Campus Update

Protests continue strong on campus at Rice University in Houston and Vanderbilt in Nashville. At Rice, the Owls boast a Facebook site nearly 2500 strong, with a new post from Austin Airwaves’ Jim Radio, who’s filed an open-records request with the University of Houston. The UH System’s Assistant General Counsel Ruth Shapiro has asked for a determination from the AG’s office about releasing some proprietary info. As he notes, “Austin Airwaves, an independent community radio advocate based in Austin, TX, has a long reputation for seeking information from recalcitrant government officials. Rice University, private and insular, is generally immune to Open Records Requests. UH is not. Stay tuned!”

The saveKTRU website (here) posted a strongly worded letter that included the following:

Rice students and alumni have been troubled by the lack of openness surrounding the sale, the secretiveness of which violates the spirit of engagement that Rice is known for. Community members as well as those affiliated with Rice are concerned about the cultural loss that the sale of KTRU 91.7 FM would represent for the city. We entreat you to use your considerable influence as a trustee to act to halt the impending sale.

The economic justification for the sale is confounding, as the cost to Rice University for KTRU’s existence on the FM dial is minimal. Since the station’s founding by students in 1967, it has operated through the efforts of student, alumni, and community volunteers. Rice has always provided studio space, and more recently a staff general manager and chief engineer. But KTRU’s 50,000 watt transmitter, along with an endowment for its maintenance, was donated in 1991 by KRTS 92.1 FM, a commercial radio station which wanted to increase its power without causing signal interference. At the time, KTRU’s student management was promised by President George Rupp that the power upgrade would not lead to a loss of student control. General station operations are paid for by Rice students through a $6.00 blanket tax.

While the administration has claimed that “the students aren’t losing anything” in the proposed sale, that could hardly be further from the truth. If KTRU loses its transmitter and FCC license, it loses most of its audience, its significance as a broadcast entity, and its geographic tie to the city of Houston. The audience for the terrestrial broadcast of KTRU dwarfs its Internet listenership, despite the fact that it has been streaming over the Internet for a decade. In cars and on mobile devices, Internet radio is a poor substitute for the real thing, as listeners must contend with frequent dropped connections and areas of inadequate coverage. Furthermore, Internet access requires either a home broadband connection or a cell phone with monthly data fees, excluding listeners of limited financial means.

KTRU’s place as one of a limited number of stations on the FM dial gives it a much higher profile than it would have as an Internet-only entity, where it would merely be one among thousands of webcasts. Record labels that currently serve KTRU with free music would be unlikely to do so for a webcast, causing the station’s music collection to stagnate. The economics of music licensing requirements are highly disadvantageous to Internet-only webcasts, as compared with FM broadcast stations, being based on the number of simultaneous listeners, and thus penalizing stations for growing their audiences. And of the utmost concern, student interest and participation in the organization would plummet, as has been observed at other universities that moved from FM transmission to Internet-only….

Over the past weeks, President Leebron has offered a few rationales for the proposed sale. If these issues were of such great concern, why did he not convene the KFC (KTRU Friendly Committee), a committee made up of students, faculty, staff, and alumni, which is charged with working with the station management to determine operational programming? The fact that none of these concerns were ever addressed through the channel that was instituted to discuss KTRU-related issues severely undermines the administration’s credibility.

Rice University holds KTRU’s FCC license in trust for the students. Selling that license without the consent of the students would be a betrayal of that trust. It would be a betrayal of the students who founded the station, those who applied for the FCC license, those who were assured of the administration’s benevolence in 1991, those who agreed to implement the KFC in 2000, and all of the many student, alumni, and community volunteers who have endeavored on KTRU’s behalf over the past four decades.

In Music City, Vandy students now boast a Facebook site with more than 4,000 supporters. In addition the WRVU website gathers up the administration waffles and serves them up under the “Threat” heading, which concludes with this zinger from the head waffle man: “He closed by poking the student DJs with an irritatingly playful tone at a somber moment, ‘Hey’ he shrugged, better this than ‘doing The Rice Thing where you just sell the damn station. Do it over the summer and hope people don’t get angry.’”

Vandy protesters posted up their own strongly worded letter with the following points:

[T]he board’s membership may be so compromised as to merit serious questions about whether it is capable of taking action without being criticized of outright bias. WRVU is special for Vanderbilt students and to the Nashville community, since, as we’ve noted previously, it is the only media link between both. We are concerned that VSC’s current by-laws and composition will make any decision a foregone conclusion, particularly given that the VSC Board is deliberating the fate of WRVU without a single person directly involved with WRVU even represented as a voting member, in contravention of decades of VSC tradition. The reason we are writing again so soon is that we have learned that VSC’s next board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, 6 October at 5 PM, and we wanted you to be aware, in advance of that meeting, of the issues involved….

Until about ten years ago, VSC had been governed under the same set of by-laws since 1967. Under these rules, the board was composed of few faculty members, notably Professor Richard Larson and Dean Steven Caldwell, and the officers of the student media organizations themselves. There was one paid staff member, the Media Advisor (Chris Carroll has held this role since 1996) along with two paid student media operatives: the top two officers of The Hustler. Each organization was represented by at least two voting members on the board. Students who wanted to be officers applied to the VSC board and were interviewed before being selected; the same rules applied to hiring a Media Advisor (two of our signatories, for example, sat on the committee that hired Chris Carroll). In other words, the VSC Board was fundamentally a student institution.

In addition, each organization’s budget was separate, managed by students who were members of their respective organization. The Business Managers were responsible for paying bills, balancing the books, and developing a budget that would be presented to the VSC board each year for approval. The costs associated with WRVU in the mid- to late-90’s, totaling approximately $50,000, were covered by VSC’s contribution (of which almost all came from the Vanderbilt University Student Activity Fee), the proceeds from an annual benefit concert organized by the station, and grants won by individual shows. The Hustler’s budget at that time, by contrast, was approximately one-third covered by the Student Activity Fee, and two-thirds by self-generated advertising revenue.

Today, we find a vastly different situation. As noted earlier, it is not clear to us exactly when changes were made, but we do know that they were not made all at once. Instead, we have identified a kind of institutional “mission-creep” in which responsibilities have been steadily removed from the individual organizations (and particularly from their officers), depriving them of the opportunity of learning important skills – which is the very reason student media organizations exist in the first place. A kind of “helicopter-parenting” attitude has apparently unfolded within the VSC board that seeks to protect students from themselves and insulate organizations from mistakes that could actually be educational….

In addition, each organization’s budget was separate, managed by students who were members of their respective organization. The Business Managers were responsible for paying bills, balancing the books, and developing a budget that would be presented to the VSC board each year for approval. The costs associated with WRVU in the mid- to late-90’s, totaling approximately $50,000, were covered by VSC’s contribution (of which almost all came from the Vanderbilt University Student Activity Fee), the proceeds from an annual benefit concert organized by the station, and grants won by individual shows. The Hustler’s budget at that time, by contrast, was approximately one-third covered by the Student Activity Fee, and two-thirds by self-generated advertising revenue….

We’ll explain further what we mean by describing the changes that have occurred to VSC. First, the board no longer incorporates the officers from all of the student media organizations. The faculty and student members are elected by the previous year’s board. Currently, the student members of the board are comprised of four current or former members of The Hustler and InsideVandy.com, and the editor of The Torch (who, incidentally, is Chris Carroll’s nephew, Phil Carroll). There are also now seven full-time paid staff members of VSC, where there used to be only one. Their responsibilities include everything from advising the WRVU or Hustler staffs to art direction for the web sites of the various organizations to an “editorial fellow” who engages with news-gathering facets of student media. It is possible that we are understating the importance of this staff’s duties. But their jobs used to be taken on by students – and in doing those jobs, students like us learned how to manage organizations, budgets, and media. Responsibility and decision-making has now moved away from the students to paid staff, thereby infantilizing the students who joined these organizations precisely because they wanted to learn “the business” of media.

There’s 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 independent student-run college stations:

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….

Commenter Jim Ballowe added:

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.

If there ever was any doubt, the outpouring of emotion on these campuses is the best indication that the kids are definitely all right.

One Response

  1. Back in my day we would have occupied the buildings!

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