It’s really starting to feel like the unfortunate college radio trend that we covered at the end of last year (Cash-strapped schools turn their backs on college radio), is showing no signs of slowing down.
For the past month I’ve been reporting on the proposed sale of Rice University station KTRU and have been sharing the perspective of both KTRU alumni and staffers who continue to fight to save the station’s presence on the FM dial in Houston, Texas.
Well, a similar situation is brewing in Nashville, Tennessee; where Vanderbilt University college radio station WRVU‘s staff were informed last week that the organization who oversees their station is considering selling off the station’s FM signal.
As I wrote on Spinning Indie, WRVU is controlled by the non-profit group Vanderbilt Student Communications (VSC), which also oversees campus print publications and a television station. In explaining their interest in selling of WRVU’s FM signal, the Board of VSM has pointed out in a statement that,
“In response to changing student habits and evolving economic challenges, Vanderbilt Student Communications Inc. is exploring the migration of radio station WRVU to exclusively online programming and the sale of its broadcast license. If the license were to be sold, the proceeds would be used to create an endowment to support innovative student media experiences, facilities and operations at Vanderbilt in perpetuity.”
They also argue that decreasing student interest in terrestrial radio and in participating in WRVU entered into their decision to explore this sale. When I contacted Mark Wollaeger, Chair of the VSC Board of Directors, by email to discuss the specifics of this point, he provided me with statistics from several student surveys that took place between 2008 and 2009. According to a February, 2010 survey, 83% of those surveyed reported that they had never listened to WRVU over the airwaves and 89% reported that they had never listened to WRVU online. Mark pointed out that historically the station has been more popular with members of the off-campus community than with Vanderbilt students (a trend that I’ve seen at many college radio stations all over the country).
Mark also told me that in recent years there have been more community-member DJs than student DJs and that it would appear that with the increasing use of automated programming, there’s been a decline in participation. He said that this fall there are 49 undergraduate student DJs, 7 grad student DJs, 14 alumni DJs, 10 faculty/staff DJs and 19 guest DJs. In addition to that there are 71 student DJs in training. Based on the information that he provided me from the most recent years, this fall’s numbers represent an increase in student participation in the past year (although Mark said that 10 years ago it was common for there to be 60-100 student staff members at WRVU).
As one would expect, as soon as this news came out on September 16, members of the WRVU staff and fans of the radio station have been voicing their concern and are beginning to organize their response on the Save WRVU Facebook page, Save WRVU Radio blog, Save WRVU Google Group, and by soliciting feedback from WRVU alumni (who are being asked to email wrvuoffice AT gmail DOT com). Luckily, VSC is actively seeking feedback on this proposal and it seems that they could potentially be swayed by a strong showing of support for the station, particularly by students.
As word spread about this last week, many were dismayed to see that some obvious protest URLs (such as SaveWRVU.com) had been registered more than a week in advance of the announcement and were re-directing people to the website owned by VSC where visitors can submit comments about the proposed sale. This seemed to create a strong sense of distrust about the process and about VSC’s willingness to allow people to protest and express dissenting opinions in venues outside of the official channels. I’m happy to see that those URLs have been released by VSC and are now redirecting to websites under the control of WRVU staffers and allies.
I spoke with WRVU’s General Manager Mikil Taylor to learn a bit more about how the staff found out about VSC’s interest in selling the station’s license and to also hear about their efforts to express their disagreement with this move.
Spinning Indie: When and how did the WRVU staff hear about the Board’s proposal to sell of the FM signal?
Mikil Taylor: We were told on Thursday, Sept. 16th. I met with Mark [Wollaeger, Chair of the VSC Board of Directors] at 4pm, and he broke the news to me. At 4:30, the rest of the Estaff came into the room to hear. About over the course of the next hour and a half, emails were sent out to media, alumni, and WRVU staff about the news.
Spinning Indie: What is your reaction as a staff?
Mikil: We are completely and unequivocally against it. Being on the radio is the main reason we’re here at WRVU, and to take that away is very shortsighted. Vanderbilt is often concerned about the “Vanderbubble” that separates us from the rest of Nashville, and taking away our main communication with the city is a step in the wrong direction.
There is too much value in WRVU for both Vanderbilt students and the Nashville community to allow some other station to play exactly what another is playing. We aren’t just a bunch of kids fiddling around on the radio. We learn a lot by being on the radio, and all of the opportunities that brings. We don’t believe that money can doanything to replace that.
Spinning Indie: There are rumors that Student Communications bought up various URLs that would have helped you in efforts to protest (SaveWRVU.org, etc.) and this seems likely since those URLs redirect to the VSC site. Do you have any information about whether or not this is true?
Mikil: It seems to be a big mystery among everyone as to who exactly bought the URLs in VSC, but they have handed over control of the domains to us as of yesterday, so we’re currently deciding what to do with them.
Spinning Indie: What efforts have the staff and fans of WRVU made to voice your concerns about this proposal?
Mikil: We have started gathering student signatures in opposition to this decision, as Mark Wollaeger and the rest of the board present at our meeting on Sunday stressed that student support would do a lot to convince them. In addition, we are writing letters to the editor of the campus newspaper, we have contacted many local news outlets, are beginning to gather alumni to voice their support, and probably 10 other efforts that I’m forgetting right now. We have to try every possible way to gather support our direction. We have also started a Google group called Save-WRVU that people can join if they would like to help out.
Spinning Indie: What can people do to let their opinions be heard?
Mikil: First and foremost, you need to submit a comment at vandymedia.org/wrvu. The board members have said that they will each personally review every comment made, so we want the best arguments you can muster. In addition, any support you can give us in spreading the word will be invaluable.
Spinning Indie: What role does Vanderbilt Student Communications play in the ongoing operations of WRVU?
Mikil: In terms of the day-to-day operations, they don’t play much of a role other than financier. We have an adviser employed by VSC who runs most of the technical aspects of keeping a radio station on the air, but the board doesn’t take any active relationship in the programming of the station on a regular basis. We do our best to connect with other student media outlets, and we have made some tremendous strides in the past year.
Spinning Indie: How would you characterize your relationship with the Board?
Mikil: After last year’s community DJ cut, a lot of DJs don’t trust the board. This only further deepens the animosity.
Spinning Indie: Are there representatives from WRVU on the Board? Are there representatives from other Student Media organizations on the Board?
Mikil: We do have a trained DJ who is on the board right now, but there are no current DJs sitting on the board. All the student media outlets used to have a representative on the board, but they cut that down to the current 5 at-large students and 3 faculty members. The new students are elected, I believe, by the previous board each year. We have not been great about encouraging DJs to apply for board positions, but we are planning on changing that with the next round of elections.
Spinning Indie: Why do you think a terrestrial signal is vital to the survival of WRVU?
Mikil: As most of our DJs have pointed out, taking away the radio part of a radio station would kill a lot of what makes us vibrant. Local bands and Vanderbilt artists no longer have a sympathetic voice on the airwaves of Music City. Students no longer have the legitimacy that a terrestrial signal brings when trying to interview bands. We no longer gain the confidence that comes with speaking blindly to a potential audience of thousands. In an online-only format, we would drown in the sea of options. We would keep some listeners, but it would be next to impossible to gain any. Eventually, we would fizzle out and die, if the sale were to happen soon. Everyone knows that radio is dying, but it’s not dead yet, and the value of a station in our part of the spectrum will not change much over the next few years, due to the limited types of stations that can broadcast there. Our Internet presence is like a child still dependent on its mother, a terrestrial signal. To remove the signal too early will kill the Internet presence as well.
Spinning Indie: Are student listeners the main audience for WRVU? Statements from the Board seem to indicate that declining student listeners over FM and declining student involvement are part of the rationale for going online-only.
Mikil: Student listeners are an important audience, since we largely exist for them, but they are not the largest segment of our audience. Most of our audience still listens on the radio in the 45-mile radius we cover around Nashville. The only people who listen to online radio right now are the early adopters and those who are too far away to receive the terrestrial signal. Online is still the wave of the future, but it’s too far in the future to transition to it now.
Also, we just put 70+ students into training this semester. We currently have about 50 students on the radio. If anything, student interest has been massively exploding in the past year, not declining.
Spinning Indie: Any idea if the Board has received offers from people wanting to buy the signal?
Mikil: I have not yet heard of any, but we have heard rumors that Christian group K-Love may be interested.
Spinning Indie: How would the loss of WRVU from FM alter the radio landscape in Nashville?
Mikil: Nashville would lose about 90% of the genres played over the air. We’re the only major free-form station in Nashville, and play hundreds of songs from multiple genres every day. The city often wants to bill itself as “More than just country”, but to take away one of the largest voices screaming that fact will significantly impact their argument. If one place needs a college radio station to showcase the local, new, and weird music, it’s Music City USA.
Spinning Indie: Anything else?
Mikil: Please please please do everything you can to support us! We need all the help we can get. If you know someone who has worked or studied here, please tell them to submit their comments to the board. There are other methods to raising the money that VSC needs, and we want to have the time to try them.