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The state of college radio

Jan. 18 marked one year since student-run and University of San Francisco-owned KUSF-FM went off the air. It also marked the beginning of a sell-off trend, with Rice University’s KTRU-FM, Vanderbilt’s WRVU-FM, and Brown University’s WBSR-FM going silent after university administrations sold their signals. Now, students and communities alike are attempting to bring back their beloved stations, and their support may influence what would be a landmark FCC ruling on the signal sell-offs.

College radio as community radio

KUSF was marking 34 years of student-run radio when it was unexpectedly shut down by the school. Chad Heimann, a former KUSF deejay, student recruiter and promoter, was at the station when campus security told radio volunteers they had one hour to pack up and leave the building for good. The building was cleared out the same morning an email arrived in students’ inboxes, informing them the station’s FM signal had been sold to the Classical Public Radio Network for $3.74 million. “I saw people crying, no one had any idea,” Heimann said. “It was such a shock to all of us. It was a regular morning when someone was doing a show and we got taken off the air.”

While the station’s volunteers, some 200 including about 20 to 30 students according to Heimann, were out of a station, they organized quickly. Heimann says about 500 supporters soon met at a community meeting on the sale, all to voice their worry that losing the station meant losing a local voice. While the university did not back out of the sale, the community’s vocal opposition attracted attention. Supporters held protests and started an online “KUSF in Exile” station featuring ex-KUSF deejays. By speaking out as a community, KUSF may yet make a comeback. The FCC has yet to rule on the sell-off, and its decision may hinge on community access to a signal.

A college radio’s signal reaches beyond a school’s borders, and it’s become clear since the 2011 signal sell-offs how important a station is to its surrounding city. Rob Quicke, an assistant professor at William Paterson University’s communication department, co-founded College Radio Day to bring more supporters and listeners to college radio. Over 300 stations celebrated the first day on Oct. 11, 2011, with events that brought entire communities out. The event’s success helped show Quicke that losing a college station impacts more than students. “If it were to disappear, then one major avenue of expression, one major avenue for connecting to the local community would disappear.”

Heimann agrees, noting that KUSF “was the indie rock station in the city. There’s nothing now in the city, it’s such a great loss because of that.” Since graduating in December, Heimann now works in the music industry as an artist manager and talent broker. It’s shown him how much he relied on the station. “I try to keep up with new music but without the station, it’s become a lot harder. That real San Francisco sound KUSF was broadcasting has been lost.”

WRVU, a college station in the heart of Nashville, Tenn., was sold in June to WLPN-FM, Nashville’s National Public Radio affiliate. Like KUSF, the sell-off prompted an outpouring of support from the community, including local businesses and musicians, as well as alumni and students. Sharon Scott, a former WRVU deejay who graduated in 1996, is now president of WRVU Friends & Family, an organized group that aims to bring the station back by buying its signal. For her, the sell-off disconnects Vanderbilt University from its home in “Music City, U.S.A.” A New York Times opinion article from radio personality and Nashville native Freddie O’Donnell on the sell-off was titled “The Day the Music Died.” “From Minnie Pearl to Jello Biafra, just about every great musician who has worked in Nashville, Tenn., has passed through the halls of WRVU,” Scott says. “For decades, WRVU has had an open door policy that has allowed just about everyone with something to say or something to sing an opportunity to do it On The Air … like many college stations across the country, [WRVU] not only educates and entertains the general public; it provides them with an opportunity to be heard. If WRVU loses 91.1 FM, Nashville will, in a very literal sense, lose its own voice.”

Sell-offs hinge on the FCC

Like KUSF, WRVU is in limbo. The Nashville station found a buyer, but WLPN has yet to raise the $3.35 million to buy the signal. While KUSF’s buyer had the cash, the FCC still must approve the sale. WRVU Friends & Family believes they still have time to get the money before WLPN and block the sale, and the FCC will still need to rule if they are unsuccessful. A ruling against either sale may end the trend of universities selling off their signal, and both Scott and Heimann are hopeful. “I believe the current leadership at the FCC is taking the issue of media consolidation seriously and that they are concerned with the vanishing opportunities for community access to the airwaves,” Scott says. Heimann agrees that the FCC is taking a serious look at the sales. “With the amount of attention and questioning the FCC has done, I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a landmark case in terms of university radio. With the FCC continuing to question USF about the sale, I think it could finally be given back to the community.”

With each sell-off, universities have been responding by promising an online radio station. However, KUSF’s online station is currently silent, and Scott said several outspoken former WRVU deejays have been banned from joining its online effort. While an online station can give students a space on campus to speak their minds and play their music, most FM veterans say the Internet doesn’t measure up to the opportunities the open airwaves provide. Heimann and Scott both agree that having students on the open airwaves can make universities nervous, putting them under FCC scrutiny and opening them up to fines. Online stations fall outside the commission’s jurisdiction. Quicke feels that schools need to trust their students, and points out, “When you’re entrusted with an FCC license, you have a responsibility that comes with it. With a traditional broadcast entity, that has real legal ramifications for what they’re doing.” Heimann’s own experiences follow Quicke’s point. “There were times where I would get a little upset with community members because of bureaucracy at the station, but I learned a lot from that. Students alone can’t run a radio station; we need the community interacting with the station to make it successful. It made it something that was very San Franciscan, people from all walks of life interacting with the students.”

FM veterans also worry that online broadcasting is too insular. Some college stations have a majority audience of non-students, while online college stations focus on attracting student listeners. Quicke worries an online station is too limiting. “You lost the chance with a podcast for someone to stumble onto you,” he says. An FM broadcast also allows students to “compete with real radio,” he adds, and gives students a real-world perspective on their local community. “You do have an obligation to serve your local community. It gets you out there meeting the community.”

Protecting college stations

College station supporters like Quicke are keeping stations connected as a way to ensure their survival. Scott also thinks students have the power to save their station. “Starting a nonprofit organization to support your local college station … you can own the frequency if you’re a nonprofit, and ask the university to sell to you first.” WRVU Friends & Family reached 501(c)(3) status in mid-February, making it an officially not-for-profit organization. She worries that with an intrinsic “four-year turnover at every [college] station,” universities see students as “easy victims, easy prey. I think we need to band together and let people know what’s going on.”

While the future of WRVU and KUSF’s FM broadcasts awaits an FCC decision, the sell-off has allowed a glimpse into the future of college radio. As signals go silent, few students stay quiet. Universities can expect protests or money-raising campaigns. Quicke tells schools, “If you’re lucky enough to have an FM signal, hold on to it.” He also thinks schools, as a place for young people to gain skills for a successful career, are the proving grounds for new radio talent. “College radio is where you’ll find tomorrow’s radio media stars. They’re not yet refined talent, but they’ve got talent and this is the first place that they’re finding out they have the talent. If that system disappeared, it would absolutely affect the future of commercial radio. Many people working in commercial radio owe a lot of college radio. College radio is [the] last bastion of creative programming.”

 

-Kristina Elliott

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