news that Rice University plans to sell of the FM license and tower for their 50,000 watt radio station KTRU. The 40+ year old station will continue on, but will be downsized to an Internet-only station after being over the FM airwaves since the early 1970s. The suitor, University of Houston, has offered to pay 9.5 million dollars and is enthusiastic about the new opportunities that they will have to spread public radio programming over the 2 FM signals that they will now own. Currently operating KUHF, by adding KTRU's spot on the dial they will be able to segment their news, talk, NPR, and classical programming across the two stations.
Radio industry business-types seem to be in favor of this purchase; but for those who cherish locally-produced radio, this is a huge blow for the Houston airwaves. By losing its student radio station (even though it will continue on as an Internet-only station), Rice is giving up a valuable asset for both students and the community of Houston.
Supporters of KTRU are fighting back, having quickly set up the Save KTRU website, Facebook page, Twitter account, and online petition in order to gather support and inform the administration about the importance of FM for KTRU.
To understand a bit more of how this decision came about and to learn what other college radio advocates can do to help save KTRU, I spoke with KTRU's Student Manager Kelsey Yule (Rice '12) by email. In our conversation, she confirmed my belief that the announcement of the sale happened during summer vacation at Rice, which has made it even more difficult for students to organize and voice their discontent. This means that it is vital for all supporters of college radio to speak out and reflect on why it's an institution worth saving.
Spinning Indie: Could you tell me how you found out about the university's plans to sell the FM signal?
KTRU Student Manager Kelsey Yule: I found out a during an informal meeting about ten minutes before the Houston Chronicle's article outlining the deal was published online. Apparently, the station was put on the market over a year ago by the administration without student or community input or even notification.
Spinning Indie: Does it seem like there's any chance they will change their mind?
Kelsey: This is a good deal for KUHF, assuming that they really need two FM signals (the last classical radio station in Houston, KRTS, failed). In my opinion, Rice has not been supportive of KTRU over the last couple of decades. The only real hope here is to make KUHF think the deal is bad PR or to make Rice fear a pain in their wallets. Please angry donors, let these two institutions know how you feel.
Spinning Indie: Were you at KTRU in 2000 when the station was shut down? Just curious for some background on that and how that compares with the situation right now.
Kelsey: No, I wasn't. I'm hearing a lot from people who were though. Both instances were about the administration asserting power over students. The big difference is that it feels as though the 2000 incident was about gaining some ground and making a point, and now it’s about 9.5 million dollars and shoving things under the rug.
Spinning Indie: Is Rice is session for the year yet?
Kelsey: No. Fittingly, the deal is being made public at the exact time when students are least able to react. Most students aren't in Houston yet. Others are ensconced in the responsibilities of Orientation Week. It makes student djs of KTRU look uninterested because we’ve had one day to react to all of this and get our thoughts together, while many of us are hundreds of miles away from the action and scrambling to get into town. Administrators on the other hand are sitting calmly in their offices reading over their cold and calculated statements.
Spinning Indie: When is the sale anticipated to go through and how will this affect the day-to-day operations of the station?
Kelsey: No one has been keen to talk to me about the details of the sale timeline. I suspect it's just some paperwork to be done. Then, there will be a thirty day period for comments. For now, we're trying to do business as usual, but better. Once, all of our FCC rights and such change hands, we'll definitely be online and there are other options to explore.
Spinning Indie: Do you have any idea what percentage of listeners tune in over FM vs. the Internet?
Kelsey: These are really difficult questions. I honestly know very little about our Internet listenership, except that it is difficult to gauge. As far as over the FM, we haven't had a detailed Arbitron report in a number of years. The most recent information that we have with confidence is that we had more than the minimum reporting standard of 24,000 listeners per week on average in 2009. How much more is unknown.
Spinning Indie: What percentage of DJs are students, community members, etc.?
Kelsey: As of spring 2010, we have 112 active djs, 52 of those were community members. The other 60 djs are students, alumni, faculty and staff.
Spinning Indie: I've read talk about the amount of automated programming that runs on KTRU. Can you set the record straight about how much of the weekly scheduled is automated programming vs. live DJs?
Kelsey: During the summer, automated programming makes up about half of what goes on air (47% for 8/9-8/15). When the students come back for the year, automated programming comprises easily less than 20% of the time. This is another great reason for the administration to make its claims during the summer.
Spinning Indie: What can people do to help keep the station on FM?
Kelsey: You can find out what to do by visiting ktru.org and our shiny one day old website, savektru.org.
Spinning Indie: Anything else you want to add?
Kelsey: To all those listeners out there who are devastated to hear that their morning commute or their work day won't have the same KTRU spirit, please support us in our efforts to convince these administrations that trading a cultural institution for a few million dollars isn’t something that Houston will take lightly.
Good luck to Kelsey and everyone at KTRU. And, I second her suggestion that fans of college and independent radio let their voices be heard before it's too late.
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