Spin Control

Rice University's slow, systematic makeover of KTRU is just the latest example of a college determined to pattern itself after corporate America

It was 6:45 a.m. Kristin Stecher dragged herself out of bed and pulled on a sweatshirt over her flannel pajamas. She wasn't resentful at having to wake up at an hour most college students never see. Stecher was heading for her 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift at KTRU, Rice University's student-run radio station, and she couldn't wait to start playing music.

Stecher settled into KTRU's tiny graffiti-covered cluster of offices in an upstairs corner of the student center. She picked her music from the vast library of rare live recordings, old albums and underground CDs lining the walls. She pulled the big microphone close to her mouth and announced, "This is 91.7 FM K-T-R-U Houston." She took a request for Miles Davis.

Then, at 8 a.m., in the middle of the requested song, the radio signal turned to static. As soon as she realized that this was not the jazz great's very experimental stuff, Stecher panicked. "I thought I had, like, broken the station or something," she says. There was no one else around to ask for help, so Stecher frantically began flipping through the pages of KTRU's operations manual. What to do when the radio signal turns to static… If there was an answer, she didn't find it.

Vice President for Student Affairs Zenaido Camacho and station manager Johnny So field questions from angry students the night of the KTRU shutdown.
Deron Neblett
Vice President for Student Affairs Zenaido Camacho and station manager Johnny So field questions from angry students the night of the KTRU shutdown.

Within minutes two well-dressed Rice administrators were on the scene. They didn't speak to her, and Stecher wondered how they got the station's door code, a closely guarded secret. Then it dawned on her: "Oh my gosh, they figured out that I broke the station." But the administrators, Vice President for Student Affairs Zenaido Camacho and Assistant VPSA John Hutchinson, didn't seem alarmed. They calmly told Stecher that she needed to leave. They told her that she couldn't answer the station phone, which had by then begun to ring off the hook. The administrators escorted the pajama-clad girl out the door.

"It was so weird," Stecher says. "They came in and they were all professional, and I was just this kid behind the music."

The door code was changed. Web site links were dismantled. The station's collection of KTRU bumper stickers was peeled off the door. World Radio Network programming was piped in from a satellite. And an e-mail announced a "reorganization" to KTRU volunteers.

It was an administrative coup d'état -- smooth, calculated, successful. It was the climax of a struggle for control of the station that had begun nearly a decade ago. And it was an example of what some in the Rice community think is a disturbing trend in higher education: a tendency for American universities to think of themselves as businesses, as places where things like student-run radio stations are little more than assets or liabilities.

Stecher didn't know much about the tensions that had been escalating between KTRU and the administration. But she had heard the fearful rumors about an administrative takeover, about students losing control of programming. The paranoia stemmed from problems across campus in the athletic department. Mergers on the AM dial and exclusive contracts with bigger schools like the University of Texas and Texas A&M were pushing Rice athletics out of the commercial market. Luckily for Rice, the school had its own radio station, one that the administration thought was being underutilized.

Rice University had not always been so concerned with the best possible uses for KTRU. When the station began in 1967, it was just another instance of bright Rice students using their heads to goof off rather than study. A few electrical engineering students at the Rice dorm Hanszen College figured out how to broadcast music and student interviews over a campus-wide intercom system. They also figured out how to scam promotional LPs from record companies, which, as the story goes, was the real reason for starting the station.

Intentions aside, the station caught on and the following year moved to the basement of the student center. Funded by the dormitory governments, KOWL, as it was then named after Rice's mascot, broadcast an AM signal over carrier wires that ran through the labyrinth of tunnels under the school. According to the student newspaper's history of the station, KTRU students broadcast live from the launch of Apollo 12 in 1969. They also encouraged campus protest when the board of governors appointed a university president who was widely opposed by both students and faculty members. The president resigned just days after the appointment. As for music in the early days, the station took a student vote and put the 25 most popular albums on an automatic changer that would broadcast when DJs were busy studying or sleeping.

In 1970 KTRU, which had changed its name because KOWL was being used by a California station, was ready for the big time: FM. They would broadcast at 91.7 with a ten-watt signal emanating from the top of Rice's tallest residential college. Now all they needed was an FCC license. The university's board gave the students permission to apply for a license, but with a couple of conditions.

In light of the current controversy over control of the station, the interested parties are fond of referring to the minutes from the board's meeting about the license. Students point to the part that says, "The broadcasting [is] to clearly state that the station is operated by the students of Rice University and reflects their opinions; that it does not represent the official position of the University." Administrators point to the part that says, "The policies governing the operation of the station shall be determined by the President of the University and continuous supervision of the broadcasting shall be maintained by the President." It would seem that in this card game the administrators trump the students. But the students had a wild card: 30 years of virtually complete control of the station.

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