Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Stop 15 - Tennessee's WRVU

Just in time for Spring Break, the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour returns with an all-new virtual trip to a college radio station somewhere in the United States. The aim of this series is to bring to light some of the intriguing radio stations located in both expected and unexpected places in every corner of the U.S.

The 14 college radio stations that I've featured thus far include stations in Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana, Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, West Virginia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, California, Nebraska and Idaho.

This time around, we venture to Tennessee to learn more about the Vanderbilt University station WRVU. They have been on my radar recently, as they've had some controversy brewing over a decision last December to reduce the number of non-student DJs over their airwaves. I was impressed that not only did WRVU General Manager Mikil Taylor reach out to me to see if I'd like to profile his station, but that he also didn't shy away from my barrage of questions about the brouhaha over community DJ involvement at WRVU.

In his interview with me, Mikil explains why they reduced the number of non-student DJs at WRVU and points out the impact that this move has had on their schedule. He also goes into detail about the history of the station, talks about their connection with the local music scene in Nashville, and explains how they bond with another local college radio station (WMTS at Middle Tennessee State University) every year through a kickball competition. On to our interview:

WRVU Control Room
(Photo courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: In December 2009 WRVU placed a cap on the number of non-student DJs on the air. This decision to drop 25 shows hosted by community DJs has sparked criticism by station staff and listeners. Can you explain why a cap was placed on community involvement?

Mikil Taylor: Last fall, the board that owns WRVU, which consists of 5 students and 3 faculty members of Vanderbilt, grew concerned about the amount of airtime that was being devoted to those with no affiliation with the University. By last fall, the number was at about 50 or 60, and growing by 5 or 10 a semester.

Due to the nature of most, although by no means all, community DJs, they have tight schedules and can usually only DJ during the prime spots on weeknights and weekends. The general practice at WRVU was to create a list of "untouchable" shows and place them in their normal spots (that list had grown to about 20), then students and other affiliates, and then community members.

However, since students often have a much freer schedule, many community members would not have spots available to them to DJ when their spots came up. Thus, we moved students to other spots they could do, normally during mid-weekdays, and put the community members in. We broke our own rules in doing that, but it had been the practice since I had been here to get everyone in, in any way possible.

Should I have changed it back to what the rules said? Absolutely, and WRVU now runs that way. This unfortunately led to a few formerly "untouchable" shows losing their timeslots, but at some point we had to face the question as to what was more important: Educating students or providing good non-mainstream music in unfamiliar genres? Considering we are funded mainly by Student Activity Fees and were founded as a learning tool for students, emphasizing students has to be the priority. The board wanted to make sure that happened.

The Board has had a policy in their bylaws since 2003 that no one who wasn't affiliated with Vanderbilt University was to be a regular contributor to any of their publications (This Board also owns the student newspaper). This included a sentence for WRVU, saying they could provide exceptions as they saw fit. Last fall, they essentially changed that sentence to say that they could set a limit on the number of exceptions they could provide, a number that was to be set each year. They asked me for assistance in setting the number, and I failed to do enough research and preparation in arriving at a number. I believe the number 25 is a little low, and I think the increase in shows run by autorotation reflect that. Luckily, this number will be revisited before the fall semester, and I plan on lobbying for an increase.

Essentially, I think the issues boiled down to this:

- The board wanted to emphasize students, and feared that having over half of the DJs at WRVU be unaffiliated with Vanderbilt was crowding out students. In addition to the crowding out of times, they also felt that potential student DJs were discouraged by the number of older DJs at the station. Considering our funding, they did not want to do anything to discourage student participation.

- The drastic increase in community participation was going to eventually lead to a cap of some sort, and the board felt that now was a good time.

- WRVU is the only organization on campus that allows those not affiliated with the University to have access to buildings after-hours. The board felt the number given that privilege posed a security risk, especially given how little they knew about them. They have since began to collect more information about community DJs, including a copy of their drivers license just in case anything goes wrong.

I have talked to a few board members, and they are certainly open to the possibility of changing the policy next semester. However, there will need to be really good evidence and reasoning behind any proposal. I am currently in the process of gathering historical data to support our case.

WRVU Office
(Photo Courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: What role do community and student DJs play at the station today?

Mikil: As per VSC bylaw, WRVU is entirely run by undergraduate students. Djs can be undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, faculty/staff, or community members. Even though we are run by students, we get a lot of help from all the Djs. There are a lot of people who know just about everything about the industry and help us tremendously when we try to plan stuff. The contacts, knowledge, and experience many of these people have is a great source of knowledge to draw from.

In addition, some of the old e-staff members are still at the station and are always there to help through a bind. In bringing non-students into the station to interact with the students, I think that WRVU is one of the best stations in the country. We're not overrun and ruled by people with an unspoken power like some stations that allow non-students; we're run by students. I like that, and I think it makes WRVU consistently changing. We don't have to worry about commercial considerations, so we play whatever we want.

There's something to be said for continuity and having a recognizable schedule or sound, but we're in college and don't have to consistently worry about that to stay afloat. Our Djs are very sympathetic to that mission, so we get 6am punk rock, a schedule that seems to do a squaredance, and that great feeling that you get when you drive down the road, flip on the radio to hear a show you don't recognize, and be blown away by the quality of the staff here.

I think one thing that's been lost in all this hubub is that there are still 25 fantastic community DJs at WRVU, in addition to the 70 or so students, faculty members, and alumni also doing great shows. It's tough to find ways to get everyone to interact outside of their shows, but we're trying a few ways. I think that's one of the biggest challenges of a station like this: How do you get everyone to stay and talk to one another and do more than their two hours and leave? It's a question I hope we can answer.

We get a lot of volunteers, student and otherwise, for some of our special events around Vanderbilt. One of my particular favorites is called "WRVU on the Wall", where we sit outside the cafeteria and blast music for an hour. It's open to any DJ who wants to do it, and we've got a bit of a waiting list to run them. It's a really cool shift from the dark windowless studio to being outside in 70-degree weather playing for people who can show their appreciation right there. We've had a pretty great reaction toit from students, many of whom didn't even know we existed.

WRVU (Photo Courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: How did WRVU decide which DJs/shows to eliminate? Were any of them long-running programs?

The executive staff of WRVU, which is made up of students, sat down in December and put together a list of shows we recommended to stay at WRVU. We considered length of time at WRVU, type of music played, how helpful the DJ was (i.e. showing up at station events, programming CDs, generally making our lives easier), and other things. We submitted the proposal to the board, and most of our recommendations were accepted.

Anybody who was there can tell you that it was not an easy process. There really wasn't anyone who applied that wasn't entirely qualified. It sucks having to turn away so many great Djs, all of whom could do great shows. In the end, it was a case of having 50 or 60 great applicants and only 25 spots.

Spinning Indie: Has it been easy to fill the eliminated shifts? If not, are there plans to bring back any former DJs?

Mikil: We had an increase of about 10 unfilled hours as a result of board's decision, mostly in the middle of the day during the week, and some late-night shifts. We can't bring back any former DJs until a DJ on the list decides to leave WRVU or the board tells us we can go over 25 community Djs. They have put off reconsidering the number until the end of the summer. We're really sad to see a lot of these Djs go, and are working towards a good solution, as I mentioned before.

One of the main hopes is that these spots will be filled with more students. I think we've done a great job of increasing student awareness about WRVU this last year. We had about 30 students train last semester, and I think we're at about 20 right now.

Spinning Indie: I've heard that radio at Vanderbilt dates back to the 1950s. Can you tell me a bit about the station's history and/or some interesting bits of trivia about WRVU?

Mikil: We're extremely lucky to have the founder of the station as a current DJ, nearly 60 years after he started broadcasting from his dorm. His name is Ken Berryhill, and his show (Ken's Country Classics and The Old Record Shop) runs Mondays 12-2pm. Here's an interesting story about how it all got started, so long ago.

Also, the guy who wrote "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" used to be a Music Director here in the 70's. I don't know whether to be proud or slightly ashamed. We actually have a lot of music people who used to work at WRVU still around in Nashville, like the General Manager of Lightning 100, the local adult-contemporary station. As far as commercial stations go, it's about as good as it gets, so we're pretty happy to have that tie-in.

WRVU Music Library
(Photo courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: Do you have music in your collection dating back to the early years of the station? Any favorite gems?

Mikil: I've never combed through the vinyl collections, but it looks like we've sold off most of our old music in favor of the new, especially the vinyl. We don't have very much space to store music, so we have to do periodic clean-outs of the library to keep new stuff flowing in. That, combined with the lack of any one studio location for the last 50 years and occasional water damage, looks to have reduced our old collections to very little.

Spinning Indie: Does WRVU still add vinyl? How big is your collection of vinyl and do DJs embrace it?

Mikil: We have some vinyl, although we've sold off most of it, since we just don't have enough space to hold it all. All we have left are some blues and hip-hop. We do get some vinyl, and add it on occasion, but it's nothing compared to the torrent of CDs we get. It's tough to find DJs willing to play vinyl, although there are always those who won't play anything but that.

Prepping for WRVU CD Sale
(Photo courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: Are you guys set up to add digital releases?

Mikil: We're currently working towards doing that. We are adding a lot of our music library into a digital archive. However, our system may or may not support digital releases, because of some strange rules governing the software. Like many things here, it's a work in progress.

WRVU Rotation CDs
(Photo courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: Are there any specific rules about the music that gets added to your stations? Are DJs required to play anything in particular? Is there anything they aren't allowed to play?

Mikil: We require about 2/3rds to 3/4ths of Djs to play music from our new rotation, which consists of the music we get sent. The number of songs a DJ is required to play generally depends on how long they've been here, and ranges from 3 to 7 per hour. There's about 50-100 CDs or more in there, so people can have a lot to choose from. We try to add music from a host of different genres, from indie to metal to blues to folk to rock. We also require all rotation shows to play at least one local artist per hour, to promote Nashville's music, and to let people know that Nashville isn't just country. We get a lot of great music made here, and WRVU does what it can to showcase that.

Spinning Indie: What's the longest running show/DJ at the station?

Mikil: I think Ken Berryhill can officially be considered the first WRVU DJ, since he sowed the seeds over 50 years ago. Even at his age, his voice is just perfect for the radio. Listening to his show brings you back into the days of old-time radio. You can actually catch a copy of his latest show on by clicking on Archived Audio and finding "Ken's Country Classics" and "The Old Record Shop."

WRVU Production Studio
(Photo courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: Do you have any specific programs/specialty shows that are unique to WRVU or stand out as being different from anything else on radio?

Mikil: Being the country music capitol of the world, we get some fantastic country shows here, like the aforementioned Ken Berryhill-run programs, Hipbilly Jamboree, and the Honky Tonk Jukebox. We also have a really cool show called Nashville Jumps, focusing on Jump blues. A few blues shows (Spoonful, the Sky is Crying, and The Delta Groove), Metal shows (The Gauntlet and Out Ov The Coffin), and Punk shows (Loud Love, Misplaced Tracks, etc). A Liberal talk show that's followed by a conservative one run by students, and then later in the week are two sports shows run by students.

I particularly like Sacred Hymns, which is a fantastic collection of Gregorian chants and the like. Sound of the Bayou (cajun), Colombian Party Cartel (Colombian music), and Viva VAIA (Brazilian!), just to name a few.

If I absolutely had to pick some favorites, these would be in that list:

Nashville Jumps (a description of his genre can be found here).

Liberadio (Liberal talk radio, always interesting to hear in the home of the National Tea Party Convention).

Sacred Hymns. (His description: A unique program featuring Eastern Orthodox Christian Liturgical chant and acapella singing as the expression of an ancient Judeo-Christian Liturgical Tradition of nearly 3000 years combining Beauty and Worship.)

I could probably go on and on, but for the sake of my sanity (and my spring break), I'll leave it at that.

Spinning Indie: What role do you guys play in the local music scene in Nashville?

Mikil: We promote local shows, play local music, encourage our Djs to bring in local artists to interview and promote. Many of our Djs work closely with local musicians here, and we're always trying to bring in more local talent. We also require most of the shows here to play music by local artists during their show. Considering how easy it is for a local band to be played on WRVU, I'm surprised we don't get more submissions. We could probably do a better job of promoting all that.

Spinning Indie: Tell me a bit about the local college radio scene and how you've connected with folks from other stations nearby.

Mikil: There aren't many nearby "college radio" stations. There are a few stations run from colleges, but we mainly hold the banner of college radio for Nashville. We love WMTS, which is about an hour south of Nashville at MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University), but it doesn't reach all the way up here. We play them in kickball each year, and are currently scheduling the next game for the next few weeks. We're currently ahead in the all-time standings 2-0, and are hoping to increase our win total soon. Recently, to my happy surprise, Belmont University in Nashville just recently reached out to us, as they're looking to restart their internet radio station soon. We'll be doing what we can to make that happen.

Spinning Indie: Is there anything else you want to share about WRVU?

Mikil: WRVU is one of the most powerful college radio stations situated in one of the biggest music cities in the world. Despite this, we are not affiliated with any broadcast school. At many colleges, this would mean that WRVU was underfunded and consistently in danger of being sold off. We're extremely lucky to have a very supportive university and governing board. We never
have any substantive trouble with money nor are we in danger of going away any time soon.

The lack of a broadcast school means that WRVU can concentrate on students and music, without having to create a structure similar to any other station. We don't promise anyone a job at another station, so we don't have to be like any other station. I think that frees us up to do so much more, and to play some fantastic music. I'm not alone in remembering my first time listening to WRVU very fondly. After listening to nothing but the 12-song rotations of most stations around Nashville, I was very happy to find WRVU. It would be rare to hear the same 12 songs in a week here, let alone 30 times a day.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

it's a big shame when stations limit the involvement of community members. DJs from around the community tend to run better shows than undergraduate students in my experience; generally they are more likely to have broader taste in music and are more receptive to "digging deep" and exploring the station library (as opposed to being told what to play by Pitchfork, et al).

i've worked at KALX at UC Berkeley and WSBF at Clemson University and my favorite shows at both were run by community members (shout out to 45 RPM, Lou Guru, & Dollar Bin at KALX and Joe Della-Ferra & Mike Simmons at WSBF).