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

This was not the answer administrators wanted to hear. Although the sports-punk simulcast was not an FCC violation, Shepard says that So's lack of action indicated that KTRU DJs were answering to no one. Administrators worried about future FCC violations and even the destruction of the equipment inside the station. Two days later the station was shut down.

President Gillis explained the shutdown in an interview with Thresher editor Brian Stoler. "Am I supervising the broadcasting in a responsible manner if I am told that we're going to keep doing that?" Gillis asked rhetorically. "In this day and age when MIT gets sued for $6 million for allowing something to happen on campus, my responsibility is to the university and its students, and I cannot condone anything that makes it vulnerable."

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.

Strangely enough, the shutdown was the best thing that could have happened to KTRU. University corporatization might be too subtle a subject to inspire student activism, but it was easy to pick sides after administrators locked students out of their radio station.

Rice administrators surely didn't expect traditionally apathetic Rice students to rally around a station they never listened to. But the KTRU listserv transformed into a PR war machine; the Thresher printed extra editions; and over 300 students showed up at a meeting the night of the shutdown. Students loudly demanded answers from Camacho and Hutchinson, and KTRU managed to get the event on the evening news. A few days later KTRU supporters gathered in the main academic quad, holding signs and listening to speeches on the importance of student autonomy. After that, they headed to the president's house, where they stood outside with bumper stickers over their mouths as the board of governors arrived for a fancy dinner. Alumni wrote letters to the Rice administration saying that they would no longer donate money to their alma mater. Former station manager Rodney Gibbs took out an ad in the Thresher for an open letter condemning the university's actions. It was signed by 872 alumni, 352 students, 14 faculty and staff members, 1,251 non-Rice KTRU supporters and artists like David Byrne and Paul Westerberg.

The bad press and student protest brought administrators to the negotiating table and turned what looked like a one-sided "reorganization" into a compromise. And KTRU leaders decided to take what they could get in the limited time they had before the semester ended and their momentum vanished. The result is a brand-new operating policy that appears to make everybody happy: KTRU gets language confirming that the station is indeed "student-run." The student body gets to vote on a station manager in a campus-wide election. The athletic department gets its three to four games a week for at least the next two years. And administrators get the "clear lines of accountability" they claim to have wanted all along.

The operating policy also establishes one more programming committee, this one with the amusing name of "KTRU Friendly Committee," or KFC. KTRU has been screwed by committees before, but this one seems slightly stacked in its favor. The voting members include the elected station manager plus three undergraduates appointed by the Student Association Senate. Of course, the other voting members are all ultimately appointed by the president of the university: a KTRU alum, a staff member and three members of the faculty. Students are still in the minority, but they pushed for a clause saying that all programming recommendations must be approved by six members of the KFC -- meaning that at least one student must vote for a recommendation for it to be passed.

KTRU appears to have won this battle, but it has lost the war. For better or worse, a station that was run by generation after generation of like-minded students and community members now has two new masters: the Rice student body and the university administration. The 23,000 KTRU listeners in Houston can expect some programming changes, however gradual. The election of station managers is likely to usher in a new breed of KTRU leadership; So himself says he doesn't think he would have been elected by the student body. And the KFC's purpose in part is to field programming suggestions from students outside of KTRU. Sure, the committee will be able to turn down the "All Black Sabbath Hour," but refusing all suggestions will lead to criticisms that KTRU is unresponsive to the students that pay for it and fought for it.

And there is always the potential for radical change to the station. The board of governors still owns the FCC license, and the administration has sidestepped committees and promises in the past. "The president still can, if he wants to, dictate programming," So admits.

But right now, in the wake of all that's happened, So would rather not think about that. He's sitting in a formal Rice conference room, slouched in a red leather chair with his tennis shoes propped up on the table. So has survived his first major confrontation with what he calls "the Man," and he seems mostly relieved that the station is back on the air in any form. Nevertheless, he's disappointed at the university's attempt to turn something creative into something practical.

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