Rifts open between radio stations and their universities
Originally published in Current, Aug. 24, 1998
By Jacqueline Conciatore
In the latest clashes over proper use of the public asset that is public radio, a Pasadena college has stripped its radio manager of his duties, a Las Vegas university may hand its station to students, and Santa Monica College students are suing curators for broadcast training opportunities.
The conflicts demonstrate how thoroughly students' and educators' convictions about the purposes of a station can differ from station management's.
Although stations sometimes struggle with their institutional licensees over matters of independence and editorial integrity, the three recent cases--involving KPCC in Pasadena, KUNV in Las Vegas, and KCRW in Santa Monica--all revolve around issues of student access or control.
On Aug. 11 , Pasadena City College removed KPCC General Manager Rod Foster from his position, citing a $170,000 budget deficit. The station also reassigned assistant manager Larry Shirk.
Still with the college as an associate dean, Foster wouldn't comment, but he did issue a release citing KPCC's increases in listeners and members, move to new studios, and fundraising growth during his 13-year tenure. Foster also oversaw KPCC's format switch from "Classic American" to news/talk--a move forced by CPB's new grant standards but which he ultimately said was good for KPCC.
"Rod took this radio station from being a tiny college station with limited signal strength and built it into one of the strongest public radio stations in the country," afternoon host and KPCC Program Director Larry Mantle said.
But college spokesperson Mark Wallace says Foster's efforts fell short. "It just wasn't happening. Ratings were up, but the budget deficit was continuing."
It's clear, however, that the matter of student training also caused Foster problems. KPCC hosts a considerable student presence. "I don't know of any other station in a market of this size that trains the number of students we do," says Mantle. "On the technical side alone, we probably train 40 to 60 students per year." The station also puts students on the air, after 8 p.m. Still, Mantle says, some faculty members want more. "What they want is students on the air virtually at all times," he said. Some professors insist "students who can hardly put sentences together" are ready for it.
Though the college trustees believe that all-students-all-the-time would cost KPCC revenue, "the board has made it clear they want the faculty satisfied," Mantle says. As a result, KPCC has felt torn by contradictory mandates--to provide a quality service and improve fundraising on the one hand, and to use students on the other, he says.
Despite the quandary, Mantle says he's optimistic about KPCC's future, and that the staff likes the choice of Development Director Cindy Young as interim g.m.
Supposedly sued in Santa Monica
Some managers may cede to faculty pressure to train students, but KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour will have none of it. Santa Monica College spokesperson Bruce Smith admits student participation in KCRW operations is "pretty much zero," though students do volunteer during pledge drives. And when students in July reportedly filed a suit against the college that included a complaint about lack of access to KCRW, Seymour is said to have told a student reporter that KCRW could always move to UCLA. That remark was clearly a joke, says a KCRW staffer.
In April, an accreditation team suggested the college align with actual practice its policy for KCRW--it suggested the station had an instructional role. So a few weeks ago, trustees removed the instructional mandate and emphasized KCRW's role as a Los Angeles service. "[KCRW] is meant to be a community service," says Smith. "That doesn't mean the college would oppose any kind of broadcast opportunities [for students]. We just recognize the reality that this station has evolved over the years from what was called a college radio workshop (thus, the "CRW") to this flagship NPR station."
The man responsible for the suit, former student body president Ryan Flegal, dismisses suggestions that student training is antithetical to radio success. "I don't think you should take a green student just entering their first year of broadcasting and give them their own show," he says. "But I think Ruth Seymour is crazy if she doesn't think she can find talent in 25,000 students."
(The college questions whether there is a suit, because it hasn't been served with papers. Flegal says he hired area lawyer William Daly and the suit has been filed. Two calls to Daly's office were not returned.)
Joe Welling, who works with institutional licensees in the Higher Education Telecommunications Consortium, agrees that student training is an appropriate station function. "What is so bad about colleges and universities being interested in seeing the facility used to train future public broadcasting professionals?" The same managers who hold their noses at training are those hiring last year's grad who was trained at a university-based station, he says.
Others say conflicts over training are really about differing visions of a station's role. Educators first sought radio licenses because they thought stations would be fabulous instructional tools, says Linda Carr, a consultant who works with stations to resolve licensee conflicts. "Imagine their surprise when they found that 'Math50' broadcast over a 15,000-watt area wasn't that appealing to listeners. Stations since have had to deal with [licensees'] disappointment and confusion as to what a public radio station is supposed to be."
But Welling cautions against the verbal broad brush. "The fact of the matter is most public radio stations in the country are licensed to colleges and universities, and most don't have problems like this."
"I thank my lucky stars"
One might sum up the lesson of recent events at KUNV, Las Vegas, with the words of General Manager Don Fuller: "People get squeamish when it gets hot."
Fuller was referring to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, administration's apparent decision not to support his effort to professionalize the formerly student-run KUNV and give it a consistent sound: jazz. The 15,000-watt station reaches 1.3 million, but before the format change never had a cume higher than 25,000.
Fuller says he had the go-ahead to drop an overnight/morning rock show, but when local musicians and kids threw a protest concert and appealed to regents, the university's president said she wanted all parties to compromise.
Fuller predicts the regents will instruct him to reinstate Rock Avenue and put students on-air. Meanwhile, the student government wants to reassert control over KUNV, even though the same body two years ago gave it back to the university and ended an annual $90,000 appropriation to KUNV.
Student management isn't in the school's interest, says Fuller. He cites as an example recent talk of airing student council meetings, which he says can be embarrassingly contentious. "I don't think it's going to sit too well with the community." He also says he was brought on at a time when the university was concerned about obscenities on the student-run station.
Student body president William Price says the student government's constitution gives them "authority or responsibility of management and control of the station." But if the university abrogates its responsibility for the station, it would violate FCC regs. University spokesperson John Gallagher says Price is wrong: regents are responsible for KUNV, though KUNV staff are accountable to students.
KUNV has never known if it's meant to serve students or the community, says local observer Lamar Marchese, g.m. of KNPR. "My personal opinion is that a station licensed by the FCC should serve its community, and that doesn't necessarily mean the university community. The students are a very small minority of people, and there are umpteen varieties of rock and alternative rock on the dial in Las Vegas. To say that there's a niche there not being filled is ridiculous."
Marchese says he marvels that public radio is as successful as it is given the potential for complications inside complex licensee arrangements. "I thank my lucky stars every day that I'm licensed to a community group."
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Outside links: Web sites of Pasadena's KPCC and Santa Monica's KCRW.
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