By Chris Lane
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By Aaron Reiss
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It was easy to fly below the radar of the administration. After all, KTRU wasn't costing the university anything. The operating budget of about $14,000 per year was paid by the student body in the form of a blanket tax. And even with occasional power upgrades, KTRU stayed small enough to avoid major FCC complaints.
Just because the students controlled the station didn't mean its operation was a wild free-for-all. Over the years, KTRU developed a well-defined, if unwritten, mission: to educate both its DJs and their audiences by playing music they weren't likely to hear anywhere else. In the '70s the students played art rock before it hit the commercial stations. Underground punk was hot on its heels. In the early '80s KTRU went alternative; playlists included then-unfamiliar names like Elvis Costello, the Smiths, R.E.M. and the Eurythmics. But it was also in the '80s that student music directors pushed KTRU toward its current mantra of noncommercial, independent and eclectic. In recent years, folk, country, jazz, classical, punk, alt rock, world music and a smattering of news have coexisted peacefully on 91.7 FM.
KTRU guards its programming zealously. Not just anyone can be a DJ. Station manager Johnny So says that KTRU leadership selects DJ applicants who are quirky and creative and seem interested in exploring genres that they are unfamiliar with. One successful student attached a slice of cheese to the back of his application. And as for musical taste, you can like 'N Sync, he says, but if you like 'N Sync, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, then you are simply too narrow for KTRU. Not that you could play 'N Sync anyway. Student DJs must play music found in the station's library, and they must play a certain number of songs off a playlist compiled by the music directors. Keeping students from bringing in their own music solves two problems: It ensures that all music is screened for obscene lyrics per FCC recommendation, and it keeps out the crap.
KTRU's hiring and programming policies make the student volunteers a tight-knit and distinctive bunch. So says that he didn't fit in at his residential college, the focus of campus life for most Rice students. He considered his dorm-mates too conservative. Now, he says, he's a member of "RMC College," referring to the Rice Memorial Center, the building where KTRU is housed. Almost all of his friends work for the radio station. KTRU DJs, he says, "dance to a different kind of fiddle." It's a self-perpetuating phenomenon: KTRU leadership selects, and fires, new DJs, and the leadership is elected from within KTRU's own ranks.
All of this has led some "regular" Rice students to regard KTRU volunteers as green-haired, funky-clothed snobs who want to impose their weird musical tastes on a student body that foots their bill. In October, the Rice Thresher conducted an e-mail survey of 400 undergraduates and found that 69 percent of them had not listened to KTRU in the past two weeks. In fact, only 4 percent were regular listeners, tuning to KTRU for at least five consecutive minutes eight or more times in the two-week period. The Thresher agreed to support the station in its battle with the administration over athletics broadcasts, if KTRU made a concerted effort to reconnect with the student body -- including shifting the range of music "a little more toward mainstream tastes to help bring in student listeners."
The disjunction with the student body wasn't entirely KTRU's fault. In 1991 KTRU took a massive leap from 650 watts to 50,000 watts -- rare for a college station, and unheard of for one that was not run by professionals. KRTS 92.1, KTRU's neighbor on the FM band, wanted to up its power to 50,000 watts but couldn't, according to FCC regulations, because the increase would drown out the student station's broadcast. KRTS owner Mike Stude happened to be the adopted son of Brown and Root founder Herman Brown and vice president of the Brown Foundation, which contributes significantly to Rice. Stude offered to pay a reported $250,000 to increase KTRU's power as well. Rice administrators agreed, with little consultation with the students of KTRU, and a new transmitter was built north of town near Humble.
KTRU had been popular with progressive listeners in Montrose since the early '80s, but now it could be heard all the way out in the suburbs -- halfway to Austin, in fact. The only problem: Downtown buildings directly between the tower and campus blocked the signal at Rice. For the next nine years, until a translator was installed on top of the lights of Rice's football field, the student-run radio station could barely be heard by students.
It's not as if no one was listening, though. As KTRU lost much of its student audience, it developed one in the city. An Arbitron survey in 1997, the most recent one to look at the station's numbers, found that nearly 23,000 Houstonians listened to KTRU for an average of three hours a week. Chuck Roast, a KTRU DJ who also owns a record store in the FM 1960 area, says the station's influence with kids in the suburbs is phenomenal. "I can see what they buy," he says, "and I know they're listening to KTRU, because that's the only place they'd find out about it." The power surge had an influence within the station as well. Non-Rice-affiliated "community" members like Roast now make up 34 of the station's 97 DJs. (Houston Press staff writer Bob Burtman is one of them.) KTRU student leaders say that these community DJs offer the station expertise in certain genres that they would not be able to find within the student body.