License to Steal

Rice's unique radio station may lose its musical soul, all in the name of sports

Um uh That was um Joan of Arc with "As Black Pants Make Cat Hair Appear" and uh before that we listened to some klezmer music from 1908 and um there was Cyber Zen with something off of their self-releasedSound Engine Moonscapes and uh I think Mice Parade.

Ahh. The coolly indifferent monotone of an awkward yet hipper-than-thou KTRU DJ. Don't recognize anything on the Rice University radio station's playlist? Good. That's the point. KTRU/91.7 FM sees itself as an educational entity charged with teaching students and Houstonians to appreciate the finer points of avant-garde indie rock and obscure world music in the middle of a bland, focus-grouped, commercial radio wasteland. But that may be about to change. How would you like to listen to a Rice baseball game instead of Yo La Tengo?

Changes on the AM dial have left Rice Athletics in a lurch, and the department is turning to the noncommercial student-run station for a fix. In the past the university broadcast its football and men's basketball games on KPRC and its affiliates, but a recent merger between Clear Channel Radio and AMFM Inc. may put future contracts with commercial stations in jeopardy. "[W]e should not need to have men's basketball on KTRU this season," marketing director Mike Pedé wrote to athletics director Bobby May in an October 10 memorandum, "but next season is a real possibility."

General manager Johnny So doesn't like the changing face of KTRU.
Deron Neblett
General manager Johnny So doesn't like the changing face of KTRU.
General manager Johnny So doesn't like the changing face of KTRU.
Deron Neblett
General manager Johnny So doesn't like the changing face of KTRU.

That same day, KTRU's oversight committee met to spring a new sports proposal on the station's student leaders. The athletic department wants KTRU to double its selective coverage of Rice baseball and women's basketball this year and to prepare for more possible athletics programming next year: women's volleyball, women's soccer and the soon-to-be-homeless men's basketball games.

"As a Rice University entity, and [KTRU] being a Rice University station," says Pedé, "all we've asked is that we have some time on there for our student-athletes who are students at Rice to have their fair share of time." It may sound like a reasonable enough request, but KTRU students are not inclined to grant it.

"If we start broadcasting athletics and they keep asking for more university programming, it essentially is going to change the face of KTRU as we know it," says Rice senior and KTRU station manager Johnny So. "It's not gonna be KTRU anymore." But for the first time in its history, KTRU may not have a choice in the matter.

Created by a group of Rice students in 1969, KTRU was originally broadcast from a dorm basement over a campus intercom system. Sporadic growth over the next two decades brought the station to the FM dial and to Montrose, where in the '80s it became the radio station for Inner Loopers in the know. From the beginning, KTRU has been run almost entirely by student volunteers, who seem to pass on a musical taste for the weird from generation to generation. The station's library is a vast collection of records that can't be found anywhere else. Its programming competes only with Pacifica station KPFT in broadcasting the last noncommercial free-form radio shows in the city.

The station that was student-founded and student-run is also largely student-funded. KTRU's operating costs of about $14,000 a year are paid for by a student tax that was approved in a campus-wide referendum. And while it is true that the university owns KTRU's transmitter, a 1997 university report indicates that Rice incurs little to no net cost in operating it. Regular maintenance fees are covered by income from outside companies that lease space on the tower.

Even KTRU's dramatic jump to a massive 50,000 watts in 1991 was not sponsored by the university. KRTS 92.1, KTRU's neighbor on the FM band, wanted to up its wattage, but couldn't because the increase would drown out the 650-watt Rice broadcast. To avoid breaking FCC rules, KRTS paid a reported $250,000 for the student station to increase its power as well. With 50,000 watts, KTRU could be heard from Huntsville to Galveston and halfway to Austin, and the eclectic programming attracted a small but loyal following in the suburbs. But even in 1991, seemingly paranoid students worried that the administration would see the newly powerful station as a resource to exploit, and change.

Sure enough, a 1996 Strategic Planning Committee report suggested that KTRU could be used to meet "Goal 6: Increase Our Involvement and Presence in Local, National and International Communities in Ways that Both Contribute to the Common Good and Increase the Recognition of the University." The report recommended taking advantage of the greatly enlarged broadcast capability by airing language courses, lectures, music school concerts and even radio drama to provide "a public voice for the University."

And so another committee was formed, with faculty and staff far outnumbering student members, to "realize the fullest possible potential for the station." They surveyed undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni and concluded in a 1997 report that KTRU should change its programming to better reflect the campus. "[U]niversity programming should be gradually expanded to approximately 6-12 hours in a given day," their report recommended, even more for conferences and special events. The university, it seems, wanted to live in the house the students built.

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