For 10 years, Dorian Hall has spun hip-hop records on a radio show called "The Hot Spot" on WRUR (88.5 FM), the University of Rochester's student-run radio station. And call-ins by students and community members have been the lifeblood of the show, which is broadcast live Thursday evenings from 6 to 8 o'clock.
While local station WDKX (103.9 FM) plays hip-hop, Hall's show caters to a more adventurous crowd. Those who tune in will hear songs by A Tribe Called Quest, not the hits of Beyonce or Alicia Keys. Hall's is a one-of-a-kind voice in the community.
Doing a show live lets Hall take audience requests, promote local events for his callers, and give away CDs. After a CD giveaway, Hall connects with listeners by meeting them at WRUR's studio on the UR River Campus.
But this is the last week Hall and other WRUR DJs will broadcast live. Starting Monday, May 24, shows will be recorded. In the future, RUR DJs will submit their tapes to station manager Jared Lapin and chief engineer Steve Carlton, who will review them for content and put them on the air the following week. During the week of May 31, listeners will hear reruns: shows taped next week will replay that week, while new taped shows are being reviewed.
The reason for the change: University of Rochester officials' concern about new Federal Communications Commission rulings, which upped the fines for "indecent" content in broadcasting. Now, one off-color comment could result in a fine of $500,000.
The FCC guidelines are vague, and the UR Broadcasting Corporation, which owns WRUR, is among the nation's broadcasters not taking any chances. In a recent memo, UR Broadcasting vice president William Green and associate vice president Anne-Marie Algier stated: "We have become increasingly concerned with the content broadcast on 88.5 FM due to new FCC rules." Green and Algier are also UR officials.
"The current climate for broadcasting makes it advisable for all radio stations to monitor their programming carefully," Green told City Newspaper last week. "We are trying to be cautious and to do all we can to respect the general concerns of the FCC."
WRUR is not a traditional radio station. Shows hosted by community and student DJs bring reggae, indie rock, folk, classical, and jazz music into Rochester's Clear-Channel-dominated radio scene. Singers and bands not covered by large record labels often get their first exposure on college radio. WRUR played Dido when she was just another no-name singer from Britain, before she catapulted to multi-platinum, international success.
RUR station manager Jared Lapin and former FM programming director James Camara say that pre-recording will benefit the station by introducing more regularity to show schedules. Instead of depending on the schedules of student DJs, who often become bogged down with schoolwork at certain times of the year, programs will play consistently at the same time each week.
"We can't build listenership if your times keep changing," Lapin told DJs at a meeting last Wednesday.
Because the station can't afford to hire producers to listen to and edit DJs' shows live, Lapin said, pre-recording is a viable way to keep WRUR's one-of-a-kind shows on the air and avoid fines. While he and Carlton will screen hours and hours of shows each week for content, UR Broadcasting will have the final say on what is and is not acceptable.
Listeners will notice a difference. For example, Lapin told the DJs not to refer to the day or the weather from now on. "It's got to be sort of a generic flavor," he said.
The change has its supporters. Ruth Elaine Tarbox, a community DJ who plays jazz LPs and goes by the name "Ruth Elaine" on-air, believes that U of R Broadcasting's decision may have more positive effects than negative. "I think it may be just absolutely great, especially if you can listen to ways perhaps that you can better your show," she says.
But there are plenty of critics. Some are suspicious that pre-recording is another step toward making the station's offerings more bland --- or that this may forecast a takeover by public broadcaster WXXI. NPR programming now fills several blocks in WRUR's schedule, with shows like "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" broadcast every weekday. The partnership began as a pilot program last summer.
Those concerns were heightened recently when many of the station's DJs --- some of them longtime WRUR contributors --- lost their shows. Station officials say that all of the DJ's had been asked to come to a training session to learn how to use new digital equipment provided by WXXI. Those who didn't receive training don't know how to use the equipment, station officials say.
But the community DJs who had their shows cancelled say the training session was poorly publicized. Many say they didn't get a notice of the meeting. And, they say, it's significant that of the station's 47 DJs, 35 were told their shows had been cancelled because they didn't show up for the training.
To some WRUR fans, the regularity Lapin promises isn't enough reward to balance the sacrificing of live programming.
"That's not what college radio is about," says former WRUR DJ and recent UR graduate Jennifer Smith. Smith received 14 calls during one two-hour time slot of the indie rock show she co-hosted with senior Chuck Mosier this past year. Those calls helped her plan the show's direction and understand the elements that were going right.
"College radio is about free format --- people calling in and making requests," she says.
Dorian Hall agrees. "The call-ins generally dictate how independent music is being received in its market," Hall says. "A lot of people tend to interact with my show."
"The music scene is already a controlled market," he continues. "College radio has always been a market for independent music. Electronic Music, drum and bass, hip-hop, progressive house, funky house, disco house: everything that you would normally not hear on a commercial radio station is heard on a college radio station. How else would independent artists get their music out there?"