Rice Prepares to Kill Off KTRU, by Selling It to UH (Updated, Slightly)

Oh, how I wish the line above were a joke, but sadly, it’s not. As the Houston Press reported yesterday, Rice University is about to sell the FCC license and transmitter of much-beloved local radio station KTRU…to the University of Houston, no less, so they can have not one but two stations broadcasting classical music and NPR. Oh, good.

Best part of all? They’re voting on it today, in a Rice Univ. Board of Regents meeting that started at 8:30AM. Fuck.

Chris Gray at the HP emailed around to a bunch of local music-type folks this AM, asking for comments, and the more I typed, the angrier I got. Not sure if he’ll publish any of it, seeing as I’m a long-winded bastard, and I can’t really think of a better way to explain how I’m feeling, so I figured I’d post it here, as well:

I’m utterly and completely appalled, both as a Rice alum (’95) and former KTRU DJ (’92-’97 or so, off and on) and as a member of the Houston community at large. I’ll admit that part of the reason why is a little on the selfish side — I very, very rarely listen to actual radio stations online myself, preferring instead to listen to them on, well, the radio — but beyond that, this feels like a big blow to the culture of both the university and the city.

KTRU is currently one of two truly oddball, off-the-wall radio stations in this town (the other being KPFT), which is a broadcast market saturated with soundalike carpetbagger “mainstream” stations and what sure seems like a ton of
talk radio. People who tune in to KTRU do so to hear music they will very literally never hear on any other radio station in town, not even KPFT. KTRU exposes its audience to music that, while not always their cup of tea, necessarily, dives far beyond the likes of The Buzz or The Box.

I know that every time I listen, I hear something new and interesting, something I’d never run across otherwise, and I get to hear a lot of music most folks don’t to begin with, just by the nature of what I do. While I’ve got no issue with classical music itself, turning KTRU into a fully-dedicated classical station effectively neuters the most creative, boldest radio station we have. KTRU is a station people from other cities encounter and are blown away by when they visit here. With this deal, Houston gets *two* stations playing classical music and NPR; how is that a benefit?

As far as moving the station online, I think that’s simply a ploy by the university administration to sideline the station while seeming to be nice about it: “well, look, guys — we’ll let you keep broadcasting online, so what’s the big deal?” The fact is, however, that moving KTRU off the airwaves will carve the station’s listenership down to a tiny, tiny niche of what it currently is; the chance of some high-school kid stumbling across it on the radio dial and being blown away by, say, The Mountain Goats, will be zero.

In terms of legacy, too, I see this as a slap in the face to all the people out there who spent years, in some cases, working hard to make KTRU the station it is today. I know a large number of former staffers who devoted insane amounts of time to KTRU over the years, laboring for no money and against varying degrees of resistance from the powers that be at Rice…and now they’re going to see the station they worked for and were proud of disappear from the airwaves.

What I’d really like to know is whether or not the university authorities who’ve made this decision even bothered to consult the students and alumni. As an alum myself, I know I didn’t hear about this ’til late yesterday, not even 24 hours before the Board’s meeting; I’d be very curious to hear if they talked with anybody before taking this step, or if they just decided on their own to do it, and screw the students and alumni.

What’s the benefit to the students, in particular? I was a student when I started DJing at KTRU, and it honestly changed the course of my life, expanding my musical horizons far, far beyond what a kid who spent his high school years in rural Central Texas would’ve probably ever listened to otherwise. That’s partly what KTRU is/was for, on the student side, and it kills me to see that go away. And for what? So that UH can be kind enough to offer Rice students “paid internships” at the gobbled-up station? The last time I checked, Rice didn’t even have any kind of Communications or Media majors for that to even benefit — are all the would-be mechanical engineers going to spent their time interning at a classical station, instead?

Whatever happens with this, I’m done with Rice University, now and forever. As an alumnus, I’ve given money in the past when I could, but that ends now. My alma mater won’t see another dime from me.

The worst part of all of it is that I’m not sure this can be stopped. There are people frantically organizing right now — see the Save KTRU Website and another Save KTRU Facebook Group — and I’m definitely going to yell about this as loud as I can and would encourage others to do the same, but in the past the Rice administration has had a history of doing whatever the fuck they want and shrugging off any complaints.

In fact, it might not even be worth it to try to sway the Rice board; the better route to go might be to go after the U of H board, instead. Check here for contact info for folks on both sides. If this ends up happening, folks, all of Houston will be the poorer for it.

UPDATE: I wrote letters yesterday to Rice Univ. President David Leebron, the old Master of my college (who’s now a Dean), the Rice “Giving” department, and anybody else in authority, and got the following form-letter response from Leebron:

Dear Jeremy,

I am writing to let you know that we have reached a preliminary agreement with the University of Houston System to purchase Rice’s 50,000-watt radio frequency and broadcast tower for use by Houston’s local public broadcasting station, KUHF. Rice’s station, KTRU, will continue to operate a Web-based radio station at www.ktru.org.

We made this decision for several reasons. The economic downturn which began two years ago has forced Rice — and virtually all colleges and universities across the country — to make hard choices to prioritize spending and maximize the use of our resources. As we have implemented necessary budget cuts over the past two years, our goal has been to focus on our core missions of teaching and research and, to the extent possible, to avoid layoffs. We have constantly asked, and will continue to ask, how we can best apply our resources to achieve our aspirations.

The KTRU tower stood out as one of the university’s most underutilized resources. In an era when Internet radio is rapidly growing in popularity, it became apparent that the 50,000-watt radio station that broadcasts KTRU’s programming is a valuable but vastly underutilized resource that is not essential to providing our students the wide range of opportunities they need, including media opportunities. In fact, via the Internet, ktru.org can potentially reach a broader audience than ever.

A recent Arbitron report showed that KTRU’s audience was so small that it did not even register in the ratings. Most college radio stations around the country have less than 5,000 watts, and since the late ’90s a number of them have added the online format and moved to online only.

At the same time, KUHF, Houston’s National Public Radio station, was looking for a way to provide both 24-hour all-news and all-classical music programming. Houston is the only major city in the country that lacks these dual services. To fill that gap, the University of Houston System expressed an interest in purchasing Rice’s FM frequency and tower, and we eventually agreed on price of $9.5 million.

The sale must be approved by the UH Board of Regents at its meeting today, and then by the Federal Communications Commission.

Some of the sale proceeds will go toward the cost of the new East Servery, which will be adjacent to Lovett and Will Rice residential colleges on the south campus. This will both provide one of the most desired improvements to the residential experience in the south colleges, as well as help us with the achievement of our overall capital plan within the constraints approved by our board of trustees. We also plan to form a committee including students to provide input on other uses of the proceeds, such as scholarships, improvements to recreational facilities and enhancements to the online station and other student media facilities and programs.

KTRU will continue to serve its campus and external audience via www.ktru.org with its student-managed programs. The Internet already brings KTRU to national and global listeners, and there are opportunities for that audience to grow. Will Robedee, the station’s first general manager, will continue in that role. In addition, the agreement with KUHF provides for paid internships to be offered to Rice students.

KUHF plans to use the additional frequency to broadcast 24-hour classical music and fine arts programming on 91.7 FM; 88.7 FM will become its all-news channel. KUHF will raise funds to pay for the acquisition.

We realize that some loyal fans of KTRU, including alums, may lament these changes. It is important to remember that KTRU is not going away. Fans can still find KTRU’s unique blend of music and programming online. Meanwhile, a greater number of students can benefit from the improvements in campus facilities and offerings made possible by the sale of the broadcast tower.

I also know that some may wonder why they were not included in the decision. As much as I prefer to consult widely and involve all stakeholders in important decisions, this sale required months of complicated and, by necessity, confidential negotiations. My management team and I approached those discussions always with the best interests of our students, faculty and alumni and the future of our university as our highest priorities.

For more information about the KTRU plans, see the story and FAQs on rice.edu.

Thank you, as always, for your support of Rice.

Warm regards,

David W. Leebron

Sorry, Mr. President, but you’re wrong. KTRU is going away, at least in the form it best serves the Houston and Rice communities.

Once it’s shunted off to the online-only ghetto, I predict that DJs will start to drop off the rotation — particularly those DJs who aren’t students but are longtime supporters of the station who give their free time to help out — programs will fall by the wayside, students will be even less willing to pay any kind of blanket tax to support the upkeep the station will still need (boards do need replacing every once in a while, after all, and they’re not cheap), and listeners will drop off in droves. The station will effectively be on life support, and not too long after that, it’ll die. And I sincerely doubt anybody in the President’s office will be particularly sad when that happens.

For what it’s worth, the claim that KTRU doesn’t “register in the ratings” is completely and utterly facetious. To register in the Arbitron ratings, you have to pay Arbitron for the monitoring, then add a special ID tag to the broadcasts. In the past, KTRU has rarely had the budget to pay for Arbitron, and there wasn’t much point in doing so, since the ratings are primarily to help advertisers allocate their ad budgets; why bother? So unless KTRU added that ID tag very recently, Arbitron hasn’t been tracking the station to begin with. See Justin’s comment over here for more on that.

It’s plausible that, knowing the university wanted to sell the station, Leebron and his cohorts could’ve wanted to add the ID tag and see just what listenership KTRU has/had. But who’d be doing the adding? More than likely, it’d be the students who man the station who’d need to do that…and that would’ve been letting the cat out of the bag, I’m guessing. The whole “KTRU has such a small audience it doesn’t even register” is a flat-out lie meant to make the whole palatable as a supposed reallocation of underutilized resources.

Sorry, Mr. Leebron, but you’re still not going to see a solitary cent from me for here on out. Which is sad, since my daughter would dearly love to someday go to the same school her dad went to; I’m not about to pay to send her to an institution willing to bold-facedly lie to and screw its students and alumni.

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8 Responses to “Rice Prepares to Kill Off KTRU, by Selling It to UH (Updated, Slightly)”

  1. Kelsey Yule on August 17th, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    As the current station manager of KTRU, let me assure the world that NO student was involved in any of the discussions regarding this sale. Rice put us up for sale a year ago and no one involved in the managing of the station was notified. I found out a full ten minutes before the Chronicle article came out last night.

    If you support ktru or just the idea that student organizations should be run by students….


  2. Jeff on August 17th, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    While I am sorry to lose a truly independent station like KTRU, I will at least be glad to have a full-time NPR affiliate, something Houston has been lacking for YEARS. I just hate that it came at the expense of KTRU. I was never a big fan of KTRU’s programming and I’ve often bemoaned the fact that Houston didn’t have a more mainstream college radio station – Pitchfork would often listen to KTRU and say, “WTF?” – but KTRU served a niche role and it sucks we’re losing that.

  3. Jeremy Hart on August 17th, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Kelsey — wow, that’s even worse than I’d expected, although I guess I shouldn’t be surprised Rice would make such an underhanded move… :^(

    Jeff — I agree that an NPR affiliate’s great and all, but surely Houston’s airwaves aren’t *that* clogged that UH couldn’t find another frequency/transmitter to purchase. Heck, for a while there it seemed like about half of the radio stations in town were doing badly. Makes me wonder how low a price Rice offered.

  4. Jeremy Hart on August 17th, 2010 at 12:57 pm
  5. Jeremy Hart on August 17th, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    And yes, the latter article basically says the deal’s done. Fuck.

  6. John Dennis on August 18th, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Who reads Pitchfork? I love that KTRU has always bucked the hits.

    Ktru and KPFT were the only things to brag about in Houston.

    Wasn’t the tranmitter donated to them?

  7. SaveKTRU.org » Space City Rock ‘appalled’ on August 19th, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    […] Read the full article at Space City Rock » This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 17th, 2010 at 8:23 pm and is filed under Press coverage. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. […]

  8. Big D on August 31st, 2010 at 11:14 pm

    Although a little late to this blog (didn’t know the site was redone! needed to update my “shows” bookmark), I can’t help but disagree – slightly – with your post. Before I start, I too am a Rice alum and former DJ as an undergrad. KTRU is all too familiar to me, and I’ve had very fond memories of the station.

    I understand KTRU was a huge help for the underground scene since inception. I dig through the vinyl and I’m very impressed with the selection! It is a true gem, which can’t be said about the CD collection. While I was there (and this was 2-3 years ago) the only music KTRU was even playing was boring, long, incoherent, noise driven, static-y crap (for lack of a better term – I’m not sure what the tag for this type of music is), stuff the underground music scene is not represented by WHATSOEVER. This angered me a lot, and when I asked around why we don’t play things college students would actually LIKE to hear (like UT’s radio station), the response was that there were certain members of management (don’t remember names) who kept stuffing our stacks with random noise driven CDs (and when I say noise, it’s literally noise, not Sonic Youth). Consequently, to keep the stacks “updated”, a lot of actually interesting stuff was taken away to make room for this awful music.

    Clueless DJs, like me when I started, were required to play “new” music from a set of 40 CDs that were cycled weekly which contained ~20 static sounding CDs. If 50% of the airwaves pumping out of KTRU was this kind of music, not an eclectic set of indie, pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, blues, world, etc., who would want to listen past 1 minute? Aggregate this with a student body who was used to listening to this kind of stuff whenever they tune in that throughout my four years as an undergraduate people were just apathetic to KTRU. I couldn’t help but agree with this consensus, and this is because of the way KTRU was run during the recent years I attended Rice.

    Don’t get me wrong – I love hearing new bands and new music, and sharing my joy for others. Some of my best memories as a DJ was playing an old vinyl record of a famous band but an unheard gem, and then getting a caller who would thank me for taking him/her back to the 60s! Examples like that, and then the random caller who would ask for the band’s name, really made me feel KTRU was special. That is, until I myself tune into the station and hear noise. It is just too bad that most of the music KTRU was playing in the past few years consisted of things that only fancied a minority, and this in turn brushed away a lot of real underground music supporters.

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