Teach Your Children Good

The battle continues to rage in Music City over student radio station WRVU, with this latest entry on the SaveWRVURadio website:

WRVU Continues to Attract Media Attention

The plight of WRVU continues to attract local and national press. College Music Journal (CMJ) has been following the plight of WRVU closely. They have submitted a follow-up to an article written back in February. The WRVU on-air license sale is proving to be a very compelling story.

This article brings up an important point that the VSC has continued to fail to address. The plan to reduce WRVU to online-only has additional costs (music license fees, bandwidth costs, etc) that WRVU will incur when it loses the FCC Community Radio protections that it currently enjoys with its terrestrial license. (FCC does not provide any such protections to online-only stations). Everyone agrees that online-only will be a significant downgrade, if not the death knell of WRVU, but this downgraded online only WRVU, could end up being even MORE expensive than its current robust form. Does the VSC realize this? It is anyone’s guess at this point.

As the CMJ article notes:

[M]musicians [including Chuck D] and famed alumni have come to the station’s defense. CNN anchor Richard Quest and Facebook’s Vice President of Technology Jeff Rothschild have recently voiced support; Quest was once WRVU’s news director, and Rothschild was once its general manager. 10,000 Maniacs and Jason and the Scorchers are among other well-known musicians standing in support of WRVU.

One of the largest college stations in the United States, WRVU averaged 28,500 listeners between July and October 2010. If a sale of its license is carried out, WRVU would be forced into an online-only format, disappearing from terrestrial radio. Online-only stations have additional costs to consider involving streaming royalties and bandwidth issues; Save WRVU suggests that this may raise annual operating costs even as their audience reach and influence is compromised.

In an earlier release WRVU stalwarts jumped in on a developing story out of Washington concerning University of Maryland student station WMUC, also faced with extinction but managing to survive to fight another year:

In this digital age, it is easy to take the simplistic view that terrestrial radio is an antiquated vestige of our recent past. A small upside to the recent struggles of college radio is these stations are doing some soul-searching and articulating, what, those involved in and enjoy college radio, have taken for granted – that college and community radio is still relevant and absolutely worth defending despite, (and maybe because of) the myriad digital alternatives flooding the media landscape.

Like several others, fellow college radio station WMUC are finding themselves in a position of having to assert their worth to their student body and community in this era of tightening educational budgets. In contrast to WRVU‘s case, in WMUC‘s situation, budgetary concerns seem to be the primary issue.

[You might recall: In the VSC proposed WRVU license sale announcement, the VSC has indicated that their decision is not motivated by financial issues of running WRVU and that is a good thing too, since WRVU operating costs take up a small percentage of the very hefty $900k annual VSC operating budget. Can any organization with that much bloat, help but not salivate at the opportunity to poach WRVU, VSC’s founding and largest member, for a quick buck? Time will tell.]

This recent article in the Washington City Paper about the still developing story about WMUC does shed some interesting insight on the return to value of regionalism that college radio uniquely provides and why it is worth preserving.

Lindsay Zoladz, writing on the D.C. site, says the following of the struggle to keep WMUC operating — to the extent of the staff paying some of the bills out of their own pockets:

Plenty of people have nostalgia for college radio, but is it still a viable format in the digital age?

I fielded questions like that all the time when I was the general manager at WVAU, American University’s student-run radio station. Our frequency had been sold a few years earlier, and with each semester that passed it became increasingly more difficult to convince people to listen to our Internet-only stream, as opposed to downloading the iTunes library of everyone connected to their dorm’s network and putting it on shuffle. When people questioned college radio’s continuing relevance, I would defend its role in fostering local, independent scenes and creating communities for music lovers. But sometimes I doubted my own argument. Occasionally, when people would ask about my work-study job, I would tell them I was the head custodian aboard a sinking ship.

In the years since, though, and in light of WMUC’s recent troubles, I’ve come to believe that there’s a need for college radio now more than ever.

These days, we experience music in a way that’s increasingly isolated and individual. You know that this is true because some iPod zombie probably already bumped into you in the supermarket today. It’s great to have your entire library at your fingertips, in the way we listen to music today, but serendipity is now all but extinct. We drill deep into our own niches, meaning that we don’t give the time of day to things we don’t already anticipate that we’ll like. Half the fun of college radio is being exposed to things outside your perspective, or even your comfort zone.

Anyone who’s worked in college radio in the past decade will probably tell you that while being able to send your friend a mix via email or arguing about music with people on message boards is awesome, there’s no substitute for arguing with somebody about music in person.

Ironically, college radio’s best strategy for remaining vital in the digital age might be to look backward, and to focus once again on its terrestrial stations. Not all student-run stations can compete in a landscape flooded with an infinite pool of podcasts and blogs, but maybe this will make them once again embrace that unfortunate casualty of the Internet age: regionalism. College stations’ limited reach has always forced them to spotlight what’s going on in their own communities. Beyond just music programming, this is also true of college talk and sports programming, also an important part of WMUC’s lineup.

WMUC can’t exactly rejoice: It’s still about $12,000 shy of its original proposed budget, and the station’s business director told the university’s newspaper, The Diamondback, that students working at the station will have to pay for some equipment out of their own pockets. Plus, who knows what this means for the station in the long term: Is it only a matter of time before student-run stations vanish from universities altogether? At least for now WMUC showed it’s not going anywhere without a fight.

A comment from “goldfish” on the site summarizes it best:

The on-air music in this town in the commercial channels has been dead for some time now. I wonder if anyone remembers it? Certainly not any producer working for a radio station with any self-respect.

Since the days of payola, the issue has always been money. It changes the basic reason for running a station. In college station, the DJs are volunteers, and play what they think is GOOD. In commercial stations, the DJ are professional, and play what they think will increase their audience size, or improve the audience demographic, they deliver to their advertisers.

College stations are the only hope for cutting edge broadcast. It is still alive in a few places, thankfully.

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