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Public file cabinet at college radio station WPRB. Photo: J. Waits

College Radio Watch: WUTS-FM Turns Back License, the Return of WBML and More News

This week I learned about college radio station WUTS-FM relinquishing its license, likely out of fear of receiving large FCC fines for public file violations. A letter dated December 24, 2019 from University of the South to the FCC states, “On behalf of the University of the South, Licensee of Radio Station WUTS-FM at Sewanee, TN, we hereby surrender for cancellation by the Commission the original FCC license and associated FCC license renewal authority for WUTS-FM.” As of January 29, 2020, the license is listed as deleted by the FCC. This ends a nearly 50 year legacy for WUTS-FM, which was first licensed in May, 1972.

A February 20, 2020 piece in student publication, The Sewanee Purple, provides some back story. A statement provided to them by the university reads in part, “The decision to relinquish the broadcast license was made after seeking both technical and legal expertise. Managing compliance with FCC regulations requires ongoing time and expertise that few current student organizations would be able to achieve. Noncompliance brings the risk of both financial and reputational consequences.”

Student participants at WUTS told the Sewanee Purple that “compliance issues” with the station’s public file were brought to the attention of staff in the fall. WUTS Station Manager Emily Cate “emphasized that there was an atmosphere of confusion over the public file, and that WUTS staff were stunned when they heard the news that they were going off the air. The staff was informed of this decision through GroupMe.” They were told that potential FCC fines could be anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000.

It’s unfortunate that there was so much fear over a potentially large fine, particularly since student-run college radio stations run a much lower risk than other types of radio stations. As we’ve reported, ever since a ruling in 2013, the FCC has opted to give first-time violations at student-run radio stations a break as far as massive fines. Consent decrees between the FCC and student radio stations since 2013 have led to “fines” of around $1,000 to $2,500. So why do rumors still swirl about $100,000 fines? These scare tactics sadly have chilled administrators into relinquishing a valuable student resource (an FM radio license) that they will likely never get back. This was also likely the case at Denison University’s WDUB, which sold its license for a mere $5,000 in December, 2019 amid fears of FCC fines.

WBML to Return: “Where Black Music Lives”

A few weeks back on Podcast Episode #232, we spoke with Jocelyn Robinson about radio archives at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. While there still much to be learned, in light of that project, I was intrigued to hear about a student radio station at University of Illinois that was founded by black students. WBML, aka “Where Black Music Lives,” began in the early 1980s and continued into at least the early 2000s, with some of its last social media posts around 2015.

A 2004 piece in the Daily Illini charts its history:

Students founded the station in 1982 because black students at the University felt they needed a station to call their own. The local campus station at the time wanted to cancel the four hours of ‘soul music’ per week that was aired, so the black students protested. After picketing, meetings and compromise, WBML – Where Black Music Lives – was formed.

Digging into archived versions of the WBML website, one can view a snapshot of its programming circa 1999. Back then the station was a project of the African-American Cultural Program at University of Illinois. It broadcast over cable at 89.3 FM as well as on local cable TV, billing itself as “Urbana-Champaign, IL’s premiere source of Hip Hop, Reggae, Jazz, R&B and Gospel music!!” According to the history section of that early website:

Through the years, the radio station has grown from a telephone carrier station, only available to University of Illionis residence halls, to the first Black music radio station in Champaign-Urbana, via cable radio…The station transmits via Time Warner coaxial cable to all undergraduate and graduate residence halls.  Since March 1, 1998, WBML began broadcasting to the Champaign-Urbana community through Time Warner’s ‘Music Choice’ system (Channel 36).

By 2004, WBML was also broadcasting online, but it’s unclear when those transmissions ceased. With all of this history, I’m happy to see that WBML is relaunching. A few weeks back an informational meeting was held. The announcement states, “WBML: Where Black Media Lives!! Have you ever wanted to host your own radio show, podcast, or DJ your favorite playlists? Well, this is your chance! We are celebrating black media and music by relaunching our radio station. Join us on Monday, February 17th to learn more about how YOU can get involved!”

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