What's Eating College Radio?

Chris Nochowicz

The rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy, who was once a college DJ, appeared at a rally to stop the sale of Vanderbilt's radio station.
June 19, 2011

Passin' through and it's late,
the station started to fade
Picked another one up
in the very next state.
"Left of the Dial"

—The Replacements

Much about the airwaves has changed in the quarter-century since Paul Westerberg moaned his love letter to that feral half-inch of the FM dial where college radio DJ's share—or inflict—their musical passions on listeners. Were Mr. Westerberg still touring today, chances are strong that his fading signal would be replaced not by cutting-edge college rock but by a National Public Radio talk show, some classical music, or perhaps a sermon from American Family Radio.

To be sure, hundreds of student-run stations of varying levels of quality and professionalism continue to broadcast within the Federal Communications Commission's historically designated noncommercial portion of the spectrum, 88.1 to 91.9 MHz. But in a trend that industry observers say began in the 1990s, many others have been driven onto the Web or into oblivion when college administrators have decided to sell their licenses for much-needed cash.

Three multimillion-dollar sales this year have drawn particular notice: the University of San Francisco's KUSF-FM 90.3, Rice University's KTRU-FM 91.7, and Vanderbilt University's WRVU-FM 91.1—the last one announced just two weeks ago. In all three cases, the universities sold the broadcast licenses of their traditional free-form, student-programmed college stations to buyers who switched them to classical-music formats. And in all three cases, the DJ's and supporters of the stations—which continue to stream their old formats on the Web—have complained loudly about the silencing of their terrestrial signals.

It was into this contentious environment that Candace Walton was elected on April 20 to lead College Broadcasters Inc., an industry association with some 200 member stations. Her first formal action was to organize a national "minute of silence" campaign, eight days later, to raise awareness about the impact that the forced sales were having on campuses and the communities around them.

Thirty stations briefly hit the mute button that day, and one stayed quiet for good: Rice's 50,000-watt KTRU, which had been founded in 1967 by students as a two-watt pirate AM station. In announcing plans for the sale last year, Rice's president, David W. Leebron, had called KTRU a "vastly underutilized resource." With its license gone, KTRU would be relegated to streaming on the Web with thousands of other stations, and broadcasting on HD radio, a digital technology that many NPR stations have had little success persuading their audiences to embrace.

Coordinating her organization's minute of silence with the Rice changeover was deliberate, Ms. Walton acknowledges. "But more and more, as I started talking to people who were affected by the sale of college radio stations, it became very clear that it wasn't just about Houston," she recalls. "There were more radio stations that had been sold that had passed on into history. And they'd done it almost silently, without anyone at their campus realizing what was going on nationally."

Fans Fight Back

Some college-radio fans are paying attention. Opponents of the San Francisco, Rice, and Vanderbilt sales have active blog and Facebook presences: Save KUSF, Save KTRU, Save WRVU. In recent weeks, another one has popped up, Save WXLV, a campaign to stop Lehigh Carbon Community College from selling its eclectic student station, something that college officials have said they are merely considering.

And finally, there are the activists who agree with Ms. Walton that the drip, drip, drip of college-radio sales is a trend that isn't stopping anytime soon—groups like "Keeping the Public in Public Radio" and "NPR Ate My Local Public Radio Station."

Ms. Walton, an assistant professor of contemporary media and journalism at the University of South Dakota, makes it clear that she understands why the stations get sold.

"From an administrator's perspective, if they're forced to decide between firing a couple dozen faculty members or selling the college radio station, I know which one I'd choose," she says. "The problem is that once you sell them, they're gone. And you can never replace them."

That's only partially true. The University of Houston bought Rice's FM license and transmitter for $9.5-million, and a partnership involving the University of Southern California paid $3.75-million for the University of San Francisco's station. But no one is handing the keys over to student DJ's who want to play the music that they and their friends like to chill to.

There is good reason for that, says Jack Casey, general manager of Emerson College's WERS-FM 88.9.

"When radio becomes self-indulgent," he says, "it's very limited. You have to find out what people want and give it to them."

Mr. Casey's station, a 4,000-watt facility with a towering antenna, found success four years ago in the greater Boston market when it switched to the "adult album alternative" format, which has as its target audience listeners in the 35-to-50 age demographic. Student managers run WERS's day-to-day operations, playing bands like Arcade Fire, Delta Spirit, and the singer Lucinda Williams, as well as "deep tracks"—lesser-known chestnuts from vintage artists like Eric Clapton.

The station has consistently raised over $100,000 a pop in twice-yearly fund-raising drives. Boston being the college town that it is, WERS also brings in revenue from a stable of underwriters that includes several academic institutions, like Lesley University.

Emerson's students get professional radio-industry training, Mr. Casey says, and Emerson gets to keep its FM-radio license.

The Value of College Radio

Whenever college-radio sales are discussed, a company named Public Radio Capital is almost always part of the conversation. Since its founding, in 2001, the company has worked with more than 200 public broadcasters and brokered $279-million in radio-station transactions, says Marc Hand, managing director and co-founder.

As recently as a decade ago, he says, not many colleges recognized how valuable their licenses were. That is changing, as evidenced by such sales as the Rice and San Francisco stations, just two of the deals that Public Radio Capital has had a hand in. Mr. Hand and Erik Langner, the company's director of acquisitions and legal affairs, say that more deals are pending but that they are not free to discuss them.

"I do think that this is a trend that we'll continue to see over the next few years," says Mr. Langner, "especially in light of what's happening to state and university budgets, where tougher and tougher decisions are having to be made."

Mr. Casey, of Emerson's WERS, says: "A lot of college presidents don't see the viability" of terrestrial radio. "Someone tells them: Radio is dead. You ought to sell the license."

That time is not now, says Mr. Casey, and it may never come.

Mark A. Wollaeger would disagree—at least in the case of his own institution. Mr. Wollaeger is chairman of the board of Vanderbilt Student Communications Inc. (VSC), which announced this month that it was selling WRVU's FM license to Nashville's NPR affiliate, WPLN, for $3.35-million (see related story). In addition to owning the radio station, VSC controls Vanderbilt's student newspaper, its Web site, and a handful of other student publications. With revenues from print advertising steadily declining across the newspaper industry, Mr. Wollaeger and his fellow board members were looking for a way to start an endowment that would support Vanderbilt's student publications and radio station and permit innovations in the future. The station's broadcasting license was VSC's single most valuable asset.

Mr. Wollaeger points out that today's students get their radio fix largely from handheld devices that stream content from the Internet. He says surveys by VSC found that only a small percentage of students listened to the station over the air or on the Web. So he is optimistic that WRVU's fans, whether they are students or not, will continue to listen online.

Mr. Casey says Web stations could potentially take off when manufacturers make it easier for listeners to move their music devices seamlessly from car to living room to home theater. But "the problem with Internet radio right now is the lack of a gatekeeper," he says. "There's just chaos out there, and there's no barrier to entry. ... The average consumer is just lost in that world."

Vanderbilt's other olive branch to irate radio fans is that starting in the fall, WRVU's signal will be broadcast over an HD channel, covering 4,400 square miles versus the old terrestrial signal's 2,700-square-mile reach.

Even though NPR's audience has been slow to pick up on HD technology, Mr. Wollaeger thinks it could work for college stations, whose audiences are narrow but passionate.

Moreover, he says, students can still get professional radio training as DJ's and managers in HD radio studios, and potentially attract sizable audiences.

John Devecka, operations manager for WLOY-AM, at Loyola University in Maryland, isn't buying it.

"The cynic in me says that the people who make that claim know full well that it's BS," he says. But Mr. Devecka says it's possible that some people have swallowed the argument that listeners will follow their stations onto the new medium. "Oh, sure, this will be just like it was before," he says. "Except that instead of a potential listening audience of 50,000, they'll have a potential listening audience of the eight people in town who have an HD radio."

Mr. Devecka, like most grownups who still work in college radio, worked as a student DJ in college. Later he designed and built low-power, primarily educational, radio stations across the country.

"I traveled constantly," he says. "The first place I always went was the bottom of the dial."

He still goes there, passing the evangelical sermonizers to land on NPR, which he genuinely enjoys.

And sometimes—though not very often at all, he says—he stumbles onto an entirely different kind of station, and it takes him back.

"You hear somebody who's obviously a college student, and they're playing some band they really love, and all of the sudden you want to listen again. Because the passion is there."