Wednesday, February 23, 2005

THE LOWELL CONNECTION. Would Greater Boston be better off if WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) were run by Boston University students? Of course not. Former general manager Jane Christo had the insight that the station could serve the entire community with news and information programming. As commercial radio increasingly gave up on any notions of public service and localism, 'BUR grew into a vital media resource.

So it was with some mixed feelings this morning that I read Greg Gatlin's account in the Boston Herald of the battle over the UMass Lowell student radio station, WUML (91.5 FM). According to Gatlin, the university, having tried and failed with a morning show produced by the Lowell Sun, is now seeking to expand its non-student offerings, with Lowell Spinners baseball games and - get this - possibly a program to be hosted by Christopher Lydon. Lydon, of course, was fired by WBUR in 2001 in the midst of an ugly public showdown with Christo.

"Help Save Your Station" is the message on the WUML website. The statement, which urges students to contact university administrators, says in part:

This decision was made without any input from the students who run WUML, and have done so for the past 52 years. Our radio station is funded through the student activities department, whose funds come from student fees.

Student fees shouldn't be used to fund the university's ambitions for a radio station with broader reach. On the other hand, a radio station - particularly one not owned by Clear Channel or one of the other big chains - is a precious community resource. I'm sympathetic to the students, but they're not the only ones affected by this.

The university has something that is very difficult to get: a license from the FCC. There ought to be a way for that license to benefit the residents of Greater Lowell as well as the students at UMass. And wouldn't it be great for Lydon to be back on the air? With Christo gone, it's not inconceivable that a syndicated Lydon show could be picked up by - yes, WBUR.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dan,

I'm not sure I agree with you on the role of university radio stations.

If schools use their FCC licenses to operate the public service-type station you adore, then what becomes of college radio? Where will students get a chance for air time? Where will students get a chance to manage a station?

Don't the future Jane Christos and Christopher Lydons need a place to cut their teeth before graduation day?

And isn't the reason the FCC makes licenses available to universities for educational/training purposes?

WBUR is a success and plays an important role in Boston but in its current format is actually an abuse.

Your real beef is with the economics of the current radio industry which makes it impossible to get an FCC license. That's the change you need to advocate for, not the theft of more college stations.

Anonymous said...

Students can, and always will, get a chance for airtime & management at WERS, Emerson College's station. Or at WRHU, Hofstra University's station. There will always be at least a few communications colleges out there and they will have stations where students are tightly integrated into operations & management.

For that matter, there are several students who work/work-study/intern at WBUR. Do they get to go on the air and play whatever music they want? Of course not...but they wouldn't get to do that at any radio job they'd get out in the real world anyway. The current format of WBUR allows them to work and learn in world-class facilities working along side some of the best people in public radio.

The argument that college stations need to stay student-run and student-DJ'ed because that's where they'll learn about the radio industry is completely flawed because about 90% of prototypical "college stations" operate in the exact opposite of how commercial and public-radio stations work. Name ONE commercial station (or pubradio station) that operates on an all-volunteer staff with a budget of less than $50k annually that has block programming (or freeform). Even Pacifica Radio stations have paid employees.

As for the music, the free-form-ish programming style of college radio is doing quite nicely on the internet these days. For that matter, the internet & podcasting is where a rapidly growing percentage of college students is doing their listening. Do a poll on any college campus and see what percentage actually listens to the campus station...if it's more than 5% I'd be amazed.

Anonymous said...

Do we know that WUML will continue to be funded by student fees? I agree it's in poor taste use student fees to fund a station with little or no student involvement. WBUR doesn't get funded by student fees, after all.

I imagine the Herald readers would point out that while WUML's budget comes from student fees....their rent, utilities, electricity, telco/internet, etc all come from our tax dollars. :-)

efg said...

Dan there's a conflict inherent in your comments about WUML.

Yes, the station should provide a *local* community service, whether local is defined as the student community at the University or the Greater Lowell area.

Having said that, I'm not sure our old friend Chris Lydon even knows where Lowell is. He would doubtless use his on-air time to bring in, and ask thoughtful questions of, authors, newsmakers and politicians of statewide and national repute. How this serves the largely poor, substantially non-English-speaking Greater Lowell population isn't clear to me.

Anonymous said...

My name is Nate Osit, and I'm the General Manager of WUML at UMass Lowell. I know that you've written favorably about us in the past, especially during the whole Lowell Sun fiasco. But I was concerned when I read your article today. We are fully aware of the effects media consolidation is having on local radio, and have done our best to provide the Greater Lowell community with valuable, relevant information. We have over 40 hours a week of local community programming, serving the Cambodian, Indian, Greek, French, Spanish, Brasilian, Armenian, and Portugese communities. We have always been dedicated to serving all the unserviced here in Lowell. Recently, we began developing a program to incorporate the radio station into a service learning program at the University, which would help connect the school and the community through non-profit and community work.

We at WUML believe that these programs, and our plans for the future, present far more benefits to the local community than any NPR programming ever could. WBUR already reaches us here, so why would we want to take time away from
students and the community to broadcast more? It just doesn't make sense. Thank you for your sympathy, and I hope you can tune in to WUML to hear our student and community programming.

Anonymous said...

Dan:
You and others should have droped the Lydon name as a potential host at WBZ. The station seemingly is being programed with a collection of fillins.
Supposedly David on his death bed asked that P.Sullivan be his successor. Perhaps that was Brud's last attempt at mordant humor. Or maybe he wanted to be forever compared in the light of mediocrity?
Anyway, I would love to have had Chris as a replacement but it probably isn't possible in these times. People don't want to be good.
I see WBZ as a Porche motoring down the highway on underinflated tires. What a waste of 50k watts.

Anonymous said...

Deekay, doesn't BU have a student radio station in WTBU? If BU big-times WUML, perhaps UMass-Lowell could get new frequency and broadcast on a weaker signal?

Anonymous said...

Re: WTBU - I am an alum of WTBU (Clsas of 1998) and was Technical Director there for 2.5 years. It's a "carrier-current" station, (which is a bit of a misnomer) which means it broadcasts on AM by injecting a signal into a building's electrical grid and the wires re-radiate the AM signal. It's a building-by-building means of broadcasting...the signal barely reaches 15ft outside on the street. There's also a similar FM system in the two biggest BU dorms, and finally there's a webcast - which is the most common way people listen.

While at WTBU I also worked at WBUR as a work-study student in the production team...actually running the mix board on the mid-morning shift. I mention that just to show that students CAN have important roles at WBUR if they work hard at it.

Anyways, WTBU had virtually no listenership, no budget and virtually no oversight. It wasn't a great way to learn radio, but it was certainly hands-on; you got out what you put in. Unfortunately, my experience was that, of the 150+ students involved in WTBU every semester, about 5-10 of them were really self-motivated enough to get something out of WTBU. The rest had fun, but they were essentially "playing in the radio sandbox".

To my way of thinking, that's not really a bad thing. Unlicensed-but-legal stations like WTBU are good for that sort of thing...you can have lots of fun, be "on the air" with your friends listening, but without all the political guilt of having a 1000 watt FM license and thousands of people screaming that you're pissing it away.

Plus I will wholeheartedly attest that you DO NOT need a licensed FM station to learn about radio. If the school is willing to invest in maintaining equipment and providing oversight & training classes, even a webcast-only station can be a great training platform. Art Institute of New England (formerly MassCommRadio) is a great example of this.

If UMass Lowell is going to end the current paradigm at WUML, I would encourage them to create a webcast-only station that's closely tied to the new public radio venture so as to continue providing a learning experience for the student body.

- Aaron Read

P.S. There are a LOT of public radio (not just NPR) news/talk programs that are pretty good and yet aren't aired on WBUR or WGBH (or WUMB for that matter). Just browse www.prx.org and you'll see what I mean.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure Chris would want to be on WBZ...I remember hearing after he did that two-week stint on WTKK that he kinda chafed at the long & frequent commercial breaks...and at the overall style of commercial talk radio.

But you've got a point - Lydon on WBZ would be pretty sweet from a listener's perspective.

efg said...

Bravo to Nate Osit!

Exactly what a community public radio station is supposed to do.

I hope the UML Trustees (or whatever subset of trustees and admin) that control the license and fund the station are paying attention.

Anonymous said...

Aaron, good post on wtbu. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

It's official, at least according to the Lowell Sun. The Spinners ARE moving to WUML, leaving WCAP. They will be professionally called (not by students). And Christopher Lydon will be airing a daily evening show on WUML. The online article doesn't mention it, but apparently Mary McGrath will be coming with Chris, and the show will be produced out of WGBH for now, but will move to WUML by 2006.

http://www.lowellsun.com/front/ci_2584996

- Aaron Read

Anonymous said...

I used to volunteer at this station and know how the place works.

WUML it is run as a student club by-and-for the students. Original programming drops off dramatically during Winter and Spring break, Summer, midterms and finals.

The students continues to take credit for the community and ethic programs when in fact not a single one of these programs is produced by a student. The while the local citizens who work hard to put these programs together are considered guests and cannot even vote at WUML elections.

When I encouraged various Student Directors to take station responsibilities seriously invariably the excuse was that “we’re just a college club” and “we are just playing music for our friends in the dorms".

Maybe it time the WJUL student club seriously consider going to a "carrier-current" station or on the internet while you have a chance to bargain for university resources to make the move.

A few months ago I spoke to a high ranking official at the University who told me that the student directors know their club culture is on the way out at WUML. UMASS plans to create a communications major around the station. The student’s talk about losing an “opportunity” when the University is turning the station into a professional organization where students can get an education and real skills they can put on a resume, not some place where you hang out and eat free pizza every Wednesday.

Domenic

Anonymous said...

Domenic,

What a disappointment it was to read your comments on this article and the issue at hand. The two words "sour grapes" come to mind, and I'm certain you know why.

While the students don't host the ethnic shows of which you speak, they responsibly set aside a generous amount of time that they could be using for more student programming to serve the greater community. Wisely, the students turn to the folks who know how to host such shows best in order to make ethnic shows a richer experience for the listeners. And when hosts of these ethnic shows need time off, students step up to the plate and volunteer to fill in as best as they can.

And just because these community members can't vote does not mean that they're left out when it comes to taking active leadership roles such as directorships, where they can have some sway, or at least some say, when it comes to what the students are deciding to do. And since you left the station, a community member organization has been formed that the students have a great deal of regard for, knowing just how much they can learn from these hard working citizens of which you speak.

And you know full well it was never the WUML students' intention for there to be a lack of voting priveleges for non-students, and that it's self-serving of you to besmirch them for a university policy they couldn't control if they wanted to. It is a rule that ALL organizations on campus have to protect the interests of the students, as it should be at a university. You've been told this more than once, both by students and administration alike.

Student directors DO, and always HAVE taken station responsibilities seriously. That's why the station has thrived for 52 years now as a student-run organization. Not doing things the way *you* thought they should be done does not equate to not taking station responsibilities seriously. The "excuses" you cite were the polite, non-combative responses you got from students who felt you were being unreasonably pushy. From updating and maintaining station equipment to being a model student organization, you saw plenty of students diligently carrying out the responsibilities of WUML, and you saw it well before there was any outside threat hanging over the students' heads, and it didn't take any encouragement from you, or anyone else, to get the students to do these things. And while there will always be students who host shows just so their friends can hear them, not only is that not a crime, but you knew plenty of students who served a greater purpose with their shows.

Including me.

I have nothing against "professional organizations". But they belong in the "professional world". Not in a learning instution. Get it through your head.

The WUML experience as it stands DOES give the students real, valuable skills and an education that can't be beat. Describing it as "club-culture" is an insult, especially coming from someone like you who knows better. The station was built by the students, has been maintained by the students, and it belongs to the students, and whether that serves you personally or not as a disgruntled former station member is not at the heart of the issue at hand, and you know it.

And how dare *you* paint a picture of WUML as a bunch of students just sitting around and eating pizza on Wednesdays? As a former station director who now works as a nationally known broadcaster, I can assure you that sitting around eating pizza didn't get me, or any other station alums who have been successful, where we are today.

-- Kristen Kerouac
AP Radio Broadcast Meteorologist

(By the way, it's not anyone's fault but yours that you never had what it would take to move onto bigger and better things than WUML like you hoped you someday would, so you can stop taking out your frustrations stemming from your own personal shortcomings on the radio station now.)

Anonymous said...

There are 2 things you can do when you are associated with an organization that needs reform. You can work from within or leave. After the University started making changes I could no longer stay and fight for the status quo. We just have different opinions. You mentioned: “It is a rule that ALL organizations on campus have to protect the interests of the students”. I think the rules should change. And they are. Finally the questions are being asked: Is Greater Lowell better off with WUML Radio (91.5 FM) run by UMASS Lowell University students? Can the station be better utilized to consistently serve the 2.5 million potential listeners AND provide educational opportunities for the student body? The UMASS Lowell Board of Trustees are the ones who are entrusted with the ~1400 Watt FCC license and they have turned their attention to what is going on at WUML and asking themselves that question.

During my four years at that station I saw plenty of diligent students, like you Kristen, who fulfilled their responsibilities admirably. Now as a working professional and alumni you continue to put together one of the best programs at the station. But I don’t believe the University should leave the station totally in the hands of the students just because there are some good people doing good things.

For every great student who was diligent or professional can I say there was maybe another one who was not so professional? Your recent comment on “Static and Dead Air” “It Should Go Without Saying” at http://forum.wuml.org/viewtopic.php?t=1705 would seem to indicate that things have not changed: “a DJ coming into the studio while i'm on the air,… has been completely inconsiderate and disruptive during my program…on top of that he sits there and insults me” Why didn’t you just go straight to the student program director? Why air your grievances in a public forum when you have a member’s only forum?

You still show up every week, and if you can’t do your program do you still try to get a substitute? What about the other programs? Next week is Spring break. I wonder how many programs are going to be skipped because there is nobody to do them?
I believe a 1400 watt signal should and can be better utilized than the one I saw.


Can the University do better? I think they can. Domenic.