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The Uncertain Fate of College Radio

Joe Youorski

Artists like OutKast and R.E.M. were first heard on college radio. As corporations take over these stations, what will it mean for artists and students?

During an annual fundraiser for their station in April 2014, two student DJs at California Polytechnic State University’s KCPR offered to send pictures of their genitalia over Snapchat in exchange for cash donations. Whether meant as a joke or not, the university’s administration was not pleased.

Administration labeled the station rogue, and complaints about a lack of oversight and professionalism on KCPR surfaced. A faculty member felt so strongly as to have her name removed from the station’s FCC license, and the administration began devising a panel to oversee changes to the station.

All of these moves could have been expected from the raucous fundraiser exploits, but one note from the Dean of the Liberal Arts College struck a different chord: “I am beginning to believe that we should sell the radio license (we have had an offer),” (“Cal Poly Radio Station at Risk After Sexually Explicit Fundraiser,” CCN Staff, 17 July 2014) said Douglas Epperson in an email obtained by CalCoastNews.com.

This jab at the station is clearly reactionary, but it’s also indicative of a new, troublesome trend that has been crippling college radio across America. Student run stations are being sold to outside interests, and universities are growing increasingly unafraid of their decision to do this. The practice angers students, but few other ramifications occur when a college strikes one of these deals.

While California Poly glowered at KCPR, supporters of Georgia State University’s WRAS gathered outside the Atlanta base of Georgia Public Broadcasting, decked out in WRAS attire and waving homemade signs to protest GPB’s takeover of the station’s daytime broadcasts. Meanwhile, Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire quietly sold its 90.9 frequency to a private local foundation that promptly took its format from a freeform student station to talk radio.

All of these stations experienced internal turmoil this year, but 2014 is not the first time this has happened. In 2011, the frequency that formerly broadcast Rice University’s student staffed KTRU became a 24 hour classical music station under the auspices of public radio station KUHA, and Vanderbilt University’s college station WRVU lost its 91.1 FM to Nashville Public Radio.

Indeed, college radio sales and deals have happened at a variety of different schools throughout the US. The schools have ranged from small community colleges, such as Lehigh Carbon Community College in Pennsylvania, to large institutions like Georgia State, with an undergraduate enrollment of around 25,000 students. Both public and private universities have sold their stations in similar manners. Stations have varied from the eclectic, freeform radio of KTRU and Colby-Sawyer’s WSCS to the tight, professional style of WRAS.

The deals have hit alumni, students and communities emphatically, as college radio has long been a constant at American universities. These stations offer creative freedom and experience that’s hard to find elsewhere, allowing students to learn the dynamics of working in radio while refining their musical interests to fit an audience with rotations of new music and genre-specific shows.

None of these sales have gone through without a fair share of fights, as staffs and supporters ardently oppose the deals through social media campaigns and appeals to the universities. Sites like SaveKTRU.org and Savewras.com dot the web, showcasing battles past and ongoing.

However, the takeovers also have another feature in common: no amount of backlash from listeners or students has proven successful in keeping a station under the control of a student staff. While staffed by college kids and funded by donations and student fees, a university station’s radio license is still controlled by the administration. Sales and deals do not have to include students in any manner.

In one of the most controversial instances, Georgia State announced its intentions to pass WRAS’s 88.5 frequency over to Georgia Public Broadcasting on 6 May 2014, a time when station management regularly passes the baton to a new staff, and also a time when students are still preoccupied with their upcoming finals. Students were blindsided by the decision. Soon after, they learned that the deal had been in talks for years.

“I can tell you that anything with this level of complexity and this level of benefit really is not the kind of thing you can play out in a public forum,” said Georgia State president Mark Becker in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t happen that way.” (“Q&A with GSU President Mark Becker about WRAS/GPB Partnership”, Rodney Ho, 7 May 2014)

While this conscious silence angered students and members of the media throughout the months to come, Becker and Georgia State administration were under no legal obligation to keep students informed of the talks. There are few federal guidelines on how a public university should handle student media, especially in radio. Licenses are owned by universities, not students, even though it’s typically student fees that pay for the purchase of transmitters and studio equipment.

However, using the few resources available on the matter, Frank LoMonte of the Student Law Press Center alleged a breach of constitutional rights in the WRAS deal.

“Students at state institutions have the constitutionally protected right to choose what they publish or broadcast, free from institutional censorship,” LoMonte wrote in an open letter to Becker. “The decision to substitute administrator-chosen programming for student-chosen programming during half of each day, including the most desirable ‘drive-time’ slots, implicates the constitutional rights of the student managers to whom the University formerly afforded discretion to choose WRAS editorial content.”

LoMonte cites two court cases in evidence: Rosenberger v. Rectors & Visitors of Univ. of Va. and Kincaid v. Gibson. The two cases provide a basis for student rights, with Rosenberger dealing with funding for student organizations and Kincaid censorship of student media. The two cases don’t deal directly with radio, thus making legal action tenuous against a university, but that in itself brings about another point.

While colleges and buyers are bound by FCC regulations just as in any other deal, it has become apparent that college radio deals are different from commercial radio in who they involve. Students, who raise funds and put in fees to create these stations, are often swept aside in the deals near completely, removing a key voice in the stations’ management.

Small steps are being made in the right direction, particularly with WRAS, as the backlash against GPB has been palpable. Indie act The Whigs pulled a performance from the station after action by WRAS supporters, and Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed met with station alumni to discuss the issue.

Artists such as Bradford Cox have publicly lamented the loss of the station, taking the issue to national attention alongside press from The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post. The Save WRAS Facebook page has over 9,000 likes, and Adult Swim even ran a late night message to its audience discussing the issue in the programming block’s usual barebones style.

Alongside the strong and vocal support for the station, controversy has arisen over Georgia State’s purchase of a transmitter with student funds shortly before selling to GPB, as found in emails obtained by the Georgia State Signal (“GSU-GPB Partnership Planning Dates Back to August 2013,” Ciara Frisbie, 29 May 2014). With all of these pieces in place, a legal case on the WRAS decision could prove to be the spark that blows the trend of station sales open.

Part of the firestorm that’s kicked up when a college radio station is shut down is because it’s not just the students that suffer. Student run stations provide an alternative outlet for different genres of music disconnected from commercial radio. Many artists, such as Outkast and R.E.M., received their first airplay from college stations. As takeovers continue, fledgling and indie artists continuously lose the chance for terrestrial radio play, limiting a vital medium for exposure. Most stations also feature specialty shows, highlighting different scenes and genres of music that are often overlooked and impossible to hear elsewhere.

What it will take for an overhaul of FCC sale regulations on college radio is unclear; it may require a case along the lines of Kincaid v. Gibson, whether on behalf of WRAS or another station. Regardless, it’s evident that something needs to change if student run radio is to continue as a major part of the American college experience.

Joe Youorski is a journalist and student currently attending the University of Georgia, where he spends most of his time bothering local artists and musicians.

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