Muting the airwaves: As colleges sell off their radio stations, student deejays grapple with their identities in the digital age

In early May, Alayna Fabricius and other leaders of the student-run radio station at Georgia State University were called into a meeting with university administrators, where they were informed about the university’s new partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting. The students lost more than half of their airtime on the analog station because of the deal that was made without their knowledge.

The Album 88 radio students at Georgia State were told that 14 hours of their airtime on WRAS-FM was sold to GPB for $150,000 for the first two years of the partnership, and a minimum of $100,000 in succeeding years, plus some internship opportunities.

“The opportunities to work with this professional company are not necessary for us,” said Fabricius, the station’s general manager.

College radio stations, home to aspiring broadcast journalists and deejays, have reached an existential crisis — whether or not terrestrial radio, or analog, benefits their organizations any longer.

Students at Georgia State are not alone. In the past few years, radio deejays at Rice University, Vanderbilt University and the University of San Francisco, among others, were told that their frequencies were being sold to other universities or organizations. While the universities have no legal obligation to consult students on the sales, concerns from student deejays — whose livelihoods the sales directly affect — are being left out of the equation.

“When there’s a change, there’s going to be a public outcry,” Fabricius said. “In the future, there needs to be a dialogue with the students. Give us the courtesy of having the professional attitude that we’ve had.”

Radio sale recap

In 2010, Rice University sold their radio station’s FM frequency to the University of Houston for $9.5 million. Rice radio students at KTRU were not told about the sale of the radio station until the deal was complete. KUHF, a National Public Radio affiliate that operates the University of Houston’s broadcast station, took over the FM station.

Sal Tijerina, KTRU’s station manager, was a freshman when Rice secured the deal.

“I don’t have anything against the University of Houston,” Tijerina said. “But it was sad to see because our station was one of the best stations in Houston before the sale, especially because it was the only indie, underexposed, eclectic station.”

He said the radio students began to distrust the school’s administration after the deal, adding that “public broadcast takeovers of the station are a detriment to the culture of the community.”

In 2000, when two student radio hosts at KTRU played music over the broadcast of the second half of a women’s basketball game in protest of a new policy that required additional athletics coverage, the station risked a loss in airtime. The station was temporarily shut down by administrators and the airtime was replaced by programming from the World Radio Network. But when a new accountability policy was formed between the students and the school’s administration, the students were allowed to resume broadcasting.

Under the new policy, a committee made up of students, faculty and an alumnus were responsible for changing station programming.

At Vanderbilt University in 2011, the school’s board of directors at Vanderbilt Student Communications sold WRVU’s FM frequency to Nashville Public Radio for $3.5 million and moved the student station to an online-only format. The deal was made without the students’ knowledge.

Logan Wilke, general manager at the Vanderbilt station, said people were “pretty riled up” when the students lost their FM frequency. He said their only option was to go digital and they are currently conforming to online broadcasting practices.

“We’re trying to focus on the DJ community and focus on the people, because that’s what we have and that’s why the people listen,” Wilke said.

Wilke explained that although the situations at Vanderbilt and Georgia State are unfortunate, the only way to move past the frustration is “building our brand” around the online listenership.

Neal Cotter, former general manager of the Vanderbilt station, joined the radio station in the spring of his freshman year, the same semester when the student FM broadcasting capabilities were taken away. He said that under his leadership, the station focused on “forming positive relationships” rather than allowing the sale to deteriorate the station.

“People were definitely worried about losing listenership,” Cotter said. “You’re definitely giving something up if you lose your transmitter, but there’s still a lot left to work with.”

In 2011, the University of San Francisco sold the student-run radio station, KUSF, to Classical Public Radio Network for $3.75 million in 2011. This deal was also created behind closed doors and without student input.

Steve Runyon, general manager emeritus at the station, bought the station’s FM signal from Simpson Bible College back in 1973 and managed the station until August 2014. He said that he knew about the sale of KUSF to CPRN four to six months in advance, but he was not permitted “to divulge any information” relating to the deal.

The administration “told me as soon as the contracts were signed and they knew I couldn’t do anything, which gave me time to try to structure what we were going to do,” Runyon said. “It was awkward, as you can imagine.”

Miranda Morris, coordinator at KUSF, said that on the day of the FM transfer, university administrators walked into the station while the broadcast mid-song and “turned the transmitter off.” The doors of the station were locked and eventually the station’s headquarters was relocated to another room to broadcast on an online stream. The space that housed the radio station was turned into student housing.

The station moved to an online-only format and some station volunteers formed an independent station called “KUSF In Exile.”

“It’s unfortunate that people are able to get into the left-hand side of the dial to get into these frequencies that were kind of left alone for years,” Morris said. “I do think, unfortunately, the fall of KUSF, WRVU and KTRU massively made people aware of the importance of college radio. It had to take three major falls to do it.”

Fighting to ‘save’ stations

With all three “falls” came “Save” movements for each radio station. “Save KTRU,” “Save WRVU,” “Save KUSF” and now “Save WRAS” are organizations that fight against the sale or partnerships of radio stations.

“‘Save’ and the station’s call letters are just a major call to action because if you’re over 30, you probably grew up listening to ‘W something’ or ‘K something,’” Morris said. “That too means some local independent music is being broadcast from a station that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else.”

At Georgia State, the deal was also conducted without the students’ knowledge. Mike McDougald, chairman of Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission, said the deal dates back about eight years. He explained that GPB did not want to involve the public with this decision. According to the minutes from a GPB Board of Directors meeting, the GSU-GPB partnership was never discussed in board meetings before the partnership was announced.

“Well, think about it just a minute,” McDougald said. “Thirty-thousand students you’re just going to slip around and ‘oh yes, here are all the details.’ That’s not the way you handle the business.”

Teya Ryan, GPB’s president, announced the partnership to the organization’s board of directors in an email on May 6, the same day the student radio leaders were notified in the meeting with university administrators and GPB representatives. She attached a press release in the email explaining the details of the agreement.

Under the GSU-GPB partnership, Album 88 students have FM broadcast time between the hours of 7 p.m. and 5 a.m.

“Those hours would be much less important to us and the daytime hours not as important to the students,” McDougald said. “At night, that’s a great time. So they’ve got full control of it. Broadcast whatever they wish all night long. It’s not bad, it’s pretty darn good.”

The university promised the students an HD channel, which has technical difficulties and was not functioning when the students were promised, at the time of the broadcast switchover. The HD channel serves as an alternative station to the main analog frequency, but requires certain technology, such as an HD radio, that provides listeners the HD signal. Under the agreement, the students were also promised a continued use of the online stream.

GPB will also broadcast one 10-second public service announcement about Georgia State each hour during their 14 hours of airtime each day. A Georgia State professor will have a 10-minute weekly segment to discuss public interest issues and the students will produce a weekly half-hour music program. The partnership also comes with internship opportunities for students.

Garrett Martin, an Atlanta resident who wrote an article for Salon titled, “College radio is dying — and we need to save it,” talked about how technology has changed the need for terrestrial radio. He wrote about his opposition to the GSU-GPB partnership because he only listens to WRAS on analog radio.

Although GSU does own the frequency, “it does have a much broader impact throughout the community than just the university itself,” Martin said.

Zachary Lancaster, the president of Album 88 Alumni, a group of former WRAS leaders and deejays, said the partnership inhibits the students’ learning experience. He said that following Federal Communications Commission regulations and meeting deadlines is part of the job and “makes you a more competitive applicant” for future jobs.

McDougald disagrees that possessing the FM frequency serves as a lab for students. He said that students “do their experiments in the station,” and FM frequency is not necessary for that.

He also noted that Georgia Public Broadcasting has looked at colleges in the past as “an ongoing movement to further the improvement and the aims” of the company in order to create a “tremendous market.” He cited the time when GPB tried but failed to acquire airtime on Georgia Tech University’s station, WREK-FM, in 2007.

Gregory Weston, president of College Broadcasters Inc., an organization that is committed to student media endeavors, said he was disappointed by Georgia State and GPB’s “lack of transparency.” CBI issued a statement that explained their support for Album 88, especially on the grounds that the students did not know about the decision.

“The students seemed to be blindsided,” Weston said. “It’s a little disingenuous for GPB to say, ‘Well, you’re still broadcasting on the Internet.’”

For 50 years, student programming from Indiana State University dominated the airwaves of 89.7 FM in Terre Haute. But in September, the content was replaced with public affairs programming and news from an Indianapolis-based NPR affiliate.

Following the new partnership with WFYI Public Media, the NPR affiliate, the student-produced programming was moved to 90.7 FM, a station with a weaker signal and less reach.

But Richard Green, the general manager of the student-run radio station, said students were excited for the opportunity to “rebrand the station.”

Currently facing the threat of sale is KCPR, the student-run radio station at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. The station could lose its FM frequency after two radio hosts of a sex talk show created a “sexy Snapchat” fundraiser for the station. A post on the Facebook page of the talk show, “Getting It In,” offered that for $20, the hosts would send sexually explicit photos to anyone who donated. Only one person donated to the fundraiser and the money was later returned.

Approximately a month after the April 21 post, the students began to feel the backlash of the fundraiser. Their show was taken off the broadcast schedule and the hosts removed their Facebook page.

In an email sent on May 19, Douglas Epperson, dean of the college of liberal arts, expressed his concern about KCPR and mentioned that the university has had an offer to sell the FM frequency.

“I am beginning to believe that we should sell the radio license,” Epperson wrote. “What were they thinking and how could it go so far with faculty completely unaware!!!”

Epperson commented in an interview regarding the email he sent. He said that the consideration to sell the station “is not a reactive situation. This is a situation where we’re truly trying to chart the course that will be of optimal benefit to the program and its students.”

He added that Cal Poly “is in the process of undergoing thorough review” of the station, by calling in KCPR and Cal Poly alumni to “wrestle with this and make recommendations.” Epperson said that he probably will not have a decision made “until the near end of the calendar year.” He explained that there is an array of options: let the students keep the station, form a partnership with an NPR affiliate (similar to the WRAS situation) or sell the FM signal entirely.

Logan Cooper, one of the students responsible for the fundraiser, said he thinks “it’s certainly an overreaction” if the university decides to sell their 310-watt FM frequency. He explained that the fundraiser was not an official KCPR-sponsored event and thought it would add “something fun, risque, unique to our show.”

Students at the station have “mentioned since I’ve been at KCPR that other college stations have sold out their licenses for quick money,” Cooper said.

A switch to online streaming

Students at the University of Pennsylvania’s radio station, WQHS, have a bit of a different story regarding the loss of their radio frequency. The FCC would not renew WXPN-FM, the radio station at the time, because of “several instances of offensive material going on-air,” according to WQHS’ website.

WXPN became its own professional entity and is still owned by Penn. WQHS kept the AM frequency, but the Student Activities Council eventually cut funding and the station moved to an online-only format.

Lauren Marquez, general manager of WQHS, never experienced having an analog frequency. She said she believes that not as many people tune into the radio when it is broadcast over the Internet.

“We definitely have a following on campus, but its not as widespread as we would like it to be,” Marquez said.

A majority of student radio stations, whether they have an FM signal or not, offer online streaming and can be accessed on cell phones, computers and tablets through iTunes or applications such as iHeartRadio and TuneIn.

Radio stations broadcast their online streams through SoundExchange. Henry French, license manager at the independent digital performance rights organization, said that the baseline annual fee for a non-commercial educational license costs $500. The radio organization can pay an extra $100 per year for a waiver to opt out of submitting monthly reports. Sound Exchange has more than 2,500 customers and French said they do not have any competition in the industry.

French added that despite rumors, there is not a cap of listeners through this service — everyone should be able to tune in to the stations that they want to listen to, no matter how many other listeners log on.

The radio station at DePaul University in Illinois is an online-only campus radio station. General Manager Joe Lanzerotti said that his university has considered obtaining an FM license from the FCC, but ultimately decided not to apply during the open opportunity for low power FM stations. LPFMs are meant for “noncommercial educational broadcasting” and are competitive to obtain, according to the FCC’s website.

“It took a lot of thought between the faculty manager and I and the dean of the college,” Lanzerotti said. “Do we want to change our identity as an online-only station? It would definitely boost the number of people, but I don’t know that it would help our programming.”

Gracie Golden, the general manager of WJHU at Johns Hopkins University, agrees that the online-only station benefits the community beyond just the campus and the surrounding area, adding that while the station may not have much of a local presence, “we get hits from lots of different countries.”

Similarly, Radio DePaul formed partnerships with college radio stations in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Lanzerotti said international connections build listenership.

Golden explained that online stations have their pitfalls.

“It is definitely a struggle to keep a presence and to be heard because nobody’s just going to stumble on our station by turning the dial,” Golden said.

Boston University’s campus radio station, WBRU, has a low-power FM signal that broadcasts to a radius of approximately one mile from the campus. John-Michael Sedor, general manager of WBRU, mentioned that the station advertises its online station rather than its FM number.

“It’s so easy to go on Twitter and send a link out. It’s almost not worth it to spend the money [on an FM signal],” Sedor said.

Forging ahead with FM

Ninety-two percent of Americans listen to traditional AM/FM radio, according to a Pew Research Center study from 2012. However, only about 17 percent tune in for online-streamed services.

Weston, who also serves as the general manager of the University of Pittsburgh’s radio station, WPTS-FM, said that possessing an FM signal benefits student broadcasters. Learning to comply with FCC regulations, including the prohibition of profanity and a limitation on dead airtime, serves as a learning opportunity for students, he said.

FCC officials did not return multiple phone calls and emails requesting a comment.

Malvin Massey, an employee at the University of Memphis and general manager of WUMR, the school’s radio station, said the experience of listening to the radio in the car “keeps radio so much alive.”

“People say radio is dying, no, no, no,” Massey said. “You can’t look at TV in the car. Texting in the car will get you killed. Very little you can do in the car, but you can listen to the radio.”

The switchover from student FM broadcasting at WRAS to online airtime has turned some people off to college radio in general. Martin, writer of the Salon article, talked about his personal experience listening to WRAS growing up.

“Universities themselves are no longer prioritizing college radio, but also personally, I know that it is true that the way technology has changed. I think younger people don’t really grow up with that need for college radio,” Martin said.

Jennifer Waits, co-founder of, follows news related to campus radio stations across the nation. Waits thinks that FM radio will experience a resurgence in popularity among college students.

Morris, from KUSF in San Francisco, said terrestrial radio is “completely magical” and digital radio could reach that potential once its available “on the dashboard of every major car.”

“You can put a signal up for the same price to reach 50 people as you can to reach 50,000 people,” Morris said regarding FM radio.

Despite the changes that have been occurring in the college radio environment, Connor Spielmaker, CBI student representative and station manager of Spinnaker Television at University of North Florida, said that “at the end of the day, we’re trying to get music, news and information to the people.”

“Even a student without a voice needs a microphone to be heard sometimes,” Spielmaker said. “If you want to take over a college radio station, please talk to the students. Students can make decisions on what’s best for us, our education, our future.”