The Air War in Houston

In the brutal heat and humidity of a Houston summer afternoon, hundreds of supporters met to protest the planned sale of KTRU to the University of Houston’s KUHF. As the protest website, SaveKTRU.org (link on right), noted: “Members of KTRU’s student board stressed that they will not back down in the fight for the radio station. Station Manager Kelsey Yule asserted that even if the station were to go off the air this week, the fight that began when the news was announced publicly last Monday was ‘just the beginning.’”

More information on the takeover of the Rice University students’ radio station by a blogger named Ernesto Aguilar, here, in an article entitled “Four Issues Not Discussed Enough in the Fight to Save KTRU.” Early on, Ernesto echoes some of the problems we see in pubic radio:

The loss of KTRU would be a real tragedy for Houston. Free Press documents a pitiful history of media consolidation happening today, including the proposed NBC/Comcast merger that will affect many communities. On the noncommercial media side, classical radio station WCAL and listeners’ failed fight against Minnesota Public Radio to halt MPR from taking over the local highlight area worries over public radio groups silencing smaller stations. However, such public concern hasn’t stopped the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to push for greater consolidation, to the detriment of the public interest.

And this doesn’t even mention many of the stations chronicled herein as absorbed into the borg. At any rate, Ernesto’s first under-discussed issue involves the charge from the prez that the station was low-rated — though at least one post on the KTRU sites maintained that the station does not subscribe to the wanky Arbitron ratings and, therefore, wouldn’t even show up there. Ernesto does, however, provide many of the same information on Arbitron and its problems as are dealt with here, adding: “More curiously, Leebron never addresses the efforts his or any previous administration made to correct the Arbitron issue. If KTRU’s low ratings were important enough to bring up, why not outline what was done to fix it? Were Arbitron ratings part of the charge upon which staff were evaluated to increase? Or is this just a dig being brought up in a letter when administrators never expressed worry over such before? He doesn’t say.”

And Ernesto also takes an interesting tack about KUHF’s motivation for buying the station:

Those I’ve spoken to at KUHF indicate classical music pays the bills, though the station is interested in airing more news. Classical music stations have been tried in Houston and failed. Culturemap even openly asked if Houston really needs a classical station, commenting “Why has KUHF, with its $8.76 million budget and major university minds, failed to produce a quality show, both news or music-based, that is syndicated to national markets?”

In any other scenario, station management would have an ounce of courage and offer up what it thinks to be important in visioning a station with the resources KUHF has at its disposal. Thus we have an unwritten part of this KUHF/KTRU story: rather than serve its audience with actual news coverage and shear back even five minutes of classical music, KUHF would rather kill off KTRU.

And he raises the question of what NPR shows are really worth the trouble anyway:

The Diane Rehm Show and Talk of the Nation? Not even great, or remotely legendary — and this is coming from a serious public radio nerd. More importantly, KUHF officials have said publicly, in no uncertain terms, they will not be expanding the news departments or investing more resources in coverage. Translation: listeners get Diane Rehm giving us the low down on bed bugs, Neal Conan prattling on about favorite movie meals and stories Amy Goodman covered months ago, listeners get the same ‘meh’ local news drop-ins they got before the sale, and a boatload of additional underwriting announcements than they had to tolerate with the classical music format.

Even if you’re a major NPR junkie, let’s face it: how many of those programs can you really not live without? Two? Five?

Even if you had ten programs as reasons for having a 24/7 NPR news affiliate, you could probably also come up with 50 reasons for media diversity, 15 of which are chronically bland and uninteresting NPR programs themselves. That’s because, for all its good programming, the organization spends just as much time selling you an aesthetic intended to make you associate particular values with its brand, even if the programming to most thinking people kinda sucks.

The SaveKTRU.org website itself contains one of the most cogent arguments:

KTRU began as a student club. In 1970, the Rice Board of Governors allowed students to apply for a radio license on condition that “the installation be at no expense to the University; the broadcasting to clearly state that the station is operated by the students of Rice University and reflects their opinions; that it does not represent the official position of the University.” The current 50,000 watt transmitter was donated to Rice along with an endowment to pay for operating costs. There would be no frequency to sell and no transmitter to sell if it weren’t for the initiative and energy of Rice students. Whatever Rice’s legal rights are, what it’s doing is wrong.

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