As I read through the accounts of WRVU’s final terrestrial moments last week, I get a horrible feeling of deja vu as I recall how I felt when learning about the sudden shut-downs of KTXT and KUSF. Although Vanderbilt Student Communications had alerted WRVU to the possibility that the station could be sold back in September, they never admitted that a sale might be imminent.
After last Monday’s discovery by CMJ that the WRVU call letters had been changed on June 1 to WFCL, news spread that WRVU’s days might be numbered. It’s unclear what VSC’s original plans were for announcing the sale, but when the call letter change news leaked to the media and WRVU staffers, it became apparent that they would finally have to speak publicly about the secret deal they had engaged in with Nashville Public Radio.
Initially, reports were made that WRVU had been sold to Nashville Public Radio for $3.35 million dollars for use as a classical music station and that their takeover of the broadcasts at 91.1 FM would begin at midnight on June 8. Online streaming of WRVU was supposed to continue. As it turned out, the WRVU terrestrial broadcast was taken off the air on June 7 at around 2:40pm. The on-air DJ, Pete Wilson (host of the show Nashville Jumps), was told to leave the studio because of important maintenance work. Wilson’s sad tale about the final minutes of WRVU appears in today’s Nashville Scene. You can also listen to his final moments on the air here. In Wilson’s article about the shut down, he writes:
“I didn’t know that I would be the last DJ on WRVU as we knew it. ..Speculation was proliferating about a sale…Program director Scott Cardone had advised DJs to ‘run every show as if it were your last.’
Our Tuesday schedule featured a block of automation from 1 to 4 p.m. (In 2009, the number of ‘community volunteers’… had been limited to 25 by VSC action, and the summer schedule was thus riddled with gaps.) I thought it would be a shame to have the robot DJ (nicknamed ‘HAL’ by staffers) on the air at such a delicate time. I took a vacation day from work and packed up a bag of CDs…It appeared I’d only be able to work until 2:30, though — VSC’s electronic media adviser Jim Hayes told me that station engineer Carl Pedersen was scheduled to take over the studio for some maintenance then.
…I played a set sprinkled with songs given special meaning by the situation, some only in my mind — ‘Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio’ by the Ramones, ‘Left of the Dial’ by the Replacements, ‘No Fun’ by the Stooges, ‘Mind Your Own Business’ by Delta 5…
Two-thirty came and went without Pedersen. Around 2:40 Jim Hayes entered and said that I’d need to finish up anyway. I asked why it was so important for Pedersen to do his maintenance at this particular time…he said he couldn’t tell me anything, and that the order for maintenance had come from ‘on high.’ With a bit of grace sadly lacking in VSC personnel, he let me put on the Lambchop song — ‘I’ve Been Lonely for So Long’ — that I’d cued up.
I then pleaded for one more song, something appropriate to the moment, though I hadn’t yet realized how much of a moment it was…Frantically scanning the back of the No Thanks! punk rock box from Rhino, I came across ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory’ by Johnny Thunders…
With Hayes standing by, I gathered my things and got out of the studio just as Pedersen arrived…Within a half hour I had read VSC chairman Marc Wollaeger’s email to WRVU staff and the press release from VSC and WPLN. We were done broadcasting for the day…and we were turning over the station tomorrow. I walked back to the studio and slid my ID card through the reader, fruitlessly. DJs, it appeared, had already been locked out.
Hayes responded to my knock. He was talking to general manager Robert Ackley, who looked like he’d been hit by a cannonball. I said a couple of dumb things meant to console him, and we all departed.
I enjoyed DJ-ing at WRVU about as much as I’ve enjoyed anything in my life. I told The Contributor that I hoped to be doing Nashville Jumps the Friday morning before I die…
What’s lost? The real-world immediacy that made broadcast radio a better learning experience than online simulation. The respect of students, alumni and Nashvillians who were patronized, told half-truths and kept in the dark until June 7. And one of the best ways of sharing culture that Vanderbilt ever had…”
Although the chair of VSC’s Board Mark Wollaeger claims that WRVU will continue broadcasting online and over an HD channel, for the moment WRVU DJs are locked out of the station and aren’t expected to be able to return until the fall. In a letter to WRVU staff and DJs, Wollaeger wrote:
“I’m writing to let you know that the board of Vanderbilt Student Communications has agreed to sell the license of WRVU 91.1FM to Nashville Public Radio for $3,350,000. WRVU’s programming format will continue online and, as part of the agreement, will resume broadcasting on WPLN’s HD3 channel beginning this fall. The agreement also guarantees Vanderbilt students will have internship opportunities at Nashville Public Radio.
The new station, WFCL 91.1FM, will have a format focused on classical music and the arts. It will promote local performances and events…If you’re a DJ with a show on WRVU’s summer schedule, please note that automation will continue online through the summer. The station facilities in Sarratt will be closed effective immediately. We plan to use the time from now until the fall semester begins to upgrade equipment, replace carpet and paint. We also believe that it makes sense to pause and plan for what will be a highly promoted relaunch of WRVU as an HD and streaming station on September 1. The VSC board understands this change is disruptive to your summer plans, but it was necessary in order to prepare for a successful fall semester of online and HD broadcast programming…”
It’s apparent from the situation at KUSF that shutting down a station after handing control over to an outside entity (there are lease agreements in place with the public radio groups who are controlling the broadcasts at KUSF and WRVU) is immensely disruptive to a staff. WRVU was effectively killed on June 7 and if all of the DJs decide to come back, they will have to not only rebuild their community of volunteer DJs, but they will also have to track down their listeners once again. Three months from now listeners may have already moved on to other terrestrial stations (are there any in the Nashville area that play the type of programming that WRVU did?) or to online options.
It’s not so easy to bring a station back in an entirely different form (online-only, HD?) after a 3-month hiatus. Granted, KUSF in Exile is doing a fantastic job of maintaining the programming of the former KUSF; but that’s purely due to the persistence of KUSF supporters and volunteers. The University of San Francisco-sanctioned online-only KUSF.org is dead in the water following both a drop off in volunteer DJs after the January 18 shutdown AND University of San Francisco’s dismantling of the studio last month. In order for KUSF.org to be resurrected, an entirely new studio will have to be built on campus.
The disruption of WRVU is obvious on its website, which has been replaced by a static page informing listeners that, “Coming Soon, the all new WRVU.org website…” A new WRVU.org logo is at the top of the page and there’s a link to automated programming.
So, for now Save WRVU is kicking in to full gear. They are reminding people that WRVU has not been sold yet. Paperwork has not been filed with the FCC and the purchasing station (Nashville Public Radio’s WPLN) has yet to raise the funds needed to buy WRVU. The group WRVU Friends and Family issued a statement saying,
“We regret to learn of the news from VSC and WPLN…We have been working very hard to establish a dialog with VSC to help them understand what a valuable and important resource having their own college radio station can be. Unfortunately, while they appeared to be listening to our concerns, they were evidently working to complete the agreement for the sale of the station. Despite assurances that ‘no decision had been made,’ this deal has apparently been moving forward steadily since they first announced the exploration of the idea. We are hopeful that the final chapter has not been written for WRVU and we will be working diligently in the coming days to try and undo this terrible event.”
You can also read more about WRVU Friends and Family’s reaction to the sale in this interview in the Nashville Scene.
Our complete coverage of the situation at WRVU can be found here. Also, I profiled WRVU on Spinning Indie for my 50 State Tour series back in April, 2010. In that article, I delved into the 2009 decision by VSC to put a cap on the number of community DJs at the station. It’s a sadly telling chapter in the WRVU story, as many people are pointing out that the call to reduce the number of community DJs marked the first nail in WRVU’s coffin.