radio station) detailing his frustration in trying to buy a factory HD Radio in his new Ford Escape [reported on here].

So, if the future of public radio is to serve both the fine arts and news/talk audience full time and the public is slow to adopt HD radio, then you have to acquire more than one station and serve it up in glorious analog. Which is exactly what Colorado Public Radio, Vermont Public Radio, and many others have been doing for several years [emphasis added].

And once again, in Houston we hear the same rehashed arguments for doing away with the college station. Rice prez David Leebron said “[a] recent Arbitron report showed that KTRU’s audience was so small that it did not even register in the ratings.” Well, duh, Dave. The president of a school billed as the “Harvard of the South” should know that in order to get into the junk science that conjures up Arbitron ratings, you actually have to pay for them. Oops.

And the vehemence of outraged Owls is manifesting in a plethora of protest actions, including multiple Facebook pages, Tweets, and a petition that already sports 2,000 names (before students even return). This letter from an alumnus, for instance, details some of the other extravagant purchases made by the university that belie the usual claims of economic hardship that accompany these moves. And the subterfuge exhibited in the negotiations for the sale — behind closed doors, before students returned for the fall semester — mark this administration as the latest in a long line of bean counters who know the cost of everything (that matters to them, anyway) and the value of nothing. Best wishes to the Mob in their battle with the borg.

The link on the left of this page — What Can I Do? — details what can be done as regards contacting your members of congress to protest this.

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4 Responses

  1. [...] Recent history suggests that’s not going to happen. I’m rooting for that outcome, too, but I can’t say I’ll be surprised to be disappointed. [...]

  2. You bet, Jennifer. And we’ve added a link to your blog to our list. Don’t give up the fight!

  3. Thanks for bringing attention to this story. I also published an interview with KTRU’s Student Manager for my blog Spinning Indie. She reveals to me how all of this came down during summer break. http://spinningindie.blogspot.com/2010/08/rice-university-angers-ktru-with-plans.html

  4. A while back, I posted a reference to an NPR-sponsored college radio station (it may have been WPSU) on my blog, indicating that their HD Radio involvement was partly supported by listener contributions. Later, I revisited the page and that information had been removed. I contacted the station and they gave me some story that it was “old” information. But, that’s fine because now I have a link to Wisconsin Public Radio indicating their HD Radio stations are being upgraded with State building commission funds – LOL!

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