Tuesday, July 29, 2003

In Lowell, college radio goes corporate. Students, faculty members, and community activists will meet with UMass Lowell chancellor William Hogan and other administrators on Wednesday to protest a contract to turn over 25 weekly hours of programming on the student-run radio station to the Lowell Sun.

Patrick Murphy, music director for WJUL Radio (91.5 FM), estimates that as many as 100 to 200 people may turn out for the meeting, which will begin at 6 p.m. in the multi-purpose room of the North Campus Library.

"This station has been student-run for 50 years, and they came in behind our backs and set all this up without even coming to us first," says Murphy. "This could affect every college station everywhere."

In an age of increasing corporate media concentration, Murphy fears that the relationship with the Sun -- owned by Dean Singleton's Denver-based MediaNews Group -- will lead to the "homogenization" of a station that bills itself as "Real Underground Radio." Murphy also warns that the Sun's involvement may eventually lead to the demise of programs that serve Lowell's ethnic communities, such as Café Latino and Voice of Cambodian Children.

"Is a Cambodian show profitable? Absolutely not. But is it essential and important? Absolutely," says Murphy.

Expressing similar concerns is Victoria Fahlberg, director of One Lowell, a coalition of a dozen immigrant and social-services organizations. She plans to attend the Wednesday meeting to press for assurances that immigrant programming will remain intact, and that the Sun will not be given even more hours as time goes on.

"People thought that before any contract was signed that they would talk to them about it. And that's where people are feeling really uncomfortable -- it's that they feel that their voice wasn't heard, Fahlberg says. "There's a trust issue, I guess, at this point."

But Christine Dunlap, the university's executive director of communications and marketing, who will oversee the relationship with the Sun, says such fears are groundless -- although she concedes that, "in retrospect, I think we should have been talking to the students more than we did."

According to Dunlap and Kendall Wallace, the Sun's president and publisher, the Sun will produce a weekday news show from 5 to 10 a.m. Dunlap calls it "very much like WBZ, but with a Merrimack Valley focus," a reference to Boston's top-rated all-news station. Wallace says it will be a cross between WBZ and public radio, with news, sports, weather, and traffic. There will be no advertising, although Wallace says commercial underwriters will be sought -- an arrangement that will be familiar to anyone who listens to Boston's two big public stations, WBUR and WGBH.

With a range of about 15 to 20 miles, WJUL, with 1400 watts of power, reaches just about all of the Merrimack Valley, Dunlap says.

As for what the relationship will mean for the future of the station, Wallace and Dunlap paint a positive picture: a full-time staff person, whose $40,000-a-year salary will be picked up by the Sun; a new studio, also to be paid for by the Sun, which will most likely be located in Fox Hall, a residence and student-activities center (the Tsongas Arena, an early contender, has been ruled out); and opportunities for internships.

Dunlap insists that the arrangement does not signal any reduction in the university's commitment to community programming on 'JUL, and that the 25 hours a week being turned over to the Sun will not be increased. She does note that a yet-to-be named editorial board of students, faculty, and community representatives may decide to make further changes in programming, but says of the students, "If they're willing to work with us, I honestly believe it will be a better experience for everybody."

The partnership with the Sun, she adds, grew out of talks that began about a year ago, and that coincided with a mandate from the UMass board of trustees to maximize the use of its radio stations at all of its campuses.

Wallace says the Sun has wanted to get into the radio business for some time, and that it may buy a commercial station if the opportunity presents itself. The Sun has set up a nonprofit entity to manage the WJUL show, which will be hosted by a Sun staff member, John Collins, and which could debut in as soon as two weeks.

As for whether the move had its origins in Lowell or Denver, Wallace says, "MediaNews is one of the leading forces in the country for cross-ownership, but they haven't driven this, no. They're aware of the idea, they like it, they think it's a step in the right direction."

It may turn out that what the relationship represents is worse than the reality. As Dunlap notes, the show will be broadcast at a time when most students are "either sleeping or in class." And -- let's be honest -- it could be a boon to Merrimack Valley residents looking for local news and traffic reports at the beginning of the day.

At the same time, though, the Sun program constitutes a serious commercial encroachment by a media conglomerate into college radio -- the closest thing there is to independent radio in the age of deregulation.

Murphy says that WJUL and similar small college stations are about the only place where noncommercial punk, hip-hop, and the like can be heard these days. The Sun agreement would not appear to threaten that, but who's to say what another financially strapped public university might do in league with a media conglomerate?

Murphy rightly observes that this is about a lot more than one show on one station. Indeed, he says, it's about "music and ideas that would otherwise go unheard and that aren't heard anywhere else on the dial."

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