Theft at Rice University!: Another Appalling Casualty in the War on College Radio

200 people gathered on a Sunday afternoon in Houston, in the middle of August, braving a sweltering, unforgiving onslaught of heat (my iThermometer peaked at 110°), absent any real cloud cover or cool breeze. For what reason would a rational group of adults subject themselves to such punishment? In the name of freedom, great strength and endurance can be summoned. In the name of artistic and scholastic integrity, the very same strength can move mountains.

A rally on the campus of Rice University in the academic quad, at the foot of the iconic bronze statue of William Marsh Rice, for whom the school is named, became the scene of an all too tragic and commonplace occurrence today. Current matriculators, some of their educators, alumni of various ages, and a small contingent of community supporters, stood together in solidarity to protest the liquidation of 91.7 KTRU, Rice University’s four-decade old student-run radio station.

The facts in this brutal homicide: University president David Leebron, in clandestine collusions with the board of regents, and without any involvement or even opinions of the students and especially staff of the KTRU station, sold the tower, bandwidth and call sign to the University of Houston for an astounding $9,500,000, almost all of which will be profit. As the new proprietors, U of H will slaughter KTRU in the most barbaric of fashions: they will make it a 24-hour classical music and NPR dumping ground.

Station manager Kelsey Yule was the first to formally address the crowd. Regardless of having never met this woman before, one could sense gloom and despair emulating deep from within. It was similar to the way you can readily detect when a person is in extreme duress. Her pain was real. As was that of other speakers who followed, like former station manager Rachel Orosco, who succumbed to tears more than once.

Program director Joey Yang‘s story resonated with me the hardest. To paraphrase, he invoked the magic of free-format, independent college radio, in that it can expose to a listener, music, and culture that is otherwise unavailable or overshadowed. For the confused teenager made despondent by the average commercial dribble, KTRU — and, indeed, all college radio stations == can become an artistic oasis.

Yang’s story was a near-parallel to my own. I, too, was once a lost denizen, adrift in a sea of crap that makes me nauseous whenever I reminisce on it. Moreover, before my exposure to original student-run radio, I only listened to one style of music, a genre I have dubbed “Bunk Rock” (this includes, but is not limited to: Slipknot, Staind, Sugar Ray, Limp Bizkit, Creed, and others). Thanks to its rich variety in format, KBVR, Oregon State’s college radio station, the first of several I would come to support, expanded the style and types of songs I listened to at exponential rates.

On too many blissful evenings (mostly on drugs) to recount, college radio for me was like hitting random on Winamp. Tune in on Wednesday night to hear the latest in electronica from overseas, or listen to old-school, classic hip-hop in the wee morning hours of any given weekend. The hangover show Sunday mornings was well-prescribed — ambient beats and instrumentals to soothe the alcohol-soaked auras. But the beauty of independent radio, especially when run by the youth of higher institutions, shines brightest when local, up-and-coming artists are given a forum, specifically while being ignored or otherwise excluded from airtime on mainstream outlets. For these seriously skilled individuals, college radio reaches their target audience with precision. How many artists around the country owe their popularity to the many university stations that played their singles and promoted the local gigs? In the wake of the destruction of college radio lays the bloody and battered corpses of the original, shocking, inspiring, delectable local underground music scene.

When Rachel Orosco walked up to the microphone, she was noticeably shaken. Her words echoed the passion of every single member, past and present, of KTRU. This was not simply a case of the university president and the higher ups acting frugally, it went well beyond that. This was theft, fraud, embezzlement, or, for lack of a better term and not to be callous, rape. Webster’s dictionary defines rape as, “an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse.” I’d say that rather succinctly describes what has happened to KTRU and other college radio stations alike in towns all over America.

In a manner more insulting than conciliatory, president Leebron on Monday assured students the financial gain on the sale of the station would go back into the university, specifically for things like food services on campus. Two problems with this:

  1. It’s not the radio station’s job to become profitable in order to fund the university’s lagging, shitty-quality, junk food programs. If money is needed so badly in food services, contract the facilities out to a national franchise (Subway is significantly healthier than cafeteria tripe).
  2. If I believed even for a second this tacit promise by president Leebron to put all the proceeds of the sale back into the school’s constrained budget, well, I’d also have balls gilded gold that weigh as much as a single feather.

After the final speaker had made their impassioned plea, Yule closed the rally by reiterating that today was not the end of a battle, but rather its beginning. She alluded to further rallies planned in the coming weeks. The crowd was led into one last “SAVE KTRU!” chant, and then erupted into magnanimous applause to close the proceedings. As people tend to do at these sorts of events, we did not all disperse at once. KTRU staff was circulating petitions, stickers, and most importantly, positive vibes.

To be fully honest, no one has any delusions that this sale will not be finalized, and that 91.7FM will go the way of such stations like WWGC (West Georgia College, died 2001) or KTXT (Texas Tech, died 2008). Dejectedly, this seems to be modus operandi of universities everywhere as of late. A mentality whereby university fat cats literally profit off the blood, sweat, and tears of the very students they claim to serve has developed over time and only gotten stronger. Under the guise of an economic downturn (or really any desired justification), beloved institutions like KTRU, made possible by the efforts of an incalculable number of committed, selfless, involved students and citizens, can be gutted and hocked at a moment’s notice, with not so much as a debate or a dissenting opinion allowed. “Despicable” does not even begin to describe the cowardly agenda of hiding behind budgetary shortfalls to impose censorship and constrict creativity.

The music is dying. KTRU is like the fictional planet of Pandora; it’s slowly being eradicated under the ruthless aims of a greedy multi-national (Pres. Leebron) in order to extract that sweet, sweet unobtanium (money). And in this sad metaphor, the DJs, programmers, engineers, and staff of KTRU are the Na’vi, displaced and pushed to the brink of extinction with nowhere to turn.

We, too, the citizens of Houston and, most notably, the local musicians, are affected still, unjustly trampled and marginalized like the many native flaura and fauna of Pandora suffering under the boot heel of the same corporate transgressor. With the exception of the UH Board of Regents and President Leebron’s personal checking accounts, everyone else, from the top all the way down, from the students themselves to the kid in Katy or Midtown up late-night, grooving on musical inspiration, will lose considerably as a result of this shady, secretive, ill-advised transaction. When the music goes, all that will be left is white noise. We sit around and joke about Justin Beiber, Ashley Simpson, or Ms. Spears, and the dross predictability of programs like American Idol, failing completely to realize those horrid entities all exist as a result of a vacuum in the music industry, partly made possible by the disappearance of innovative, independent college radio. My favorite sign displayed at the rally read “Save our Children from Bad Music. Keep KTRU Alive!” I could not agree with this sentiment more.

To quote another fictional character, Sarah Connor once said in reference to the impending apocalypse that, “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” Truer words seldom resonate. It may appear as though President Leebron and his ilk have the continual upper hand; this is an illusion. In a game of simple numbers, we are many and they are few. We outnumber them, we can surround them, and our strength in unity is the mightiest sword.

To clarify, no endorsements of armed insurrections are being given here. Instead, imagine a campaign of focused civil disobedience; light acts of defiant protest such as more rallies and even a full-on march or two, together with a blanketed promotions campaign to drive home the issues. Some will discredit this rant as counter-culture trifling, worthy of coffeehouse consideration and nothing more. The ravings of the idealistic often tend to be taken by the masses with a huge grain of salt. This is natural. In fact, it should be relished, not reviled. Discourse and dissent breed the very emotions, behaviors, and thought patterns conducive to unrestrained creativity. The two are mutually inclusive.

How do I know this to be true? I saw with my own squinty eyes in the blistering sun, a cabal of like-minded Houstonians and music lovers come together on a boiling Sunday summer afternoon and demand a cessation to the standard practices of profitability at any cost and subjugation of the student body where/when desired. This is merely one battle in a much larger war. KTRU may fall, and those who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to build the station and those on the outside who sing its praises equally will mourn. But if we so desire, if we so aim and attempt, we have the power to stop the next KTRU, wherever it may be out there, from falling silent.

Post by . This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 24th, 2010. Filed under Posts.

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