All of a sudden Providence, Rhode Island is ground zero for the latest round of changes regarding terrestrial college radio stations. Earlier this summer it was announced that Bryant University was taking its student station, WJMF, off of the FM airwaves in order to allow WGBH to use the frequency for a simulcast of its classical public radio station WCRB 99.5 All Classical (I’ll have more on that story later this week).
And now, Brown University’s student radio station BSR has announced that it will be losing its FM home of 14 years on WELH 88.1 FM. Brown Student and Community Radio (BSR), will go online-only as of August 1, 2011 after losing its contract with WELH’s license holder, The Wheeler School. Interestingly, WELH recently boosted their power to 4000 watts, potentially making their frequency more attractive to potential well-heeled radio suitors.
In addition to BSR, WELH currently runs programming produced by its own middle and high school students at the Wheeler School as well as from Latino Public Radio. Other programming blocks over their airwaves include “Classic Hits, Oldies & Soul,” “Radio Italia” and “Italian-American Connection,” but it’s unclear who is producing or hosting those shows.
According to a press release from BSR, “For 14 years, BSR could be heard from the evening to early morning on 88.1 WELH, a signal they leased from the Wheeler School, a private K-12 school in Providence, RI. However, on July 15, BSR learned that their terrestrial broadcasting opportunity through WELH would officially end on July 31, 2011.”
Student radio at Brown has a long history dating back to the 1930s. Currently there are two stations that emerged from the early days of radio at Brown: the student-run freeform station BSR and the independent commercial radio station WBRU 99.5FM. According to the BSR website, “BSR is a freeform station dedicated to all genres of radio…funded mostly by the University, grants, and alumni & listener support.” In contrast, “WBRU is financially and legally independent from Brown.”
WELH has yet to announce what programming will be airing on 88.1 FM beginning August 1st and if there are plans to sell the station. It will be unfortunate if the loss of BSR is an indication that they will be eliminating all student programs from their airwaves. Since BSR has simply been renting airspace from WELH, it’s unlikely that any protests are planned, but this is yet another sad loss for college radio fans committed to FM.
To get the back story on these changes at BSR, I spoke with BSR Co-Publicity Director John Foley over email:
Jennifer Waits: Can you explain BSR’s current terrestrial broadcast situation and the kind of arrangement that you have with Wheeler?
John Foley: We have been leasing a signal from the Wheeler School for 14 years. The lease was always for a portion of the day, although the exact hours changed often; currently, BSR had from 9pm-3am. In addition, other stations leased time from the signal as well (eg. Latino Public Radio). We have typically had an annual contract with Wheeler. However, at the last contract negotiation, we switched to paying Wheeler on a monthly basis, and the School slipped in a clause that allowed them to terminate our lease only 15 days in advance. Which, unfortunately, is exactly what they did.
Jennifer: I understand your FM signal was pretty weak. Did you have a large audience of terrestrial listeners?
John: The FM signal used to be weak. However, it covered all of Providence and Pawtucket, and then some. Specific shows on our signal depend on their terrestrial signal; our Tuesday night Hip-Hop block, “Block Party Tuesday,” for instance, has many listeners among the community and, furthermore, has significant listenership among the incarcerated population (from whom they often receive heartfelt letters). In addition, every show on the air has two or three stories about callers from the community who just happened to land their dials on 88.1FM while we were on and dug what they were hearing.
However, about a year ago, WELH upgraded their signal to a much larger 4000 watts, covering most of Northern Rhode Island and reaching into parts of Massachusetts and southern RI. This was a significant upgrade and brought us many new listeners.
Jennifer: What is happening to WELH?
John: Operatorship of the signal is being transferred to an entity which will broadcast on the signal 24/7. The name is confidential at this time.
Jennifer: What is your reaction to these changes at WELH? Are other stations getting displaced as well?
John: Needless to say, we’re disappointed that we did not become the sole lessee of the WELH signal, and stressed over the last minute notification, but we’re actually quite excited about what’s in front of us. We’re pressing forward on the internet, doing the same great things we’ve done before, only focusing our efforts on this one medium. We’ll reach more new listeners, and give our current fans more opportunities to hear us, via mobile phone apps, syndication and collaboration with other stations, more local events, and so on.
Jennifer: When did BSR lose its terrestrial signal at Brown?
John: The history of radio at Brown is a long and storied one, which means it’s all very complex. WBRU used to be a more traditional college radio station, but switched to a commercial alt-rock format in the late ’80s, gaining independence from the school beyond an agreement to allow students to work at the station. Today, WBRU is one of the largest alt-rock radio stations in the New England area. After the switch-over, their AM signal operated as a “training” space for new recruits. Students on the AM signal began to organize their efforts and up the quality of their programming, exploring the possibilities of freeform music and features radio that WBRU would never (and could never) air; these students eventually led a bit of a revolt during which BSR was born and split from WBRU. In 1997, BSR left for WELH, and has been growing ever since.
Jennifer: How will BSR move forward from this? What are your broadcasting plans and will you try to maintain a terrestrial presence?
John: We will be pursuing terrestrial radio opportunities, but at this moment, all of our efforts are on producing original content for our website and webstream –music shows, features, news, etc. While we’ll miss the diversity and uniqueness offered by terrestrial radio, we can’t wait to take advantage of all of the amazing resources in front of us, on the internet!
Jennifer: What is the non-commercial radio landscape like in Providence? Will there be any college radio stations left on the dial?