The Air War in Nashville

In Nashville, the Music City, Vanderbilt students and supporters of WRVU are fighting to hang on to their radio station. Station slayer Chris Carroll promulgated a list of open-ended questions justifying his attempts to jettison the station — the standard mealy-mouthed bloviation of university suits — and following are answers from Vandy alumni:

Vanderbilt Student Communications Q&A
The following list of nine open-ended questions was sent by VSC Director of Student Media Chris Carroll, in response to a request for information by WRVU General Manager Victor Clarke regarding the VSC Board’s concerns and interest in a sale of the WRVU broadcast license. We offer the following responses to the VSC’s questions below. For media inquiries, see for more information, or write to Justin Walsh (

1. Is there an immediate alternative to fund an endowment? Are there likely alumni or other donors willing to match or substantially match the sale offer?

In the initial announcement regarding the possibility of a sale (, Vanderbilt Student Communications (VSC) stated that the goal behind this move was to protect other student media by creating “an endowment to support innovative student media experiences, facilities and operations at Vanderbilt University in perpetuity.” Although we reject the notion that a license sale could achieve that goal, we would like to see funding possibilities for WRVU explored further. We believe that the possibilities for funding are various, and include:

  • underwriting campaigns, such as those heard on NPR
  • benefit concerts
  • membership drives, again following the NPR model
  • alumni donations

In fact, there are existing precedents at WRVU for the first two suggestions, where a student underwriting director position already exists and benefit concerts have raised several thousand dollars each year for the station.

WRVU, unlike its print media counterparts, cannot earn a large advertising income due to the nature of its broadcast license. This fact, however, is offset by its seemingly manageable cost. According to a 2009 letter to the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board by VSC Assistant Director Jim Hayes, “WRVU has an annual operating budget of $10,000.” In his opening statement at a meeting with WRVU staff and DJs, VSC Chair Mark Wollaeger cited a cost of $15,000 (plus shared expenses associated with the VSC’s rental space in the Sarratt Student Center). Whatever the case, keeping WRVU on the air requires only a small fraction of VSC’s total $900,000 annual operating budget. As a form of community service, Vanderbilt radio is a low-cost, high-return asset that has fulfilled its non-profit commitment to the FCC since receiving its license in 1953 — all while educating hundreds, if not thousands, of Vanderbilt students.

WRVU is certainly willing and able to create an endowment if necessary to sustain its annual operation costs. Doesn’t it make sense that the other VSC members be similarly obligated? These other VSC publications and media include The Vanderbilt Hustler newspaper, The Commodore yearbook, The Political Review, The Slant, The Torch, ORBIS, VTV, InsideVandy, The Talented Tenth, and the annual Vanderbilt Review. The majority of these publications have existed for fewer than 10 to 15 years. It simply does not make sense to poach an anchor VSC member, WRVU, to sustain publications “in perpetuity” which have yet to prove that they can exist and operate successfully at a fraction of WRVU’s lifespan.

What is the endowment going to be used for? As can be seen in the VSC board’s initial statement, they have not been specific in their response to this question. We at SaveWRVU suspect that the annual operating costs of any or all of the VSC media organizations is not the issue, but rather the bloat associated with the growing paid VSC staff. We fear that an endowment created by the WRVU license sale would not assist with the operating costs of any of its member media organizations but, instead, will become a means of sustaining an ever-increasing professional (i.e., non-student) VSC staff.

For over 30 years there was only one full-time paid staff member of Vanderbilt Student Communications — a journalistic advisor. The organization, which was explicitly created to protect editorial freedom of speech for students from the meddling of the Vanderbilt University administration, was likewise governed by a board of 21 students for decades. Most of these student positions were held by the heads of student media. WRVU had three Board positions, more than any other organization (perhaps due to the size of its staff). Even as recently as a decade ago, every media organization was represented on the board. Recently, however, the student component of the board was reduced to four voting members. Today, none of these “at-large” members have any current connection to WRVU; they are each involved with one of the VSC publications that would benefit from the proposed sale, though. Meanwhile, the number of full-time professional staff members has increased to from one to seven.

Could a license sale actually fund an endowment? We consider this prospect extremely unlikely. The stated upper range for a sale is around $5 million. If the entirety of this high number were placed in trust as an endowment, only the interest/earnings generated by it would be available for use by VSC — not the $5 million itself. The board has not presented any kind of plan detailing the structure of a putative endowment, its investment strategy, imagined returns, or its management. Assuming a (purely arbitrary, but probably representative) 5% return on that top-end estimate of the license’s value, however, the income would equal $250,000 a year. VSC’s current budget is already almost four times greater than that and it will rise as costs, especially cost-of-living raises for staff, rise. The annual outlay of VSC on WRVU’s behalf, on the other hand, is minimal — less than or equal to the salary of just one of the seven current full-time staff members.

2. Is the revenue potential presented by retaining the broadcast license equal to or greater than the offer? Are there changes that could be made to WRVU programming or management that would result in substantial underwriting income? What would be the probability of success of such an effort?

It isn’t clear exactly what the Board means here by “revenue potential.” WRVU is a “not-for-profit radio station.” By federal law, which is enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the purpose of WRVU is to serve the community through quality programming, not to generate income. Although station underwriting is allowed, direct advertising sales are not. WRVU underwriting programs that have supported the station since the 1960s have not been utilized under the current VSC management, despite the fact that one new VSC professional staff position (Advertising Director) was created specifically for such a purpose at a current annual salary of approximately $70,000.

From underwriting campaigns to benefit concerts to membership drives, there are many funding possibilities for radio station WRVU that have not yet been explored. We believe that at least some of these possibilities have great potential.

3. Is there strong evidence to suggest that delaying a sale would result in a larger offer at a later date?

As already noted, we reject (and federal law essentially prohibits) consideration of WRVU as a purely economic asset. It is, instead, fundamentally an educational opportunity.

However, anecdotal evidence suggests that 2011 is not a wise time to be selling radio frequencies, especially non-profit frequencies below 92 MHz. The reason for this has nothing to do with the viability of broadcast radio, even for specialized stations like WRVU. Don Benson, WRVU alumnus and 2010 inductee in the Vanderbilt Student Media Hall of Fame (named as one of the “40 Most Powerful People in Radio” by the industry magazine Radio Ink), told former WRVU General Manager Mikil Taylor that broadcast licenses have hit an all-time low in their market value, but also that they will increase in the future.

According to the 2010 Arbitron report “Radio Today: How America Listens to Radio,” 93% of the U.S. population still listens to broadcast radio daily. The dial is limited. As demand for bandwidth continues to build and the number of available frequencies declines, the value of the license for 91.1 FM will continue to increase.

Likewise, Benson and other radio experts have stated that radio frequencies can be used for other purposes such as telecommunications and high-speed Internet delivery. There is no danger that the value of an FM frequency will bottom out. Like the rare opportunity of working at a high-power FM station, the fiscal value of radio waves will only increase with the advent of new technologies.

4. Would the learning experience for students affiliated with WRVU differ substantively if the station’s programming was online-only? How can this difference be measured? If the learning experience were diminished, would that loss outweigh the opportunities presented by an endowment?

To cite Mr. Benson once again, nobody in the professional radio industry takes Internet distribution seriously. Likewise, CNN Senior Correspondent and WRVU alumnus Richard Quest has stated that “having a broadcast wavelength and frequency, not some Internet nonsense, is crucial to real broadcasting in the true sense of that word.”

WRVU already reaches an Internet audience through streaming technology on and through its mobile device applications. The most significant difference with online-only distribution, from the educational perspective of student DJs, would be the removal of any regulation by the FCC. It may sound strange to say that restriction is a good thing, but as alumni, we can state unequivocally that there are actually a number of positives to be found in being subject FCC regulation:

  • Students learn how to operate a real radio station — experience that can be invaluable in any number of future media endeavors (there are many alumni, in the Nashville area as well as nationwide, who owe their start in radio or other media to WRVU).
  • The responsibility to conform to regulations requires a professional attitude to be maintained during a show.
  • Restrictions, in some sense, make art more interesting — that is to say that rules force one to manage more carefully and to develop innovative solutions for achieving a goal, which is every bit as much a part of the educational experience as learning how to do the emergency broadcast warning in the event of a nuclear attack (yep, you get that training as part of FCC licensure).

If WRVU went “online only,” the bandwidth necessary to accommodate WRVU’s 30,000 weekly listeners — assuming they chose to tune in that way, which we doubt — would likely be more than the station’s current operating costs. It is also probable that the station would no longer receive promotional materials from record labels, forcing student DJs to purchase music for the station. In addition, without the FCC “non-profit” designation, it is likely that WRVU would be required to pay royalties on the music it plays. The VSC Board has made no indication that they have researched such “online only” expenses.

Finally, we have to ask: Isn’t the ultimate measurement about whether it’s worthwhile to join a radio station the fact that WRVU had a record number of trainees in fall 2010 and an unprecedented number of student DJ applications again this spring, even as the station’s license was under threat?

5. Would student involvement change substantively for WRVU if the station’s programming was online-only? How can this be predicted? If participation levels were diminished, would that loss outweigh the opportunities presented by an endowment?

Without the FM broadcast license, we have no doubt that the level of student involvement would shrink to zero. Why would students join an organization that has nothing to offer them? WRVU’s mission is to create a laboratory where students can learn what it means to manage a real on-air radio station. There is no such thing as a professional online-only radio station. The lack of FCC regulation would mean that there would be no difference between what a student could do in a studio, and what they could do from their dorm room. Students instinctively realize this difference already, which is why they continue to volunteer to DJ at WRVU  —a station that offers live broadcasting opportunities and professional radio experience.

The last part of the question — whether the opportunity to be a WRVU DJ is equal to the possibility of an endowment — is ultimately a rhetorical one, but we think the answer is clear. In terms of student experience and community connection, the long-term value of preserving the FM frequency far outweighs any short-term monetary gains that will come from sacrificing the license.

6. How large is WRVU’s off-campus broadcast audience? What benefits are gained for VSC and students by having this broadcast audience? How are these benefits measured? Is serving WRVU’s Middle Tennessee broadcast listeners a priority that outweighs the opportunities presented by an endowment?

Once again, a few facts about WRVU’s listenership need to be noted:

  • Mark Wollaeger, Associate Professor of English and Chair of the VSC board, told the Nashville Scene in September that the size of WRVU’s audience (on-campus or off) was not a significant factor in the Board’s decision-making process.
  • VSC has never before asked for WRVU to produce a large listening audience (on-campus or off).
  • The mission statement of WRVU makes no reference to serving an audience — only to giving students an opportunity to learn about broadcast media.

OK, leave this all aside: How many people listen to WRVU? The VSC media advisor, Chris Carroll, has been quoted in the Nashville Scene as saying that there are “300 regular listeners in the community.” However, the Arbitron weekly cumulative audiences (the number who listen at least once a week) were 26,500 in July 2010, 30,400 in August 2010, 26,800 in September 2010, and 30,200 in October 2010, averaging 28,500 unique weekly listeners over the four-month period. These are significant numbers.
(Note: Carroll later clarified that this number referred to the number of listeners during “any given quarter-hour,” which changes the meaning of the statement completely.)

Ultimately, if listenership is an important issue for the VSC Board, WRVU ought to be given an opportunity to meet that new standard. But WRVU also shouldn’t be singled out on audience as a metric for worthiness. If this criterion is important to the VSC Board, then a similar burden should be placed on all Vanderbilt media organizations and not selectively on WRVU.

So what’s the benefit of Nashville’s audience to VSC and to students? The same as it is for the larger Vanderbilt community: the goodwill that comes from a significant subset of Nashville’s population — the creative and professional core of the city, which values a non-normative media outlet and which Vanderbilt can develop to its own benefit. Other than the VU Medical Center, WRVU is Vanderbilt’s most important connection to the Nashville community. The call letters stand for “We Are Vanderbilt University,” and the station’s student staff has taken that responsibility seriously. The station has provided educational programming and locally oriented broadcasting services to Davidson County and the surrounding areas. WRVU has a long history of exposing Nashville citizens to music they simply cannot hear on any other station. From introducing local bands to celebrating international musical traditions, WRVU does what a college radio station should: It educates. Nashville is Music City, U.S.A. For 57 years, Vanderbilt radio has been a vital part of that important local heritage.

In addition to quality musical programming, the DJs of WRVU provide a minimum of two public service announcements every hour. They promote local nonprofit organizations and publicize community events.

The public response in the Nashville community has been intense and focused: DO NOT SELL WRVU’S FM LICENSE. The station provides a forum for perspectives outside the mainstream in a venue not offered by any other Nashville media outlet. Notable examples include WRVU shows 91 Out of the Closet, 91 Jumps!, The Persian Show, Delta Groove, and the Local Music Show.

7. How large is WRVU’s campus broadcast audience? How would the transition to online-only programming impact those student listeners? How might this be predicted? What level of decline, if any, would outweigh the opportunities presented by an endowment?

(For a response to the first part of the question, regarding audience size, please see our answer to question 6, above.)

It should now be clear from our previous responses that the phrase “transition to online-only programming” is simply a euphemism for ending WRVU entirely. A vital 24-hour radio station, such as WRVU is now, involves nearly 100 active DJs and staff at any given time, making it one of the very largest student-run operations on campus. KTEQ in Rapid City, SD, is a college radio station that tried the online-only format some years ago. They discovered that DJ interest dwindled considerably, and so they have now embarked on the five-year process of reapplying to the FCC to broadcast on air again. Fortunately for them, there are still available frequencies in their home market, which is not the case in a major metropolitan area like Nashville.

Is selling off WRVU 91.1 FM, a pillar of the VSC for decades, worth the value of creating an endowment that would serve only to head off a perceived future financial crisis that is apparently of VSC’s own making? The answer is an emphatic NO.

Finally, without any semblance of a plan in place for the management of an endowment, it is impossible to think that such a fund could compensate for the loss of WRVU’s broadcast license. We believe the license represents an extraordinary resource for Vanderbilt students and the Nashville community whose value far exceeds any possible monetary gain.

8. What is the intrinsic value of retaining the WRVU broadcast license as a legacy to alumni and the community? How can this be measured? Does this value outweigh the opportunities presented by an endowment?

From the outset, it is important to acknowledge that the alumni who have organized the Save WRVU campaign do not delude themselves by thinking that the station is important as an expression of their legacy. The station is only as relevant as the students who run it care to make it.

So why, in that case, are so many alumni supporting the station and trying to prevent the sale of its license? The answer is: We remember what that experience meant to us, we believe it was formative in our lives to have had those roles and those responsibilities, and we want other people to have those opportunities. Undergraduate students, not the Vanderbilt administration or VSC, built WRVU. Students laid cable in the steam tunnels, applied for an FCC license, made the switch from AM to FM, boosted the signal wattage, and did all the paperwork to make sure the whole thing stayed legal. (Those responsibilities have since largely taken over, during the past decade, by WRVU advisor Jim Hayes and VSC advisor Chris Carroll.) So this is not about legacy. Instead, it’s about the kinds of experiences one can have as a member of one of the largest, most important student organizations that exists on the Vanderbilt campus.

However, in answer to the question regarding measuring the value, we refer you to the recent 2011 U.S. News and World Report for yearly college rankings. Of the educational institutions that rank the same or higher than Vanderbilt, only the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, and Cal Tech do not have existing stations. Vanderbilt’s continued ranking as a top 25 or better school does have significant value to alumni, and based upon this list it would be reasonable to speculate that having such a facility on campus does make contribution to Vanderbilt’s competitiveness. Indeed, note that Vanderbilt gained ground over Emory University in 2010, a school similar to Vanderbilt but without a college radio station. Moreover, news reports indicate that Rice anticipates selling its station in the coming months. Having Vanderbilt advance in the standings would increase the perceived value of an alumni’s education.

9. Are there other persuasive arguments that support retaining the broadcast license that outweigh the opportunities presented by an endowment?

Yes, and they are being sent to the Chancellor, the Board of Trust, and the members of the VSC. The question is who will hear these voices, from the campus and from the community, who speak in unanimous objection to the proposed frequency sale? Who will act on their behalf?


6 Responses

  1. […] members of the VSC that now suck up a vast majority of the budget for the organization. (As noted here “The annual outlay of VSC on WRVU’s behalf, on the other hand, is minimal — less than or […]

  2. […] members of the VSC that now suck up a vast majority of the budget for the organization. (As noted here “The annual outlay of VSC on WRVU’s behalf, on the other hand, is minimal — less than or […]

  3. […] members of the VSC that now suck up a vast majority of the budget for the organization (while noted here “The annual outlay of VSC on WRVU’s behalf, on the other hand, is minimal — less than or […]

  4. […] Love Benefit” 3/22/2011: ABC News – “College Radio Stations Struggle” 2/24/2011: Keeping the Public in Public Radio – “The Air War in Nashville” […]

  5. […] Supporters Respond to VSC Questions – Garner Support from Phi Mu Alphas: Vandy Chapter” 2/24/2011: Keeping the Public in Public Radio – “The Air War in Nashville” […]

  6. Please note that we have corrected the number of voting students on the VSC Board to five — a small but important detail.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: