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The Storm Brewing at University of Virginia radio station WTJU: Crisis or Opportunity?

WTJU's Programming Quagmire

University of Virginia radio station WTJU was at the center of much buzz and heated online debate last week, as staff and listeners reacted to news about proposed changes to both the station’s format and volunteer involvement. Concerned and frustrated DJs turned to the Internet, with one penning a blog post called, “WTJU is Facing a Horrible Crisis” and another creating the website “Save WTJU” in order to chronicle the events of recent weeks.

In April, the 53-year-old college radio station hired General Manager, Burr Beard after the previous General Manager retired.

According to WTJU’s former Rock Music Director, Nick Rubin, Burr met with the station’s department directors on June 7th to share both a proposal for a new weeknight schedule for the station and reveal several “policy planks.” Nick told me that “once these got out to the general DJ lists (and then, to the listeners), the outcry was instant and widespread and ran the gamut from conciliatory to outraged.”

The proposed schedule included blocks of jazz programming from 5 to 8pm, specialty music shows from 8 to 10pm (soul, reggae, etc.), and rock music shows from 10pm to 3am. In the case of jazz and rock, this schedule represented a drop in the number of weekly hours for these genres. One of the new proposed policies included having one DJ per shift, which would be a change for WTJU, which currently allows for alternating DJs from week to week. According to Nick, the new Station Manager also called for “a rotation of four songs per hour, which would be chosen by department directors from 20 releases, and rotated by computer to appear in a DJ’s program log for airplay each hour.” Currently DJs have a lot of freedom at WTJU, so these changes were met with opposition.

Burr has extensive experience in public non-commercial radio and was an instrumental part of the programming at WNCW, a successful “AAA” formatted station. Currently WTJU functions more like a free-form station, with blocks of programming focused on rock, jazz, classical and folk music (as well as other specialty shows and sub-genres of blues and world). They also air public affairs programming, including syndicated shows such as BBC News and Democracy Now!

On Friday I talked to Nick about the situation at WTJU and he offered up some perspective as both a long-time DJ (since 2004), outgoing Rock Music Director (he gave up his position about a month ago) and former Program Director in the Rock Department.

Although concerned about the recent events at WTJU, Nick also acknowledged that there were things about WTJU that needed to change. He told me that one of the current mandates is to increase student participation at the station and pointed out that in the 6 years that he’s been at the station, “we haven’t had a widespread student…especially undergrad…volunteer-base,” except for in the rock music department and on the student-run news show.

On Thursday night, a meeting was held to discuss some of the changes at WTJU. Nick told me that there was a “very short, but intense thunderstorm right before the meeting,” so getting there involved navigating through crazy traffic and tree-blocked roads. When I spoke with him the following day, much of the power was still out in Charlottesville, WTJU’s terrestrial signal was off the air and its website was down. He said that attendance at the meeting was probably lighter due to the weather conditions that day, but that a few dozen DJs and staff came out to hear from University of Virginia’s Assistant Vice-President for Public Affairs, Carol Wood (whose department oversees the station).

Nick said that Carol told the group that one of the original proposals on the table was to eliminate the station entirely, however the university decided to keep WTJU going, while making some changes. Burr Beard was given some goals to achieve with the station and submitted proposals in order to meet those goals of increasing student participation, increasing fundraising dollars and underwriting, and boosting the number of listeners.

Nick told me that Carol, Burr and Marian Anderfuren (University of Virginia’s Director of Media Relations) “have apologized profusely for being a little too hasty” in terms of proposing specific changes to the station without getting more input from staff, DJs and listeners. In response to all of the outcry, they created a web page that includes a survey/forum for people to make suggestions about how WTJU can meet their goals.

The page is up and running today and I am happy to see that survey results and comments are being published so that everyone can see the suggestions being proposed. They have also included a link to Thursday night’s Business Planning Presentation (PDF), so that people can get more background on the situation at the station. The presentation is interesting in that it reveals listening trends at the station (apparently they averaged 7500 listeners a week in August 2009), revenue sources, and proposals for achieving their goals. Beyond the online opportunities to share feedback, there will be a Town Hall meeting on July 12th from 5:30 to 6:30pm.

Besides these “official” venues for feedback, there’s an unofficial discusssion board, as well as a group for station or University of Virginia alumni, WTJU in Exile, that is focused on collaboratively coordinating a response with suggestions for WTJU.

Nick tells me that although some people are suspicious, that in general, everyone seems to be “super appreciative” about the fact that changes at WTJU have been postponed a bit and that DJs, staff, and listeners are now being invited to offer up their own solutions.

What created the big drama last week was because people had been “shocked and appalled” about the short notice and little debate, according to Nick. Now it appears that August 23rd is the goal to institute changes at the station and everyone is being given about a month to provide strategies and feedback in the online forum. Following that month, management will mull over all of the suggestions and make decisions about the path for WTJU.

Nick said that people at WTJU are ready and willing to make some changes, but that there are many different ideas on the types of changes that should occur. There’s an underlying fear of “corporatization” at a station that has “prided itself on being freeform” and many people are worried that programming will be put in place that is designed to help drive fundraising, according to Nick. Statements by Burr Beard also lent credence to this last week, when The Hook published material from a leaked WTJU document. According to the story in the Hook, Burr argued that,

“‘Radio’s strong point is repetition…That’s why commercials are repeated so often. It also works when we repeat songs a number of times per week. How can we make spin count and repetition work for us while still remaining fresh and non-commercial?'”

For many in college radio, repetition marks the death knell for adventurous programming, so I’m not surprised that this statement set off some alarm bells.

One thing that hasn’t gotten much mention is the fact that WTJU’s annual budget is $350,000 and that nearly half of that amount goes towards salaries. The station gets the biggest slice of its budget (41%) from the university, brings in about 20% from Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 26% from donations, and 13% from underwriting. In the proposal presented on Thursday night, WTJU management recommended a shift, so that the university is only funding about 25% of the budget and fundraising and underwriting take up the slack by bringing in 50%.

While I certainly sympathize with the challenges being faced by WTJU and believe that college radio stations do need to be able to sustain themselves financially, I would be very interested in hearing why their budget is so massive in the first place (my guess is that it’s the aforementioned salaries as well as the cost of syndicated programming). One of the best things that a station can do to ensure its long life on a university campus is to cut its costs and operate in a very lean manner.

I don’t know what the answer is here, but I hope that in the next month there will be some lively discussion and creative solutions (I’ve already shared mine in the WTJU forum) about how to maintain both WTJU’s edge and freeform past while also bringing in the big bucks so that they can continue being on air. And, I am very glad that University of Virginia didn’t go with their initial plan of eliminating the station entirely, as we’ve seen far too much of that lately.


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4 Responses to The Storm Brewing at University of Virginia radio station WTJU: Crisis or Opportunity?

  1. Smilin Tyler June 29, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

    Hi, I’m the guy who put up the WTJU blog. I’ve been a DJ for over half my life, and 15 of those DJ years have been with WTJU. Mr. Beard and his supervisors came in and said, well, everything is down here, nothing you’re doing is working, so we’re going to try something else. What is most horrifying to just about every DJ I have talked to is the sinking feeling that we are being ignored when we say, it’s not that nothing we’ve done is working, it’s that we haven’t been offered the chance to try anything. Of course, I think that the University (and Mr. Beard) see more money in a safer format, so it’s not in their best interest to listen when thought of in purely economic terms.

    Certainly, Mr. Beard has said in numerous meetings that he doesn’t care about alienating the existing audience if he can get a larger one with a safer format. Unfortunately, Charlottesville is already glutted with commercial and public radio stations in almost every conceivable format. Charlottesville is the 230th largest market in America, directly behind such thriving metropoli as Olean, NY and La Crosse, WI. And yet Charlottesville has 33 different radio stations in its market! A little math will tell you that that comes out to one radio station per 4709 people. New York City, with 80 radio stations, has one radio station for every 195,870 people. And Mr. Beard is unhappy with 7,500 listeners per week? Meanwhile, he has stated that he wants to go up against local stations WNRN and WCNR, who pull twice our listenership. WNRN has repeaters across the state and is well-established (and deservedly so) as THE pre-eminent local modern rock/AAA station. Clearly, becoming MORE like them in a super-saturated market is suicide.

    Mr. Beard and the University of Virginia would like WTJU to become more financial self-sufficient and increase student participation. Nobody asked the DJs, but that is EXACTLY what we want. We want the chance to effect policies that won’t cure the disease while killing the patient, and many of us believe that Mr. Beard’s policies will do just that.

  2. Pizza Rick June 29, 2010 at 9:24 pm #

    Gosh! I can appreciate everything that the University asks for, and also agree with everthing Tyler talks about. I’ve been a loyal listener for close to 3 decades (CLAS’77), and have known many of the radio hosts as well as those working without the microphone.

    I’m sure that many, many loyal listeners would agree that what draws us is the programming, and specifically, the ‘open’ format that allows each dj the opportunity to select freely from whatever material they like, and not be bound to or even directed by a ‘set list’ or other restrictions. I think that sort of regulation would only stifle some of the creativity that helps set this station apart from its peers.

    I sincerely hope that WTJU will continue to broadcast and provide music that can enrich and satisfy everyone. Thank you for a job well done!

  3. Paul Bame June 30, 2010 at 7:13 am #

    It’s sad for me to hear of another station going through what seems to be the same thing which happened at KRFC in 2004 — check out this article: http://savegrassrootsradio.org/library/letters/bethany2004 Unfortunately in our case, things escalated from there as you can see from the other articles and letters there, and these are two stations among MANY who’ve been through this and come out in various conditions. This was so disturbing to me that I have studied it over the years and recently gave a workshop on this topic, and you can find my hasty notes here: http://savegrassrootsradio.org/mvd/

    Comments here and elsewhere are already pointing out several logical fallacies and weaknesses in management’s arguments as we had in ours and that too is a common theme.

    It is gratifying that you have received a reprieve, but do not place any trust in the idea that management is willing to change their decision based on new information and ideas from you. From a traditional management perspective, they may be “collecting more input” and slowing things down, but only to soften the blow of the organization accepting their existing inevitable decision. They must fulfill their purpose as management and make the responsible hard decisions and get everyone else to line up behind those decisions (or be silenced or ousted). This is NOT a collaboration.

    This may sound harsh, but it is standard, if somewhat archaic, business management thinking. Panicked management do drastic things because they see no other option (and new managers often want to “make their mark” on their organization).

    So in one hand, reach out in a genuine spirit of “let’s keep talking and try to fine a way to work this out together”, and in the other hand, build your communication netowrks, education capabilities, solidarity with other groups and people who can pressure management, and ability to deploy resistance, in case it becomes a power struggle, ask yourself who, doing what specifically, what it would take for hte management decision to not get implemented… but never withdraw that first hand.

    For the “working together” piece, I recommend recognizing that everyone has valid needs, concerns and strategies; and that while the strategies certainly conflict, the needs and concerns may not. So get a GOOD, TRAINED mediator involved (one who knows Ury’s work), or perhaps a good group therapist, and get together to unearth the needs and feeling /behind/ the public actions, and you have a better chance of building and maintaining mutual respect and agreement.

    Good luck y’all, my heart is with you!

  4. Joel Bass July 3, 2010 at 9:08 am #

    Thank you! Nicely done! -cville

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