June 25, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Mixed signals 

Changes are in the air for WRUR

If you are used to tuning in to the non-stop line-up of African-American programming on Friday or Sunday evenings on WRUR 88.5 FM, you might find yourself scratching your head this summer. Car Talk? What station is this anyway?

Over the past several weeks, WRUR, the radio station run by the University of Rochester, has undergone some major changes that will have an impact on the diversity of radio in Rochester. While some view the changes as negative, others say they will ultimately benefit both university students and listeners.

            The staff of WRUR and university administrators who oversee the station have agreed to undertake a summer pilot program in collaboration with WXXI 1370 AM, the public radio station and local carrier of National Public Radio programs.

            Under the pilot program, WXXI has agreed to supply NPR programming to fill a variety of timeslots on the university's station.

            University officials and WRUR's station manager feel 88.5 FM will benefit from the relationship. WXXI brings with it badly needed technical training and assistance, and programming during times when WRUR is left with the most dreaded of radio nightmares: dead air.

            For WXXI the collaboration offers a stronger signal, making it possible to broadcast its programs to a wider audience. All of the programs that will be simulcast on WRUR can also be heard on 1370 AM, WXXI's outlet for news and cultural programming.

            Norm Silverstein, president of WXXI, sees the station's relationship with the university as an educational partnership. For-credit internships that extend beyond radio will be available to students. If the summer pilot is a success, he says, a more permanent partnership may result.

            "We look at it as a great opportunity to get more diverse programming in the community," says Silverstein.

            When describing the potential of this new relationship, Silverstein talks about the possibility of broadcasting lectures from Meliora Weekend, when the UR brings in nationally acclaimed speakers, and collaborating with the UR's Eastman School of Music.

            Then there's the reach issue. WXXI's weak A.M. signal has plagued the station for years. It is difficult to tune in broadcasts clearly from eastern and western suburbs of Rochester before sun-up or after sundown, when the FCC forces WXXI to change the direction of its signal. This problem is more pronounced during the winter months, when daylight hours are shorter.

            Even though WXXI has the second most powerful signal on the AM band in Rochester, it is only 5,000 watts strong. WHAM 1180 AM broadcasts at 50,000 watts.

            Finally, Silverstein believes an additional outlet for NPR programming is a positive development at a time when so few companies own so many radio stations.

The Federal Communications Commission recently voted to lift restrictions on media ownership in markets (see "Concentrated dilution" by Jack Bradigan Spula). These restrictions were put in place decades ago to protect diversity of political speech.

            But even under the restrictions, major companies have become dominant in markets around the country. In Rochester, Clear Channel Communications owns nine radio stations. Viacom and Entercom own four each.

            The impact of this market domination became clear during the Iraq War, when a member of the Dixie Chicks made a derogatory comment about President Bush. Clear Channel Communications banned the popular group's music from all of its stations. Hundreds of stations that would otherwise have made decisions on such matters independently automatically participated in this ban.

            This sort of dominance reaches far beyond politics. In recent years, as radio stations have become more valuable commodities, several cities have lost their only classical music radio stations. Music formats in general have become more homogenized, with new forms of payola influencing decisions about what music gets played.

            The recent FCC decision opens the door for companies that already dominate markets to purchase even more television and radio stations, moving closer to becoming monopolies.

            "It's a horrible choice by the FCC," says Jason Crane, station manager at WGMC 90.1 and 105.1 FM, Rochester's publicly supported 24-hour jazz station. "The saddest thing is that most Americans have already given up on the idea of free and open airwaves. They won't even notice."

Jared Lapin, the 20-year-old WRUR station manager who has just finished his sophomore year at UR, is optimistic about the WXXI collaboration.

            "It's a fantastic thing," says Lapin. "It's going to allow WRUR to become more visible. NPR is a big draw. It will attract more listeners. And once they listen to NPR programs, they'll listen to our other programs."

            Lapin is happy to be able to simulcast Morning Edition weekdays from 4 to 8 a.m., a time when dead air has been a problem. He is not interested in the late-afternoon show, All Things Considered, because the station has its own programming during these hours.

            In addition to Morning Edition, shows to be simulcast under the pilot program include Car Talk, from 11 p.m. to midnight Fridays; This American Life, 6 to 7 p.m. Sundays; and Afro Pop, from 8 to 9 p.m. Sundays. AP Network News will be replaced by NPR News, with local weather and traffic reports.

            Lapin and his staff also look forward to the possibility of selecting NPR programming that WXXI has not had space for in its schedule. One of the shows mentioned, Sounds Eclectic, showcases progressive pop music from around the world.

            Lapin is not concerned that WXXI will become the dominant force at the station; he believes the University can maintain control.

            "They've come with slightly more invasive proposals in the past and we've turned them down," says Lapin.

            Silverstein agrees.

            "The students continue to select the programming and assign the shifts, and WXXI will respect their decisions," he says. "We're not involved in making decisions about who is on the station. The university programs the station. The students program the station. In terms of anybody concerned about programming, that's never been on the table. If this pilot works well for both, we would consider asking for help at the time the signal pattern shifts and we lose power on our A.M. station."

But listeners to the station and current program hosts are not uniformly enthusiastic about the changes, which have already affected long-running weekend programming of jazz, blues, and r&b shows.

            "The two consistently high-quality blocks of time have been Friday and Sunday, and they've layered stuff right in the midst of those," says Lawrence Hargrave, a listener and host of The JazzFest, which runs from midnight Friday to 3 a.m. Saturday morning. "On Sunday nights, Ruth [Elaine], Forrest [Cummings], and Talik [Abdul Basheer] have been back to back for at least a decade consistently from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. The niche has been carved and now they've taken it away."

            None of these weekend hosts are students, and none are paid. They are volunteers, long-time members of the Rochester community who are passionate about the music they play. Most of the shows remain on the air. But some timeslots have been changed and at least one show has been lost in an attempt to move its timeslots.

            Lapin explains that during the summer pilot program, because the station is simulcasting shows from WXXI A.M., timeslots are not flexible. If the collaboration continues in the fall, there would likely be more flexibility and planning. But this has not gone over well with some long-time DJs.

            "They didn't talk to any of us," says Hargrave, who is director of alumni, church and community relations at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. "They didn't look at what the audience is like, what the demographics are like."

            Cummings hosted Jazz Ain't Nothin' But Soul every Sunday evening from 8 to 10 p.m. for 19 years before his timeslot was taken over. He was offered a daytime slot, but it was not one he could accommodate in his schedule.

            Cummings, who is regional director of the New York State Division of Human Rights for Rochester and Syracuse, believes these radio shows have provided a valuable service to the community.

            "When you look at Friday and Sunday nights, the content deals with jazz and blues, Afro-American culture," Cummings says. "These shows reach out to a segment of the community where there happens to be a void. People have been able to tune in and hear what they won't hear on commercial radio. After two decades, it becomes institutionalized. I think it's an excellent outreach for the University to reach into homes where they might not otherwise reach. I don't think any real consideration was given to that."

            Cummings has chosen not to protest the decision because he realizes that WRUR is, after all, a college radio station, and the students come first.

            And like many college stations, WRUR has its fair share of technical problems.

            "There are problems," says Hargrave. "Now I go in and there's an hour of dead air and then I come on. There is somewhat of a station library, but stuff walks. It's been better lately because there are video monitors. But I bring my own CDs. We have all sorts of folks using the equipment. You've got rap guys using the turntable; they're rougher on that sort of stuff."

            "They are desperately in need of technical help," says Silverstein.

            The station is already undergoing broad renovations.

Like all college radio stations, WRUR operates under the guidance of university administration. In WRUR's case, William Green, dean of the college and professor of religious studies, was present at meetings with WXXI. And Green couldn't be more excited about the WRUR-WXXI collaboration.

            "For the students, this will enrich their experience," Green says. "It will provide a chance to learn more about radio and get the benefit of collaboration with professionals. It will be a more powerful educational experience."

            Green emphasizes that this collaboration is preferable to what other universities have done when their stations became difficult to manage.

            "At Johns Hopkins they unloaded it, sold it," Green says.

            But what about other alternatives? Some college stations hire a professional or two to run things and manage the student staff.

            "That changes the nature of the activity," Green says. "The students run the station. This was their decision."

            It's important for a college radio station to be more professional today, Green says, because it's a different world for college stations than the one he knew while attending Dartmouth College in the late '60s.

            "Back then everybody listened to the college station," he says. "Today they all have TVs in their rooms, the Internet, CDs; there are infinitely more choices."

            Bill Chaisson, who hosts a world music show titled The Hibernian Weather Channel on WRUR from 8 to 10 a.m. Saturdays, shares Green's enthusiasm for the collaboration.

            "It's important to have the station on the air, that's aspect number one," says Chaisson, who is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Geology, Earth, and Environmental Sciences. "The station has a lot of holes in it. Toward the end of the semester, students had difficulty tearing themselves away from their school work and doing their shows."

            Chaisson has suggested in the past that the station switch from AP Network News to the British Broadcasting Company, because he believes the BBC programming could fill the gaps. In his view, NPR could play a similar role and provide other benefits.

            "I've been of the general opinion that the UR is too much of an island in the city with a moat around it," he says. "To do something with a city station is a good thing."

            Silverstein sees the relationship as a win-win situation, and he wants to alleviate any apprehensions.

            "We're not looking to take over the station," says Silverstein. "That was never part of the discussion. The discussion took into account that this is a student resource, and the university owns the license. We respect that. They've asked for some other programming. That would be a goal if there are programs we can offer at a small cost. There are several roots-music shows they are interested in."

            William Green agrees. He believes that internships and positions at the station under the tutelage of WXXI professionals will provide invaluable experience. "We may open some career doors here."

            Lapin, who got involved with the station as a freshman, says that working at the station has already provided valuable experience for a possible career in entertainment management.

            Meanwhile, Cummings has heard speculation that there may in fact be a re-opening of his old timeslot in the fall, but no one has said anything concrete to him. By fall, he may not be available.

            Jason Crane at WGMC has confirmed that talks are underway with Cummings about a new home for his program.

            "If it were possible to get Forrest to come here it would be a big boon for the station," Crane says. "Hopefully it will shift more people in the direction of WGMC. We'll certainly be bidding for his talent. He deserves to be on the air, and we'd be happy to have a guy with 20 years experience and tremendous knowledge about jazz."

Many of the programming changes slated to happen this summer at WRUR are still in transition. The station keeps a "Current Schedule" for its broadcasts at www.wrur.org, but as of press time, that schedule had not been updated to reflect the changes.

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