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Delving into WJMF’s Move off FM as College Radio Station Makes Way for WGBH’s 99.5 All Classical

WJMF departing FM to Make Way for WGBH's Classical Station

Earlier this summer when I learned that Bryant University’s college radio station was leaving its FM home, I was upset to find out that nobody seemed to be protesting the hand-over of the frequency to a public radio station. Much of the story seemed like deja vu, as a private university announced during summer break its plans to transition a student radio station to online-only status while offering up the FM signal to a public radio station in order to “preserve” classical music. In this case, Boston-based WGBH was the public radio entity and they expressed enthusiasm for being able to use WJMF for a Providence, Rhode Island-based simulcast of their classical music radio station WCRB (aka 99.5 All Classical).

Although on the surface the loss of FM at Bryant seems to parallel the recent shutdowns of KTRU, KUSF and WRVU; one major difference is the lack of an organized protest by students, station staff members, alumni, community members, and listeners. A few people posted comments here and there expressing displeasure, but there’s no centralized Save WJMF website or Facebook page.

Former WJMF Program Director Erin Donahue (2004-2007) is among the handful of people who have publicly expressed concern about changes at the station. She told me, “I was incredibly disappointed to hear of the change. A huge part of college radio is the possibility of having members of the nearby community come across your show. Now Bryant has sold off that opportunity.” She said that many station alums are “not pleased.” Donahue added, “However, as an alumni, you have to realize that if the current eboard didn’t protest the change, there’s really nothing to be done. It’s their station now.” She said,

“I don’t have a clue what the general DJ population will think of it. I hope that they speak out against it…FM is such an integral part of college radio. My parents used to drive up a hill in my hometown so they could pick up my radio show in their car. I could tune in WJMF on the radio in my dorm room or in my car. The best college stations are the ones that pick up a following from the local community. Without FM, your potential audience shrinks dramatically.”

Other past WJMFers seem to just be accepting the inevitable. Former WJMF DJ and Technical Director Matthew Wetmore told me over email,

“Originally I was kind of bummed, but once I heard what the station was getting I was ok with it.  More of a sign of the time I guess…While I do think it is important to have a FM signal, I don’t think it is necessary in this day and age.  A well marketed station online will have just a many listeners.  It is important to know that Bryant still owns the signal and the hardware, etc, so there is a chance in the future they can move back to FM.”

Sara Larrabee, who will be a junior at Bryant in the fall wrote to tell me that “When I first read that WJMF was losing its ‘call letters’ 88.7 I’m not going to lie I was pretty upset.” She explained to me that she fell in love with the station when she first arrived on campus for Admitted Students Day and that she enjoyed having her own radio show. She said that she didn’t think that the deal could be “un-done” and guessed that students were not protesting the loss of FM largely because “the publicity has been spun in a positive light.” She added, “I also think that a lot of students coming back to campus in the fall would not have heard about the changes to 88.7FM this summer so it is going to be interesting to see their reactions…good and bad.”

After delving into the story more I’m starting to realize why students and alumni haven’t been protesting the loss of FM at Bryant University’s station. In the first place, although WJMF has had an FM presence since 1973 (initially 10 watts at 91.5 FM until they moved to 225 watts at 88.7 FM in 1981) the station seems to be campus-oriented and doesn’t appear to have strong ties to listeners in the community outside of its Smithfield, Rhode Island campus. An indication of this is the fact that WJMF is currently on “auto pilot” over the summer while students are on break. To me, a lack of live DJs for extended periods of a station’s program schedule indicates that a station isn’t using its FM airwaves to their fullest potential.

But, more importantly, the current student management staff at WJMF is in favor of giving up their FM broadcasting capabilities in exchange for a partnership with WGBH. Although in other similar instances I’ve been skeptical of outside radio groups offering internships, HD capabilities, and other perks to college radio stations in exchange for the much more valuable FM real estate; in the case of WJMF and WGBH it seems like the relationship between the two stations may actually produce some tangible benefits to students.

Although I had hoped to interview someone from the Bryant administration for this article, the university’s Director of Public Relations Tracie Sweeney wrote to tell me that, “Bryant University administrators declined requests to be interviewed for this article.” I was, however, able to speak with Benjamin Roe, WGBH’s Managing Director for Classical Services, in order to learn a bit more about how the deal with Bryant came about. Although he’s relatively new on the job (he started in this role on March 2, 2011), he was able to give me a bit of the back story behind WGBH’s expansion into Rhode Island when we spoke by phone last week.

Roe told me that although the deal was in the works before his arrival at WGBH, he’s been helping to usher it through. He said that WGBH had been looking for ways to expand their classical coverage and saw an opportunity when they were approached by a broker representing Bryant University. Roe acknowledged that WGBH was not the only station that Bryant’s broker approached and a recent article pointed out that Providence-based public radio station WRNI was also potentially interested in Bryant’s signal. The article in Providence Business News stated that WRNI’s General Manager Joe O’Connor “revealed that his station at Bryant’s request submitted a bid for the contract, but lost out to WGBH, whom he described as its ‘most direct competitor.’ ‘It’s tough for the hometown team to compete with a huge, public media conglomerate in Boston,’ he told Providence Business News.” In a strange twist, it turns out that back in 2005 Bryant University contemplated running WRNI (which was at the time owned by Boston University).

Roe said that it was clear to him that with this latest deal with WGBH, Bryant University wanted to be transparent and open with its students. Along with that, he said that for WGBH, “we thought it was very important to actually be able to visit the student body and the students and have a discussion in person so that it wasn’t something that was kind of abstract, but really talking about what kind of relationship could ensure between the school and with WGBH.” He explained that he had a background in college radio from his undergraduate days and said, “I am a big fan and supporter of what college radio does and the important niche that it fills.” Roe emphasized that he didn’t want to damage the college radio experience at Bryant and instead wants to “aid and abet it.”

WGBH hopes to begin airing their classical service over Bryant’s airwaves by Labor Day utilizing the upgraded FM signal of 1200 watts. They are also searching for new call letters for the terrestrial classical music broadcast and will allow Bryant University to use the WJMF call letters for their HD and online broadcasts. In the meantime they are working with the student managers at WJMF in order to transition the station to its new platforms (HD, DTV mobile, etc.).

When I talked to Roe I was very interested in learning about the financial arrangement between WGBH and Bryant, especially since a press release stated that there would be “no capital commitment on behalf of WGBH.” He reiterated that “WGBH is not paying cash to Bryant,” but acknowledged that “there is a financial aspect to the deal, which I can’t really comment on because it’s still in negotiation right now.” However he did explain that,

“It’s a revenue share. This is predicated on the fact that we can add value to the station and so as we do fundraising and that sort of thing, there will be a recognition of the services that Bryant is providing to us and we are to them…Whatever financial aspect is something that has to be equitable for both sides and is going to be consistent with FCC rules and regulations clearly.”

At the moment WGBH plans to utilize WJMF’s airwaves while Bryant University maintains ownership of the station’s FCC license. Roe said WGBH’s goal was to form a partnership with Bryant and that “right now we’re not talking about purchasing” the station, but he conceded that “we’re going to see what happens…5, 10 years down the line.” It’s unclear if WGBH will also benefit from Bryant University’s construction permit for a new radio station in Danielson, Connecticut at 90.7 FM. Roe said “initially the discussion revolved just around WJMF,” but added that the other frequency is “kind of a dangling thread right now,” and acknowledged that “I’m not really sure what the status is at the moment.”

Another aspect of the partnership between Bryant and WGBH is that the public radio station will be offering internships (at all of the WGBH properties, including TV and radio stations), production training, and technical assistance to the students at WJMF. They also hope to collaborate on events on campus.

When I spoke with WJMF General Manager Ricky McLaughlin over email he shared with me his feelings about the new arrangement with WGBH and outlined for me why he thinks the deal will be beneficial for students at Bryant.

Jennifer Waits: When did you learn about the deal with WGBH?

Ricky McLaughlin: Mid-May

J. Waits: Who made the decision to forge this partnership?

R. McLaughlin: WJMF Radio has some great supporters within the administration who arranged a partnership that not only made sense for the University, but also for the future of the student run radio station. After the basic framework of the deal was constructed between WGBH and the University, Bryant students were involved in the next steps. WJMF staff sat in on meetings with University Administration and WGBH executives as we discussed the deal, negotiated, and deliberated. The University President, Ronald K. Machtley, and the Dean of Students, J. Thomas Eakin, took our considerations to heart. They told us that we ultimately had significant influence on whether or not the University would finalize the agreement with WGBH.

J. Waits: Was the executive staff of WJMF involved in the decision? Were you all in agreement?

R. McLaughlin: …At first, the WJMF staff was slightly skeptical about the partnership because of the loss of the FM analog signal. After a comprehensive reflection where we went over all the pros and cons, we reached a consensus. At the end of the day, we decided that the partnership was in the best interest of WJMF’s future and for future students. This partnership was clearly a once in a lifetime opportunity for WJMF and its staff.

J. Waits: How do you feel about the loss of WJMF’s FM signal?

R. McLaughlin: …The University and WJMF have not lost ownership of its frequency or towers. Leasing the WJMF analog dial position has allowed us to increase from 225 watts to 1200 watts and move to a higher tower. Even though we may be off the analog dial, we will use this power increase on the 88.7 FM HD-2 channel. Although many people have not yet adopted HD radio, our increased coverage may give us a larger imprint on the terrestrial dial. As HD receivers develop and become more affordable and programming for multi-cast channels continues to develop, the popularity of HD radio will take off. This will do wonders for WJMF and its staff.

When first being told about the proposal, I was very nervous and uneasy. ‘Going off the analog dial’ is a scary thing to hear. Additionally, I was nervous that the prospect of a partnership seemed too good to be true. Now that the partnership has formed, WJMF has already made significant leaps. WGBH is going above and beyond, offering WJMF direct help in places it sees potential and helping us find appropriate solutions so some challenges we’ve encountered. For example, we are developing a new logo to connect WJMF’s past and present. Our team designed preliminary drafts and is helping us make the designs better.

Additionally, we have been working with a WGBH website design team. We e-mail back and forth, have conference calls, and discuss ways to build a killer and sustainable new site. They have offered all sorts of technical & money saving advice that go above and beyond the scope the needed to. A gentleman on this team was kind enough to take part in conference calls during his vacation. Another went out of his way to randomly inform us of a unique opportunity to acquire a better domain name. WGBH has been an unbelievable partner thus far, and it is already clear that their input and expertise will be a huge asset for WJMF. My uneasiness has subsided, and enthusiasm has taken over…

J. Waits: On the WJMF website it states that the station and Bryant are “reviewing the possibilities for returning to analog FM radio on a new frequency.” Can you give more details on that?

R. McLaughlin: …Finding another location on the noncommercial part of the analog dial has been difficult. There is just no space on the dial. President Machtley has told me that he will work with WJMF to obtain a dial position in our area when and if the opportunity presents itself in a cost effective manner. The wattage at which we would broadcast in this situation has not been discussed.

J. Waits: WJMF is working to increase its coverage (has that happened already)? Is that the reason why WGBH was interested in your FM frequency?

R. McLaughlin: Working with WGBH has allowed us to move from 225 watts to 1200 watts. We will also have the ability to broadcast off of a WGBH DTV channel as well. Additionally, we are greatly improving our website, creating a WJMF interactive Smartphone application, and developing an online marketing strategy. Our online streaming will be upgrading as well. The University invested a significant amount of funds to turn our station into a video simulating studio with three HD cameras. We will be playing shows through Bryant’s Media Production Club (MPC) video channel. MPC will also help with the editing of shows and distribution. We may put shows on video on the website as well on some sort of on-demand player in the future…We are aiming for a soft launch of HD in mid-August.

J. Waits: I noticed that WJMF is on automation right now. When do live shows resume? When was the last live DJ on the air at the station?

R. McLaughlin: When the summer comes, the DJs go home. They return when classes resume in the fall. Our Programming Director, Tyler Pepe, plans to have an official launch the second or third week of September.

…Our last DJ in the station to do a show before summer break was Dylan Smith, aka DJD, with his show “DJD Presents Hip-Hop.” He will be a sophomore next year, and earned the station’s award for “Best New Show of the Year.” He is now our new Music Director at the station. We cannot wait get DJs back on air in September…

J. Waits: Have you heard reactions from students and alumni about the loss of FM at WJMF?

R. McLaughlin: When first word went out, many mistakenly thought the WJMF studio was being taken over by WGBH. We faced backlash from concerned alumni and college radio supporters who thought we sold out. We did not. After issuing our own press release that offered additional details, the concern turned to curiosity. As we continue to talk to alumni and alumni talked among themselves, many are becoming excited about the partnership.

Students are very excited about the change. Their biggest concern is how to listen if they do not yet have an HD receiver. The University has agreed to give HD receivers to all incoming freshman classes and to provide receivers for current students who wish to obtain one. As always, students can continue to listen to our online stream, which will see significant improvements before the school year starts. Students seem very excited about our multi-digital platform. WGBH is also helping us with a digital marketing plan to draw in students and a larger audience as well. Students are also amped for our push into mobile media. WJMF will have a feature-laden iPhone App that is to be released in early September. As DTV develops, so will other aspects of mobile listening. We plan to develop applications for other smartphones as soon as we can find the time.

J. Waits: Anything else you’d like to share?

R. McLaughlin: This deal will become better with age. As this technology develops, WJMF will reach new levels of success. The station also has contingency plans in the event a technology does not take off as planned.

Although we already have an online presence, with help from the folks at WGBH and increased support from the university we are launching a new website. We will offer customized features like chatting with an online DJ and plan to integrate the site with social media. The staff will be able to communicate through the website like a forum through a custom portal and log music through the site.

A student-run station is a unique student organization. It is where student organizations meet business. Seeing the deals being made between other universities and radio stations, knowing about other proposed deals in the works, and witnessing deals that were close to going through, the future of college radio is changing. I am confident that this ‘deal’ is the best move for WJMF’s future. WJMF sees an immediate increase in overall benefit because of the partnership. Also, WJMF hedges itself against any type of future threats. WJMF maintains its independence which means that we are a 24/7 student-run station. Any student can still have a show. Although the way one may listen changes, WJMF remains the same. We are and will always be a student-run station that runs for students.

This partnership increases the variety of media for listening to WJMF, exposes our staff to new internship opportunities, and gives staff (marketing, business, technology, web, music, and production aspects) new challenges and resume building activities. We retain our core ability for any student to have an organic show where they can develop their soft skills, confidence, and have the best time of their lives. (I know I have.)

***

WJMF’s move off of FM, along with the recently announced loss of Brown Student Radio from the Providence, Rhode Island terrestrial dial means that the college radio landscape in the area will dwindle in the coming weeks. I’ll be curious to hear if we ever do hear any uproar from returning students or from the local arts and music community regarding the loss of both stations or if it turns out that online-only (and other high tech listening options) is an acceptable alternative. I’m also pleased to hear that Rhode Island is still home to several other terrestrial college radio stations (WRIU 90.3 FM at University of Rhode Island, WDOM 91.3 FM at Providence College and WXIN 90.7 FM at Rhode Island College in Providence), so hopefully they are all still alive and well. Providence is lucky that it’s had so many college radio listening options, so I’d be interested to hear more about the role that college radio plays in the Providence music community and how the local music scene will be affected by the loss of WJMF and BSR’s FM signals.


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One Response to Delving into WJMF’s Move off FM as College Radio Station Makes Way for WGBH’s 99.5 All Classical

  1. Andrew July 29, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

    Something similar happened at Syracuse University in the 1980s — one vacation break the administration decided to change the format of student radio station WAER from college radio/freeform to jazz/NPR. The student DJs and management protested (and even got prominent WAER alums like Ted Koppel to support them) but… to no avail.

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