The champagne is chilling in the ‘fridge, marking the end of another year. As I look back on the events of 2011, it’s been a rough year for college radio.
But, at the same time, 2011 will go down in history for its worldwide protests. Time recently named “the protestor” as its person of the year and Occupy protests have captivated the world (see Chris Stroffolino’s piece about the potential connections between the Occupy and Save KUSF movements). College radio fans upset about the loss of their stations also embraced the power of protest in 2011, putting up an impressive fight against both universities and radio consolidation.
As the year began, Rice University station KTRU was already in the midst of fighting the pending sale of its frequency to University of Houston. And then, during winter break, University of San Francisco (USF) shut down its beloved radio station KUSF without warning on January 18. By the end of the day, the sounds of formerly commercial station KDFC were being piped out of 90.3FM and KUSF fans began to organize under the mantle of Save KUSF. A serious protest effort began in earnest and station allies rallied at USF, at San Francisco’s City Hall, and at Entercom headquarters to express their displeasure with the deal.
The series of transactions leading to KUSF’s demise included commercial radio conglomerate Entercom offloading classical brand KDFC to Classical Public Radio Network (CPRN) in order to create a rock super station on KDFC’s former frequency (102.1 FM). Then, CPRN made an offer on the KUSF frequency (90.3 FM) and on religious station KNDL’s frequency (89.9 FM) in Napa County. The KNDL sale went through without controversy and CPRN changed its call letters to KDFC. The KUSF sale, however, has faced scrutiny not only from college radio supporters, but also from the FCC.
College radio fans across the country rallied to express their support for KUSF by participating in a live multi-cast a month after the shut-down on Feburary 18th. Former KUSF DJs took the stage at Amoeba Music in San Francisco and their sets could be heard live on 15 college and community radio stations all over the country, as stations gave up their own airwaves in order to bring attention to the plight of KUSF.
A few months later, after KTRU lost its fight to save its frequency from being sold to University of Houston, another nationwide protest took place. College Broadcasters, Inc. organized a national minute of silence on April 28, to mark KTRU’s final moments on the terrestrial dial. It was a powerful piece of activism and I couldn’t help but feel the impact of the loss of college radio stations when I scanned my radio dial in San Francisco and heard silence on a few of my favorite college radio stations.
In June, Vanderbilt University station WRVU became the next casualty added to the list of fallen terrestrial college radio stations. Although the sell-off of the station had been rumored since 2010, it came as a shock when a CMJ reporter revealed that the station’s call letters had been changed on June 1. A day after this news leaked, the owners of WRVU admitted that they were planning to sell the FM license to Nashville Public Radio. Later that day, WRVU DJs were locked out of the studio and the station’s broadcast was set to automation. Music from Classical 91.1 soon began airing over WRVU’s old frequency. The organization WRVU Friends and Family has been working to fight the proposed station sale ever since. Paperwork has yet to be submitted to the FCC regarding this transaction, so the tactics of WRVU supporters have been a bit different than those of Save KUSF. Rather than filing Petitions to Deny with the FCC (which can’t be done until the FCC has paperwork for the sale), WRVU Friends and Family are focused right now on fundraising and publicity.
Back at KUSF, protests, publicity and fundraising have also been the focus of activities this year. However, since paperwork related to the pending sale was filed with the FCC, numerous legal filings have been a big part of the effort to save the station. Following these legal filings from KUSF supporters, the FCC sent an unprecedented letter of inquiry to CPRN and USF in June, asking for the parties involved with the proposed sale of KUSF to provide a wide range of documents regarding both the station sale and the agreement allowing CPRN to utilize KUSF’s airwaves in advance of the sale’s approval by the FCC.
Nearly a year after the shut down of KUSF, the FCC still has not made a decision about the pending sale. The KUSF studio was dismantled in May and its former home in Phelan Hall became a construction zone. Although USF stated in January 2011 that KUSF was transitioning to an “online only format,” that promise hasn’t been fully realized following the destruction of the studio in May. Former KUSF DJs teamed up with WFMU and are broadcasting from an off-campus location under the moniker of KUSF in Exile.
In addition to the woes at KTRU, KUSF, and WRVU, several other college radio stations left the FM dial this year. Brown Student Radio (BSR) lost its part-time lease of 88.1 FM in Providence, Rhode Island in August when the frequency’s owner, the Wheeler School, decided to lease its entire broadcast day to Rhode Island Public Radio. This also meant that Wheeler School students lost their access to the terrestrial dial, as their station was taken online-only. Also in Providence, Bryant University took its student station WJMF off 88.7 FM in order to forge a partnership with public radio station WGBH out of Boston. As part of a revenue-sharing deal, WGBH is airing its classical station WCRB over the old WJMF frequency. Student radio at Bryant is continuing online and over an HD channel.
Another station, WXLV, at Lehigh Carbon Community College, is also rumored to be at risk. Although a rally was held in May and a Facebook group was established to help save the station from a possible sell-off, it’s unclear if there are ongoing efforts to preserve the frequency as a college radio station. An article in The Morning Call back in May stated that the university was considering a station sale and that a few parties were interested in purchasing the license. Interestingly, there are some familiar players involved, including Public Radio Capital (the part-owner of CPRN) and Burr Beard (a public radio and college radio veteran who was embroiled in some controversy during his short time as General Manager at WTJU) According to the piece,
“As the college looks to offset a $1.3 million reduction in state funding it’s considering selling the radio station. The school has had the radio station’s license appraised but has yet to move forward with a sale, said Heather Kuhns, LCCC’s associate dean of institutional advancement…The station’s former director, Burr Beard, said he’s made a pitch to buy the station but doesn’t have the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to buy the radio license. Beard wants to lease the station for a year and then possibly buy it with help from Public Radio Capital, a national financial backer in Denver.”
We’ll have to wait to see what the future holds for WXLV. The good news, though, for WXLV and other stations in crisis is that 2011 was also a great year for college radio bonding. In addition to national protests, a number of “college radio in crisis” panels took place at conferences all across the country (SXSW, UCRN, NFCB, GRC, CMJ, and CBI to name a few). Press coverage for college radio skyrocketed and the first ever celebratory College Radio Day took place on October 11. And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that overseas, college radio station Radio One 91 FM in New Zealand successfully fought off a potential sale after mounting a protest campaign that included a week of radio silence.
So, although, there have been some big losses for college radio in 2011, the voices of college radio supporters have also been loud and resounding. We’ll have to wait to see what’s in store for college radio in 2012, but I’m hopeful that it still has a long future ahead of it thanks to its passionate practitioners and supporters.