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Sep 182010

I’m not going to say I told you so. Vanderbilt Student Communications under the leadership of Chris Carroll wants to sell its FM license and move exclusively to internet radio. (Official VSC press release.)

This doesn’t surprise me. Carroll has already shutdown two student radio stations in his career. The situations are strikingly similar:

The “bomb” at Tulane was a six-week deadline to fix years of neglect. The ultimatum was given one week before finals and coincided with the dismissal of all non-affiliate deejays, people who had been at the station for years. According to many, these deejays were the most knowledgeable members of the staff and their dismissal made the deadline that much harder.

Both Tulane and USC radio staff said Carroll only encouraged students who had an agenda similar to his own. In both cases, students seen as Carroll’s “hand-picked” candidates lost, and Carroll behaved in such a way after the elections that made students believe he was acting out of malice and spite.

At both stations, station managers claimed that Carroll did not communicate his concerns to them until he dropped a “bomb” which forced them to resign, and which led to the dismissal of the executive staff by Carroll.   — “Force behind WUSC shutdown pulled similar coup at Tulane” by Alex Todorovic

The community-DJ cap of last year seemed like the first step of something far more insidious. Selling the FM license is the next logical step before a complete station shutdown. The VSC board cited that its main reason for pursuing a sale was a lack of student listenership. But then board member Mark Wollaeger contradicted that statement in this Nashville Cream article. What is the main motivation? Money, of course.

So why would a station shutdown seem imminent after selling the FM license? I was chief engineer at my college radio station WIDB. We didn’t have an FM license (still don’t). We broadcast through the campus television network and, starting in the mid-90s, through the internet. The lack of the license was the main cause of the station’s many problems, and it was apparent to everyone who worked there. During my tenure, WIDB never had enough DJs to fill its schedule and suffered from low DJ attendance. Advertisers didn’t want to bother with a non-radio radio station. WIDB would do nearly anything to get what WRVU casually wants to toss away.

WIDB has learned to survive as a non-FM station because they’ve been that way from the beginning. WRVU doesn’t know what they’re in for. First, you can kiss community, alumni, and faculty DJs goodbye. The primary reason for getting a show on WRVU is the audience that an FM license guarantees. Next, student DJ enrollment will dramatically decline. The VSC likes to maintain that students come to WRVU for radio education. In reality, they come for the same reasons the non-student DJs come — exposure. And while the board is correct in stating that radio will eventually whither, the sea change is still at least 10 years away. Even if all cars were suddenly equipped with internet radios tomorrow, WRVU still wouldn’t be able to keep its market share as internet only. Think about it. When you scan through FM, you have a few dozen options at best. Internet radio has no such limits. Only the absolute best will have any chance of gaining market share. WRVU is selling its golden goose.

After the DJs leave and the audience dwindles, the VSC board will cite lack of student interest and shutdown WRVU. And they won’t even have the integrity to admit the shutdown was due to the FM license sale. Earlier, I said WRVU didn’t know what they were in for. Let me append that. The VSC board likely knows exactly what it’s in for. This could be all part of a plan. Step 1: Community-DJ cap. Step 2: FM license sale. Step 3: Station shutdown. This would feel far more conspiratorial if it hadn’t already happened twice.

WRVU has a strong community presence, but I have to begrudgingly admit that the VSC board is correct when they say WRVU is not a community station. It is a college station. The sale could actually turn out to be a positive thing for the community if the license went to a true community station. WRFN Radio Free Nashville is the station that most fits that profile. But how likely would they be to get it?

I spoke with WRFN programmer and board member Scott Sanders about the sale. Scott is speaking as an individual and does not necessarily represent the views of WRFN. He had this to say:

WRFN will pursue this as much as a non-profit in this day and age can. Which is to say, not very hard. We do a great job of keeping a low power station on the air but to fork out millions would take a winning lottery ticket or a deal with the devil. It would take someone helping us with extremely deep pockets and that person would most likely need a return of investment at a timeframe that would be impossible to keep without ad revenue and other streams of income. WRFN is more about community building than profit taking.

The license would probably be a separate entity, if for some reason the universe plopped it into our possession. WRFN, as a non-profit corporation would most likely not be able to acquire the license and operate under it without selling ad time (the main revenue stream of radio). This would mean that we would have to set up a totally different corporation to operate a station under that license since non-profit organizations have strict guidelines to follow.

Now, it may not be realistic, but I can envision a community run, community supported station like WRFN (or even under our 501c3). It would be a huge undertaking but would be a really cool Kickstarter idea. People in Nashville that are interested could donate amounts to buy the license and the same people would then use truly democratic procedures to operate a radio station. Pipe dream I know, but it would be a great coup against the powers that want to monetize and materialize everything they see.

If the FM license is put up for sale, what will the buyer competition be like?

It’s hard to say what the competition will be like. As you already know, radio stations are having to cut jobs on all sides: mostly on air DJs. They automate just about everything at full power commercial stations now. So again it would have to be some deep pockets that buy it. I don’t think there are any local media companies that would have a shot compared to the big ones like Cumulus or Clear Channel but I think a smaller media company would be more interested than one of the media giants because a smaller corporation might want a presence where they have none. Despite the strong influence of satellite radio and internet radio, competition will still be strong because there is no more room for full power stations in the Nashville market or any other major market for that matter and that rarity makes it valuable. I could see a company snatching up the license, building a brand and an advertising base and then selling the station for a profit to a larger conglomerate.

All that said, Vanderbilt would be best off keeping the license and using it, though I think as a non-commercial station they should be more community involved. That’s just my personal opinion. Radio is not dead and it is still a very viable and egalitarian medium that people still use concurrently with other types of media.

As the Nashville Cream article reported, Radio-Info.com speculates that the buyer could be contemporary Christian conglomerate K-Love parent Educational Media Foundation. If not them, then the buyer will be someone with deep pockets, as Scott Sanders suggested. The last thing Nashville needs is another Christian or Country station.

If you want to express your disapproval, you can write to the VSC board at the following address, but VSC has already proven that they don’t listen to community members. They ignored the vast popular consensus that the community DJ cap was a very bad idea. If anyone has the power to affect this decision, it is the students. Guys, its in your hands.

VSC Board of Directors
2301 Vanderbilt Place
VU Station B 351669
Nashville, TN 37235-1669

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