Most any night, a Nashvillian can venture onto the neatly managed lawns of the Vanderbilt campus and hear anything from a talk by internationally renowned scholars to a Survivor alum discussing racial stereotypes. But the one facet of Vanderbilt that is most easily, most often and most widely heard outside the confines of West End/Hillsboro/Blakemore is the school's radio station, WRVU 91.1 FM. It's an institution in the local music scene. No other Vanderbilt program reflects and shapes Nashville's cultural landscape the way 91 Rock does, or involves the surrounding community to the same degree.
So many Nashvillians were shocked to hear that, as of spring semester 2010, the station would be cutting that community participation in half.
On Nov. 11, the Scene received an email sent to the station's listserv by Mikil Taylor, the Vanderbilt student who serves as WRVU general manager. The station has always occupied a unique position in Nashville radio. Its loose, noncommercial format allows it to play music that can't be heard anywhere else in Music City—anything from local punk/noise bands starved for exposure to 75-year-old blues and gospel recordings. Its staff is just as unconventional. Its hosts have ranged from Ken Berryhill, a septuagenarian country-music enthusiast, to a Spanish grad student turned honky-tonker named Cowboy Anton. Even on Vanderbilt's rarefied soil, a compelling cross-section of the city has passed through 91's doors, from rap kids to civic leaders.
Most of the time, the station has managed to fulfill its chief purpose—to provide training and enrichment for VU students—while opening the slots they don't fill to community (or "non-affiliate") DJs. Those DJs traditionally provide some of the station's best programming, such as Randy Fox's Hipbilly Jamboree honky-tonk show or Mary Mancini and Freddie O'Connell's influential public-affairs call-in Liberadio(!).
That's why it came as a loud needle scratch when Taylor's email announced that the board of Vanderbilt Student Communications—the independent body that owns WRVU and other campus media properties—had decided by a vote of 7-1 to limit the community DJs' involvement to just 25 per semester, or roughly half the current number. Whether they'd been on 91 Rock for a day or a decade, community DJs who wished to be considered for the remaining slots were instructed to apply by Dec. 4.
The announcement sent shockwaves through the WRVU community. An entry posted that day on the Scene's music blog Nashville Cream ("Number of WRVU community DJs capped at 25," Nov. 11) amped up the tremors when Taylor explained his decision by email.
"There has never been a guarantee for any community DJ's participation at WRVU, under the previous or current board rule," Taylor wrote. "The board has always made some exceptions for participation at WRVU, unlike any other Vanderbilt student media operation, to allow for some community participation. This change only puts a cap on the number of exceptions they can make."
Nevertheless, irate listeners, musicians and DJs all but drowned him out with invective, quickly pushing the ensuing thread past 100 comments. Their outrage was swift but not always deft. One commenter called Taylor a "kid on a power trip." Another referred to VSC board members simply as "fuckheads." Others called for a boycott of the station and an upcoming benefit concert at The End.
"I'm very excited to listen to more students stumbling through PSAs, mispronouncing every other word, talking too much, overplaying the latest Pitchfork sensations, and generally sucking balls," fumed a poster named Ryan. "Thanks, WRVU!"
But while some comments veered into ad hominem abuse, the emotions were real. They reflected genuine concern on the part of many in Nashville who felt the station would be irreparably harmed. Elsewhere, community DJs who did not want their names drawn into the debate (some out of fear of losing their shows) expressed their anxiety. In Twitter updates, several used the word "nauseous."
Faculty VSC board member Mark Wollaeger, an English professor who voted for the cap, braved the churning Cream comments section to defend the decision. "The primary mission of the station is to provide an opportunity for Vanderbilt students to learn how to be DJs," he wrote. "Does this mean that when push comes to shove that the training priority is more important than gaining new listeners and pleasing those already out there? To my mind, yes, absolutely."
Much of the current panic, however, involves precedent—both distant and recent. In 2003, the VSC board removed all community DJs from the station. One of those who lost his slot temporarily then was Doyle Davis, currently host of the revered D-Funk show and co-owner of Grimey's on Eighth Avenue. Back then, he says, the rationale revolved around liability.
"The board didn't know who the non-affiliated DJs were. They didn't even have names or contact info on some of them," Davis says. He notes that the information was readily available then, as now, from the show applications required of community DJs—"but that's what we were told. So we filled out applications and provided some detailed personal info like social security numbers. So I was a bit suspicious when liability issues were used again this time."
Many shared Davis' suspicions. Not only did the re-emergence of the liability issue seem suspect, so too did the sudden and dramatic reduction in community DJs—especially in light of recent events at the station.
On Sept. 1, the popular WRVU show The Best of Bread, hosted by non-affiliates Chris and Greg Crofton, was removed from the air for "violation of WRVU equipment policy." (The Croftons moved a webcam in the studio, against orders not to do so.) At the time, Vanderbilt Director of Student Media Chris Carroll told the Scene that the Croftons' dismissal was simply the result of their violating a zero-tolerance policy and nothing more ("After four years, Chris and Greg Crofton's WRVU show The Best of Bread is toast," Sept. 16).
"Nobody's getting rid of community DJs," Carroll said.
So it seemed odd, if not downright curious, that the VSC board was doing just that, a mere two and a half months later. In his initial email, Taylor instructed anyone with questions to contact Carroll, who is not a voting member of the board. "He knows more than me about this decision," Taylor wrote, "and can probably better answer your questions." Carroll did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Bruce Barry, a Scene contributor and Vanderbilt professor who served on the VSC board from 2005 until June 2009, says that during his tenure he was aware of liability and student/community balance as issues facing WRVU. But he disagrees with the hard cap as a solution.
"I haven't been persuaded that picking a specific number was the way to accomplish these ends while preserving WRVU's unique role as a university and community asset," he wrote in a comment on Nashville Cream. In a separate conversation, Barry said that while he takes exception with their decision, he has "absolute faith" in the board. Of Carroll, Barry says, "He is just phenomenal."
Three days after the VSC board's decision was made public, a group of student, affiliate and community DJs held a meeting. In a small room in Vanderbilt's Sarratt Student Center, Taylor and several board members, including Wollaeger and chair Kevin Leander—a professor of education who cast the sole dissenting vote—fielded questions and testimonials from a tense, concerned audience.
There was anger—some members of the executive staff, the group of students who volunteer their time to run the station, felt they had been unduly bypassed. But there was also bemusement. The new cap seemed to address problems that either didn't actually exist or were already spelled out in the station's rules. Why was the board capping the number of community DJs when there were already open slots in the schedule? Not only aren't students clamoring for those spots, they have to be filled by automatic computerized programming—nicknamed DJ Hal by staffers.
Though Wollaeger said about midway through the meeting that he had not heard any "compelling" reasons to reverse the board's decision, subsequent discussion seemed to raise issues he and the board had not considered. Summer semester, for instance, when many students are away, is much different from a scheduling standpoint than other semesters. A hard cap would give even more time over to DJ Hal while doing nothing to expand student opportunity. Liberadio(!) co-host Freddie O'Connell proposed that a percentage of the overall broadcast schedule, rather than a hard cap on DJs, might be a better way of meting out air time.
In the end, the meeting lasted more than an hour and a half, with most of the DJs staying to formulate a counterproposal—a move suggested by Leander, who added that a plan without some sort of cap on community DJ involvement would not be an option.
The Tuesday after the meeting, Leander said by phone that he thought the meeting had been a good opportunity "for the board to consider a bigger picture." He says he was heartened to see that community DJs were "happy to be engaged" in the training of students.
"While nothing I heard persuaded me that the VSC board had made a substantial mistake," Wollaeger says via email, "I did hear a good deal of useful information about different ways to achieve the same end." Many of those ideas were put into an alternate proposal, and a group of DJs and E-staff have formed a Facebook group, WRVU Listeners Against a Community DJ Cap, to rally public support.
Taylor, the student who touched off the powderkeg, is already busy trying to rewrite the entire episode. "I have come to realize in the last few days that I did not handle the entire situation as I should have," he says via email. "I failed in many aspects of being a leader, mainly by not fully consulting the executive staff and the community DJs before I made the recommendation to the board." But he also seems upbeat about the possibility of reaching a solution amicable to all parties.
"There are many proposals on the table, and we're considering them all in terms of how they help the station and their likelihood of getting passed before the next WRVU scheduling meeting," he says. "A lot is in flux right now, and we're doing what we can to make this right."
Leander says the board will most likely meet again in early December: "I know the conversation isn't over, for sure." Tune in tomorrow.