Another One Bites the Dust

In my weekend rounds of catching up with news of all types, I was sad to learn that yet another major college had sold off its radio station.  This time it was WRVU at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, one of the nation’s top institutions of learning (especially in the American South) and better known to most as a member of the powerhouse Southeastern Conference in sports (the same as my beloved Kentucky Wildcats).

This was a huge blow to the town known the world over as Music City.  WRVU, now WFCL, finds itself in the hands of Nashville Public Radio, the local overseer of the corporate-funded NPR.  Now, only two of Nashville’s top 25 radio stations are not owned by a media conglomerate of one type or another (WRLT, the adult alternative station, and WNVL with a “regional Mexican” format…FYI, in their last Arbitron ratings book, WRVU was 24th which is impressive for any college station).

Aside from being pulled off the air with no farewell announcement, the biggest insult is that WRVU’s frequency is now the home to something trite and repetitive.  Sadly, it’s the same fate that befell KUSF in San Francisco…being turned into a “popular classical” format.

I again want to point out that I do enjoy classical music on occasion.  I am also aware that, in the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed massive deregulation of America’s airwaves, classical stations have been disappearing at an alarming rate.  Still, just as there is more to Led Zeppelin than D’yer Maker (possibly the most overplayed classic rock song of recent years), there is more to classical music than the opening movement of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.  “Popular classical” is just as bad of a slap in the face of how that particular type of music is supposed to push boundaries and expand minds as “smooth jazz” is to what is supposed to be the great American art form.

In the case of WRVU, the money that “Vandy” got is probably going to be the worst use of a radio station sale in modern history.  It will go into a trust fund that will keep their newspapers and magazines running in perpetuity…in print form!  Wow.  If there’s any media dying off faster than good radio, it’s the entire newspaper and magazine industry.  When the time comes in the next decade or two when even the New York Times and Washington Post give up actually printing their daily editions, I wonder how foolish the current leadership at Vanderbilt will look.

The question is often asked…if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  At Vanderbilt it will be…if a newspaper is printed but nobody reads it…

Yes…seriously foolish when, if they realize their mistake down the road in that they could have kept something that everybody could still listen to for free in any number of ways, it will cost far more than the $3.5 million they just received to buy the rights to another frequency…plus, revamp the equipment, publicize the station, and hire the needed professors and other staff to train and supervise the students.

Yet, the biggest loss is not for Vanderbilt.  It is for the whole city of Nashville to have lost a station that brought both alternative rock and country to a music scene that, at least in its most commercial form, has become maddeningly stagnant.  Houston is feeling the same loss as nobody was left to pick up the slack from the station sold off by Rice University.  San Francisco still has some good non-commercial choices but receiving them can be difficult due to the area’s hilly terrain.

Perhaps worst of all is the precedent this is setting.  Recent news reports reveal that Bryant University’s WJMF may be the next to be sold followed by those held by many of the smaller state colleges in Pennsylvania.  In an era of shrinking budgets, I fear this will be a tidal wave that will only put more non-commercial frequencies under the control of NPR or, worse yet, fundamentalist Christian organizations purveying their twisted views of the Bible and politics.

I realize that I have been threatening here on and off for quite a while to get into the subject of how even college radio has been becoming corrupted by the influence of America’s big media companies.  I know that radio of any type is not the most popular thing to defend these days in the era of Pandora and the iPod.  I am also aware that radio can never be what it used to be as there are now so many new alternatives in both content and delivery of media.  I must also admit it’s hard to get people fired up about college radio stations when much of it is amateurish at best and they do not have programming that makes people want to “rip the knob off and leave it here all day” as many hit radio stations used to tell their listeners.  Still, I think it is important to defend and save even if older people have lost their feeling of value in it and younger folks may not have any attachment to it at all.

In most areas of North America, college radio is the last place where true new rock is played.  They are usually the last place left that plays any jazz, bluegrass, reggae, or funk.  They are usually the last outlets left informing the community about truly free events (not something paid for as a big commercial by some sponsor).  If done right, the programs are informative and, most of all, surprising…something that doesn’t often happen with one’s iPod, Pandora account, or even Sirius XM which has become as bad as commercial radio with its playlists ever since those once separate entities were stupidly allowed by the US government to merge.

It is also important to remember that college radio is not here to be popular.  It is here to be a learning experience for both host and listener alike.  No, people are not always in the mood to “learn” as listeners but it needs to be there when they are.

It is also important that college radio as a whole does some learning of its own and makes sure it remains viable.  Individual stations need to make sure they are not the next victim of some dean’s back room dealings to sell off a frequency to fund his or her possibly lame-brained pet project.  If anyone reading this is involved in college radio or knows somebody that is, I strongly suggest reading 9 Tips to Ensure College Radio’s Survival at Radio Survivor.  Of particular note would be advice regarding two things that go a long way toward whether or not a station gets placed on this website’s own Radio page — involve the whole community with the station and air live programming 24/7.

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