The future of radio in the digital age has been the subject of much debate. But when Vanderbilt Student Communications (VSC), the corporate body that oversees Vanderbilt's beloved college radio station, WRVU-91.1 FM, announced last week that it might sell off the station's broadcast license and shift to online only, the reaction was resolutely analog — and angry.
Last Thursday, the station known to generations of Nashville listeners as 91 Rock shocked fans and staff alike with an announcement dropping the bomb: VSC was considering "the migration of radio station WRVU to exclusively online programming and the sale of its broadcast license." Citing declining revenues (via print ads in the Vanderbilt Hustler, which underwrite WRVU's programming) and a concern for the future viability of all Vanderbilt media, the press release presented the idea as exploration only — i.e., not necessarily a done deal. But those opposed to silencing the venerable station's FM signal couldn't help feel the move was all but finalized, save a buyer and a price.
As they began to mount a counterstrike against the proposed sale, organizers found that the domain names savewrvu.org and savewrvu.com were already taken. Not only were they registered by proxy (meaning that the name and contact of the registrar remain hidden) but they were registered on Sept. 7 — nine days before the VSC announcement. And both sites re-directed to the official announcement page on insidevandy.org, indicating that the VSC board not only had anticipated how the news would be received, they had sought to outmaneuver their opposition by taking away its first move.
At a hastily arranged (and even more hastily publicized) meeting Sunday afternoon – a recording of which was provided to the Scene – VSC board chairman Mark Wollaeger repeatedly referred to an "open-ended process," and urged those in attendance to submit their thoughts through the official channel set up by the VSC. "Impassioned statements will be gratifying to make, I'm sure," he said to a roomful of DJs, student trainees and WRVU executive staff members, "but they're best put on the website."
As for that website, and the savewrvu domains that had been preemptively registered? Wollaeger admitted that was handled clumsily: "If I were you, I would think, 'Those bastards, they're doing this to try to usurp our right to organize,' " he said. But he stressed that the intention of the board was simply to make sure that public discourse reached their inboxes, and that the websites were set up to that end.
Even so — and the doubt in the room was audible — longtime DJ Pete Wilson, of the beloved jump-blues show Nashville Jumps, urged the board to hand over the domain names as a good-faith gesture. And that much seems to have been granted. WRVU student general manager Mikil Taylor says that on Monday VSC handed over control of the domains to "the WRVU staff and friends of the station," and that they were in the process of deciding how to coordinate online efforts. (In addition to the Facebook page, the site www.savewrvuradio.com has been set up by a group opposed to the sale.)
For his part, Taylor says he is "absolutely against" the sale of the FM license. "It will destroy everything," he says. "It will destroy our biggest link to the community." He also says a petition drive on the Vanderbilt campus has drawn broad support for keeping WRVU on the airwaves, and that in just a two-hour period, he collected close to 400 signatures from students opposing the sale.
It remains to be seen what level of outcry will alter the course the VSC has charted, though. With distrust running high, angry staffers and supporters say they've found nothing to cool their suspicions that a sale is pending, and that VSC's call for listener input is little more than a shell game. Wollaeger said Sunday that messages sent through the VSC site (www.vandymedia.com/wrvu) would reach all board members and be considered, but skepticism lingers.
And even if their messages do reach the board, many wonder whether any of them will be taken seriously. In November 2009, the VSC board — after a similar, if more heated, public meeting — said they would consider alternatives to a cap restricting the number of community DJs who were eligible to broadcast each semester. Even after a detailed counterproposal was submitted — a proposal supported by many of the station's staff, both affiliated with Vanderbilt and not — the board upheld its decision.
For many, it's all too easy to connect the dots between this latest announcement and the cap on community DJs last fall. In a comment posted to the Save WRVU Facebook page, former DJ and executive staff member Skye Bacus wrote, "[T]he battle tactic they just executed was brilliantly spot-on. Weaken your enemy, divide it if you can, and then attack when they least expect it." Bacus resigned her position as WRVU music director last December in protest of the community DJ cap.
And as critics of the VSC board see it, there are more dots. A popular target of suspicion among WRVU die-hards is Chris Carroll, director of student media at VSC. 91 Rock supporters have seized upon Carroll's earlier tenure at the University of South Carolina, where he reportedly oversaw the temporary shutdown of college radio station WUSC in 1995. That station is alive and well today on the FM dial. Yet many of those opposed to recent VSC board actions see these developments as steps in a long-planned strategy, with the ultimate dissolution of WRVU as its end game. Carroll did not respond to an interview request.
Even if the board is engaged in an "open-ended process," as Wollaeger says, it's hard to see much of an opening for anyone hoping to keep WRVU on the FM band, where it has been a driving force in the city's club scene since the early '70s. As Wollaeger indicated Sunday, bidding on the WRVU broadcast license is, for all intents and purposes, open. Asked whether the sale of the license could be averted if a donor, or group of donors, were able to pay the station's roughly $15,000 yearly operating costs — effectively paying WRVU's way to keep it on the air — Wollaeger said no.
While the future of WRVU's FM broadcast is very much in doubt, its viability as an Internet-based entity, should the broadcast license be sold, is not much clearer. Even if most Vanderbilt students listen to the station online now, as Wollaeger says surveys indicate, there's no guarantee its other current listeners would stay if it went streaming-only. And WRVU receives piles of free promotional CDs every day, owing to its status as one of the nation's top college radio stations. It's no sure thing that those would continue to arrive if WRVU went off the air. And how would the station pay for all its music then? But free CDs are certainly not all the station — and Nashville — stands to lose.
As one student DJ put it Sunday, "Online is not radio — it's a different medium. So you're getting rid of WRVU, essentially. ... Why do you need this money, if you're not going to have WRVU?"