Last week, I helped fact-check a lengthy list of colleges who had sold or transferred control of their student radio stations to outside entities. It was a depressing chore, as I delved into the stories behind these losses. Yet, it also reminded me that there is a more heroic story that I keep wanting to write about the stations that have survived and thrived after their universities have threatened to sell off their licenses.
Over the past few months I’ve been compiling my list of these inspirational stations and have tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to contact the people who helped launch the campaigns to save them. Unfortunately, once a battle has been won, activists often move on, which may be why it’s been challenging to reach those who were once on the front lines. With that caveat, here is my first accounting of a college station that fought and won. If you are aware of other examples of stations that have survived a rumored sell-off, please send them my way.
WWPV 88.7 FM is a student-run college radio station at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. In early 2007, Vermont Public Radio (VPR) expressed interest in purchasing the station for use as a classical station. WWPV DJ and former faculty advisor John Sheehey told me that around that time, Vermont Public Radio had divided their programming into a news and information channel and a classical music channel. He said, “In order to do this VPR had the need to acquire some broadcast frequencies in different parts of the state. The WWPV frequency, 88.7 in the Burlington area, was desirable because VPR owned that same frequency in the southern part of the state.”
According to a March 2007 article in the St. Michael’s College student paper, The Echo, “Vermont Public Radio approached the college’s administration…with an offer to purchase WWPV and convert it into a VPR-run classical music station.” The article went on to explain that the administration reached out to members of WWPV in March 2007 in order to obtain their input about the proposed sale:
“Kurt Palermo, station manager for WWPV says that the administration spoke toward several specific factors during the meeting.
‘They said they would not sell it for financial reasons and they would not sell it for liability reasons,’ Palermo says.
One of the concerns the administration addressed in the meeting was the idea Broadcast radio was becoming ‘old school’ technology, and asked the WWPV board members if running a solely Internet based radio station would be more beneficial to students. Both Palermo and [Music Director Jameson] Aubut say that there would be no benefits to switching the format of the station; in fact, WWPV already runs an online broadcast…”
At the time, the station (comprised of both student and community-member DJs) was already in a partnership with VPR to air its BBC World News Service during select hours of the day. When word came that the school had received a potential offer for the station’s license, students and community members quickly organized. Sheehey explained that, “There was a strong negative reaction from the students and in short order there were stories not only in the college’s student newspaper, but also a front-page story in the Burlington Free Press, the local daily. A few days later the Free Press gave over its op-ed page to the subject where students and members from the community spoke out against selling the WWPV frequency to VPR.” Shortly after this flurry of protests and press, the President of St. Michael’s College signaled his support for the station, meaning that the protests were short-lived. A March 21, 2007 email from St. Michael’s President Marc A. vanderHeyden stated:
“…Some time ago, Vermont Public Radio (VPR)—the Vermont branch of National Public Radio—approached the College to learn whether some other model of cooperation with or outright sale of Saint Michael’s radio frequency could be discussed. At that point, I indicated that I needed to speak to the Board of Trustees since they are the legal owners of the College’s frequency, 88.7 FM. The Trustees emphasized that in conversations with VPR, we needed to keep the interests of and benefits to our students foremost in mind.
To ensure that those interests would be faithfully represented to VPR, we held a meeting with the student managers of the station and their faculty and staff advisors. From this discussion, it became quite clear that WWPV is a tremendous asset to our students and has been for decades. Hence, last week, I forwarded my recommendation to the Board that we should not sell WWPV’s frequency to VPR. I also informed the VPR leadership that, at this time, the College is not prepared to sell an asset that has proven valuable to generations of Saint Michael’s students…”
In advance of the above letter’s publication, supporters of WWPV had set up a Facebook page (Hell No! Save WWPV St. Mikes Radio!), Save WWPV blog, and had begun a letter-writing campaign to local newspapers, the college president and to the Board of Trustees of the college. According to an April 2007 article in the Echo:
“Although the station’s potential sale was only common knowledge for several days before the president’s e-mail, [WWPV Co-Music Director Jameson] Aubut says he and the other DJs were already planning how they would stop the station’s sale. He said the DJs had been meeting with students and teachers around campus who supported their cause…
[WWPV's Co-Music Director Andrew] Reid says students and faculty who weren’t even associated with WWPV did a lot of work to save the station. ‘A couple students set up posters trying to let people know what was going on,’ Reid says. ‘They had planned a meeting, but then the president sent his e-mail. But we definitely had a lot of support from staff, students and the community.’…Aubut says. ‘It was great to see students rallying behind [the station]. It made me proud to be a St. Michael’s student.’”
After the attempts to purchase WWPV fell through, VPR pursued other options in Vermont. In June 2007, VPR ended up purchasing WAVX 90.9FM from Christian Ministries in order to extend the reach of its classical service It’s now known as WOXR. By May 2009, WWPV ended its relationship with Vermont Public Radio. From 1998 until 2009, WWPV had been airing BBC World News Service through a partnership with VPR. The syndicated news show aired on WWPV from 2am to 10am and during afternoon drive from 4 to 5pm. However, by 2009 VPR had other outlets for this service (streaming and HD) and dropped its contract with WWPV. According to 2009 article in the Echo:
“Since VPR presents the information in other places, taking it off 88.7 saves the organization money. But money is not the sole reason for the split. ‘With the BBC available elsewhere, it’s time to let the students do what they want with their station,’ [VPR President and CEO Robin] Turnau said.”
At the time of the announcement, the BBC news slots were to be replaced with automated programming from the WWPV library. The hope was that those shows would eventually be taken over by students.
Today, WWPV airs live shows from 8am until 2am. Sheehey, who continues to do a folk music show on WWPV, told me, “The student-run station seems to have a lot of support from the student body, and, by the way, it’s the students who fund the station (through student activities fees). With some new construction being planned at the college, the administration seems interested in including a new station facility in the plans.”
WWPV’s Specialty Music Director Edward Burke, who has been at the station since 2002, adds that, “the Administration here at the college has always been supportive of the station; it reaches 4 surrounding towns, and has a lot of name recognition in the community, as well as a reputation for providing eclectic music.”
It’s inspiring to hear of a college where the administration recognized the value of its terrestrial airwaves. Do you know of other stations that were in danger of losing their terrestrial licenses and successfully rallied to save their stations?