News of the upheaval in college radio has even reached the pages of the New York Times, which reported here on action at Rice and Vanderbilt universities:
Like many college radio stations across the country, Rice University’s KTRU and Vanderbilt University’s WRVU play a broad swath of music — from undiscovered indie bands and obscure blues acts to ’60s garage rock and ’80s postpunk. It’s a mix largely absent from commercial broadcasts, and students active in radio say their stations add distinct voices to their cities’ broadcast landscape.
But as colleges across the country look for ways to tighten budgets amid recession-induced shortfalls, some administrators — most recently in the South — have focused on college radio, leading even well-endowed universities to sell off their FM stations. That trend was felt this summer at Rice and Vanderbilt, among the most prominent of Southern universities, stirring debate about the viability of broadcast radio, the reach of online broadcasting and the value of student broadcast programming.
“We play music that you won’t find on any other Houston radio station” said Joey Yang, a junior at Rice and station manager for KTRU. “KTRU’s mission is to broadcast exactly what you can’t find elsewhere on the dial.”
Scott Cardone, a sophomore disk jockey at WRVU with a two-hour electric blues show, pointed to the potential void in Nashville if Vanderbilt’s FM signal were to be sold. “The community will lose what probably is the last radio station playing anything other than country, Christian or Top 40 in the whole city,” he said. “You can’t hear the music that we play anywhere else.”
Which is the basic argument about public radio in general by Mark Bryant, who described in an earlier comment “public broadcasting’s mandate of serving unserved and underserved communities.” And it could easily be applied to college stations, one of the last bastions of free-form radio.
The Nashville Scene website picked up on the story in its “Pith in the Wind” section in an article by Steve Haruch, who pointed out a couple discrepancies in the administration line:
[From the Times article, Steve Carroll for the VSC:] “We will pull a random sample of Vanderbilt undergrads — of 500 or so at a time. And what we’ve found is that these students aren’t listening to radio at all. It’s not just WRVU,” he said. Instead, students are listening on mobile devices like smartphones and laptops, both of which are more readily serviced by the Internet, he said.
[Steve:] Wait a second — I thought this wasn’t about that. I thought it was about Securing the Future of All Vanderbilt Student Media in Perpetuity. Here’s what VSC chair Mark Wollaeger told me in September:
“As the board sees it, we have a valuable asset of declining value, at a time when ad revenues for print . . . which is the main source of revenue for WRVU . . . are declining,” Wollaeger says, “and . . . the possibility of selling the license came up because, by selling it, there’s a chance for endowing VSC, and thereby being independent of ad revenues.”In that same conversation, Wollaeger also said that student listening habits were “not the main motivation” for exploring this sale. Carroll’s statements may be excerpted from a broader conversation, but he sure seems to be emphasizing the student listening habits side of things.
Now, there’s another subplot here that smells . . . I don’t know . . . fishy. Tucked into the NYT story is this brief little mention of WRVU’s listenership:
[Times:] According to Arbitron, a media and marketing research firm that measures local radio audiences, the station reaches just over 30,000 people each week in greater Nashville.
[Steve:] This will sound mighty curious to people who’ve been hearing VSC’s version of those numbers. Here is what Wollaeger told a meeting of concerned WRVU DJs, trainees and other interested parties at a meeting in September, shortly after the announcement of the proposed sale: “Arbitron . . . the listenership is so small it doesn’t even register. . . . It’s way down in Nashville. . . . The estimates are, like, 300 regular listeners in the community.” (Emphasis mine.)
And as the Times article noted, it was Carroll who declared that at least they weren’t Rice, though traffic seems to be rather light up on the high road:
At Vanderbilt, [Carroll] said, “what’s happening, really, is a big public discussion about is this a good idea or not, and there’s no conclusion to that yet.” Rice, he said, made the decision to sell KTRU behind closed doors — without student input.