KTRU News Roils, Saddens Local Music Community
UPDATED (5:35 p.m.) to include comments from Rice's B.J. Almond and a new Facebook count.
News of the University of Houston's impending purchase of Rice University student radio station KTRU, which the U of H Board of Regents approved 4-3 earlier today, has hit the city hard. Although some people have applauded U of H's plans to convert KTRU into an all-classical and fine-arts format, the majority of commenters both here and across other local media Web sites have lamented the loss of one of the last remaining outlets for eclectic, original and especially local music on the public airwaves.
For these, Rice's announcement that KTRU will continue broadcasting on the Internet is cold comfort, if any comfort at all. Furthermore, since a letter from Rice President David W. Leebron to the Rice community Monday evening citing the administration's need for "months of complicated and, by necessity, confidential negotiations" began circulating widely on the Internet - Rocks Off first saw it as an anonymous post on the Hands Up Houston message board and has since confirmed with Rice that it's real - many alumni and even current KTRU staff have come forward to express their shock and outrage at being kept in the dark.
Rice Senior Director of News-Media Relations B.J. Almond told Rocks Off Tuesday afternoon that the university first put KTRU on the market and received a "limited response" until approached by KUHF this past March. The administration did not inform students, alumni and staff until late Monday because of the confidentiality agreement between the two schools. U of H spokesman Richard Bonnin corroborated this timeframe a little later on Tuesday.
"Because the board was voting today, up until that point we were bound by the confidentiality agreement," Almond said, adding that Rice officials began informing student leaders and staff once word leaked to the media.
Almost immediately, latter-day grass-roots campaigns began appearing where else but online, through Web sites such as the "Save KTRU" page at petitionspot.com, savektru.org and a Facebook group that went from around 160 members to more than 400 shortly before 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, so this story isn't over by a long shot.
The sale has yet to be approved by the FCC, and the KTRU staff is holding a press conference at 7 p.m. tonight on campus at Sammy's Pub downstairs in the Rice Memorial Center. The conference is open to the public, but no one from the Rice administration will be attending, Almond told Rocks Off.
Earlier today, Rocks Off sent out an email to several of our contacts in the Houston music scene asking them for their opinions of these recent events, and their thoughts on KTRU's future as an Internet-only station. Some are still coming in.
RAMON MEDINA, LINUS PAULING QUARTET/29.95.COM/EX-KTRU DJ
Sale: Here is the deal. As much as this affects the community and the cultural state of the city, this is all about the students and what they will do in the face of the administration's coup. Let's be honest, the administration didn't just make a deal last week. This has been planned and carefully hidden from the students. It's a breach of trust where the University Administration is telling the students and alumni, the very people who put their money into the university, that they aren't to be trusted. It's a callous administration playing the bully in the sandbox and the result is contemptible and a stain on Rice University. Fuck them!
Web: I will still listen but it will be a lot less available, and the station's influence locally will be significantly diminished and that will be a crushing blow for local music.
IAN WELLS, HOST, KTRU'S THE LOCAL SHOW AND REVELRY REPORT
Sale: Honestly I'm pretty upset. DJs quite literally had to find out by reading the newspaper. I've read Rice's official statements and am unsatisfied with their explanation for leaving students, alumni and volunteers in the dark for so long. Our donated transmitter was a trophy of our commitment to providing Houston with a wholly unique resource.
As an alumni I feel this is a breach of trust, and a dismissal of over 40 years of history.
Web: Keeping KTRU viable as a competitive web-only outlet will require a major overhaul, and the dedication of everyone involved, including the administration.
DAVID A. COBB, HOUSTON CALLING
Sale: People that still listen to terrestrial radio in the Houston area already have very few options for stations that play independent and creative music. I think this sale could hurt the local bands that perform and have their songs played on the radio, due to the decreased exposure.
Web: However, I hope that KTRU's future as an online radio station is viable in the long run and that they will be able to maintain the level of support for local music that they have done for years.
DAVID SADOF, HOUSTON MUSIC EXAMINER
The sale comes as a surprise and is unfortunate for the DJs and listeners of KTRU as well as Rice students and alumni. However, it is not all bad news for those wanting to hear Owls games and the station's mix of indie music and other programming. KTRU will still exist as an Internet station and with all the electronic devices available today, most listeners will still be able to listen to the station wherever and whenever they want.
It will be less convenient than simply turning on the radio, but I believe the station will maintain its current popularity. I believe KTRU's audience is technologically savvy and will have no trouble adapting to listening on the internet, cell phones, WiFi internet radios and other devices. In fact, I'm certain that many of them already do.
For the University of Houston the sale will allow KUHF to function as a 24-hour news station, something Houston has been lacking ever since KTRH abandoned that format for talk radio, while the 91.7 FM frequency will be rebranded as KUHC and focus on classical music. For the city of Houston, it will be great to have a full-time news station again.
While it is not what KTRU loyalists want to hear, the fact of the matter is that KTRU's audience, while extremely loyal, has always been a relatively small audience. KUHF already has a much larger audience and with the addition of KUHC that audience stands to grow for both stations.
QUINN BISHOP, CACTUS MUSIC
Sale: I only caught this on NPR this morning. This is very unfortunate and it doesn't seem like there was any community dialogue about the sale. Ultimately, you can't tell people what to do with they own and they have right to the sale. It is regrettable that listenership, and staffers, were not considered or given a voice in the decision.
Web: I listen online anyway, but I do not think it is sustainable unless people can listen in their cars. If I hosted a show, I would not likely continue doing so considering the drop in listenership. This does present an opportunity for other stations on the left end of the dial to gain a younger listenership. The flagship shows on KTRU deserve to be heard beyond the Web.
JAY CROSSLEY, WOOZYHELMET
Sale: I think the overall thing about it is that it's sad. So many musicians around town have such a strong connection to KTRU that it's such a dagger to the heart of creativity in Houston, not to mention all the actual Rice alumni, students, and DJs who feel this is a betrayal for the school to sell what was built and paid for by students. Its sad. I don't think its useful calling the administrators jerks or squares on message boards making fun of KTRU being all weird, but its a sad day and a loss for Houston.
That being said, I personally hate it when NPR switches over to classical, so yeah, that'll be nice. I just wish they could have taken some of the other crap off of Houston's airwaves. While in the current scheme of things, that's way too expensive, it's important for everybody to remember at a time like this that we live in a democracy and create the reality we can all live with. The FCC does make policies that affect the ability of community radio to exist, and dictate situations that make things like this happen, and maybe they're not preserving enough of the public airwaves for public use.
Perhaps it's time for Houston to grow some pirates. Or legal low-power neighborhood radio in Montrose, or something.
Web: Do they get to keep the studio? That'd be cool. Maybe things will actually get weirder and more fun if KTRU retools as an Internet, podcasting powerhouse, free of the FCC. Joe Mathlete and I have been talking about doing a show on KTRU for about a year. There would definitely be less of a "terrifying to be live on-air" barrier keeping us from actually going in and taping the first show.
I'm excited if some people involved with KTRU treat the disaster as opportunity and rage and freak out and make up stuff and come out of this showing the true deep valuable thing KTRU was the whole time. It will truly suck that you will probably never hear Melt Banana actually broadcast all over the city over the radio waves again in Houston. There was an empowerment thing for people who actually like music that we will lose with KTRU going to the Internet.
DAVID DOVE, NAMELESS SOUND:
It's a very sad situation. A huge hole will be left in the Houston cultural scene. I've been connected to KTRU for 10 years as a DJ, and another 15 years before that as a listener. I know that KTRU has been key to bringing a very diverse range of Houstonians together through its connections to the community and its wide range of music programming. (Though KTRU's programming is often seen as being underground and avant garde, this is not entirely accurate. KTRU presents blues, jazz, soul, world, Indian, Pan-African, folk, hip-hop, and many other forms of music).
Personally - KTRU was critical in shaping my listening by exposing me to contemporary (and traditional) forms of Jazz, New Music, world music, etc. In 2001, I formed Deep Listening Institute Houston (now Nameless Sound) a non-profit organization that presents more than 9 concerts per year of world-class artists, and reaches hundreds of young people every week (in public schools, community centers, and homeless shelters) with innovative music education programs.
My exposure to this music through KTRU was key to my developing passions. It sounds a little bit over-dramatic, but I can personally say that the station had a strong role in directing the course I've taken in my life and (and in turn, it has been critical to the audience and community served by Nameless Sound).
I know that a lot of people may never understand. And I've already read people saying that "Houston will now have a full time classical station like a real world-class city". I am a listener of KUHF. I have several friends who work there. And - Namelss Sound has benefitted greatly from KUHF's community programming (specifically, "The Front Row"). I am a friend and a fan of the station. But - KUHF's classical programming is not a great asset to vital music programming in Houston. Dedicated listeners of classical music (who I know) don't ever tune in or take it seriously. KUHF plays it very safe in its music programming.
I'm not against classical music being used as background (which I guess is the primary function of KUHF's programming to its listeners); but I have to acknowledge that the most diverse (by a long shot) music programming in Houston will be replaced by very conservative classical music programming.
Someone said "This is like if the Contemporary Arts Museum was closed and replaced by a gallery that only showed impressionist and classical painting". It's a very apt comparison, and I don't think that Houston would allow it to happen.
World music, Indian Music, Jazz (10 hours on Sunday), underground metal, underground hip-hop, eclectic folk/roots/ modern classical, underground electronic, spoken word. Many Houston listeners will never hear this stuff again. Through KTRU, a lot of people (young and old) are turned on to new music that they would never otherwise hear. Through my work in high schools all over Houston, I frequently meet kids who have found a beacon of light through KTRU's programming. It sounds dramatic, but its true. Lives are changed. It is likely that these kids would never have otherwise heard this stuff.
This is probably the greatest loss to music (and the arts in general) in Houston that I have known in my 25 years in this city's cultural community.
JEREMY HART, SPACE CITY ROCK, EX-KTRU DJ
Sale: I'm utterly and completely appalled, both as a Rice alum ('95) and former KTRU DJ ('92-'97 or so, off and on) and as a member of the Houston community at large. I'll admit that part of the reason why is a little on the selfish side -- I very, very rarely listen to actual radio stations online myself, preferring instead to listen to them on, well, the radio -- but beyond that, this feels like a big blow to the culture of both the university and the city.
KTRU is currently one of two truly oddball, off-the-wall radio stations in this town (the other being KPFT), which is a broadcast market saturated with soundalike carpetbagger "mainstream" stations and what sure seems like a ton of talk radio. People who tune in to KTRU do so to hear music they will very literally *never* hear on any other radio station in town, not even KPFT. KTRU exposes its audience to music that, while not always their cup of tea, necessarily, dives far beyond the likes of The Buzz or The Box.
I know that every time Ilisten, I hear something new and interesting, something I'd never run across otherwise, and I get to hear a lot of music most folks don't to begin with, just by the nature of what I do. While I've got no issue with classical music itself, turning KTRU into a fully-dedicated classical station effectively neuters the most creative, boldest radio station we have. KTRU is a station people from other cities encounter and are blown away by when they visit here. With this deal, Houston gets two stations playing classical music and NPR; how is that a benefit?
Web: As far as moving the station online, I think that's simply a ploy by the university administration to sideline the station while seeming to be nice about it: "well, look, guys - we'll let you keep broadcasting online, so what's the big deal?" The fact is, however, that moving KTRU off the airwaves will carve the station's listenership down to a tiny, tiny niche of what it currently is; the chance of some high-school kid stumbling across it on the radio dial and being blown away by, say, The Mountain Goats, will be zero.
In terms of legacy, too, I see this as a slap in the face to all the people out there who spent years, in some cases, working hard to make KTRU the station it is today. I know a large number of former staffers who devoted insane amounts of time to KTRU over the years, laboring for no money and against varying degrees of resistance from the powers that be at Rice... and now they're going to see the station they worked for and were proud of disappear from the airwaves.
What I'd really like to know is whether or not the university authorities who've made this decision even bothered to consult the students and alumni. As an alum myself, I know I didn't hear about this 'til late yesterday, not even 24 hours before the Board's meeting; I'd be very curious to hear if they talked with anybody before taking this step, or if they just decided on their own to do it, and screw the students and alumni.
What's the benefit to the students, in particular? I was a student when I started DJing at KTRU, and it honestly changed the course of my life, expanding my musical horizons far, far beyond what a kid who spent his high school years in rural Central Texas would've probably ever listened to otherwise. That's partly what KTRU is/was for, on the student side, and it kills me to see that go away.
And for what? So that UH can be kind enough to offer Rice students "paid internships" at the gobbled-up station? The last time I checked, Rice didn't even have any kind of Communications or Media majors for that to even benefit - are all the would-be mechanical engineers going to spent their time interning at a classical station, instead?
Whatever happens with this, I'm done with Rice University, now and forever. As an alumnus, I've given money in the past when I could, but that ends now. My alma mater won't see another dime from me.
OMAR AFRA, FREE PRESS HOUSTON/FITZGERALD'S
U of H? Are they still an accredited university?
RYAN CLARK, EX-SKYLINE NETWORK
Sale: The silver lining in all this is that the energy and the talent of so many people working at KTRU is going to finally be free from the stepchild shadow Rice seemed content to let them dwell under. My hope is that these people and their talents end up at KPFT. Which they really should 'cause KPFT is mostly crap. I would happily trade a bad community radio station and an under-resourced college radio station for one excellent spot on the dial.
Web: I think it's pretty bleak. When I worked in college radio, even the worst overnight shift was awesome - because you knew someone was listening. In their car, in a coffee shop that used to keep their radio tuned there, at their house. Maybe people called in. Mostly they didn't - but you knew at the very least those signals were going out into the ether, chasing Voyager I to the nearest stars.
What incentive is there for anyone to work the graveyard anymore? If you understand the mechanics of how to do a radio program, you've got the right stuff to make a podcast - and why wouldn't you just do that? Why would you plan and execute a great set at 3am on a Tuesday for a couple listeners when you could put something together in a format that they can carry around in their pocket and listen to on their own time? Why would you make your audience sit up at 3am on a Tuesday?
Sure, there will be people who will do it, but I think we can agree that the really ambitious, really talented people eventually will find other channels for expression. So maybe KTRU as a branding wrapper for a series of regular podcasts, but as a 24-hour stream? Meh.
RAD RICH, PUNK GURU/EX-KPFT, KTRU DJ
Sale: KTRU was one of the first stations I listened to when i was a kid. The S&M show played punk and all types of crazy music. I would have not heard MDC and other punk music if it wase't for them. Also I hung out there and did radio there before KPFT. So I have that history with the station.
I think the sale is bad for the alternative music scene because the station always supported the local music scene and always was a take-off of alternative bands. It's also bad becasue KUHF could be such a great NPR station by playing some of the great talk shows that are on other NPR stations. Like Talk of the Nation for example. U of H I think would not have the presence of doing a good job. Also the students are a part of the station at Rice and you would not have that at U of H. You don't have that now at U of H as students dont have a access to a radio station.
Web: Having it as a web based outlet will lose listeners. The sale is a bad idea even though Rice students I would think that its a part of Rice as the station was forced to air more Rice sports programming. That brings up another question as to what happens to Rice sports and access to basketball and baseball on the station. It's kind of bad for the music scene, though.
CHUCK ROAST, VINAL EDGE RECORDS/EX-KTRU DJ
Typical maneuver of monied interests. While KTRU may not have lived up to its potential, neither have most grand colleges. Any talk from Rice about KTRU not living up to its potential is simply a red herring. We were (are) so lucky to have KTRU in Houston. This affects not just listeners, but music artists, record shops, concert halls, etc. You want to hear Beethoven all day?
Nothing against Beethoven, but come up to Vinal Edge Records and I will give you a classical record to play all day. This town really doesn't need a classical 24 hour muzak station for local business to play in the background. I am sure there are a few of those on the Web to stream. When it wasn't operating through its "robo" function, KTRU was truly unique.
MATT SONZALA, AUSTINSURREAL/EX-HOUSTONSOREAL:
Sale: This is a tragedy, a true tragedy. In fact it's yet another tragedy in the downward spiral of radio in general. I am 38 years old and have listened to KTRU pretty regularly since 1989. While it's not always incredible, it's almost always essential. The support it gives to local bands, the experience it gives to young students, all of that is more valuable than a few more hours a day of NPR News - all of which can be listened to on demand, online at any time.
Web: All that being said, I grew up with radio. I love radio. I want radio to be great from left to right on the dial. But fact is it isn't. The corporations are destroying it to the point that in a few years there may not be any on air jobs left for humans anyway, so why teach/promote this at one of our nation's premier universities? I can get thousands of radio stations on my smart (er than me) phone, and maybe millions on the Internet. I have a bluetooth receiver in my car, and will soon have one in my home. Maybe we don't need radio anymore, at all.
It's my favorite format for receiving news. It feels so good when a real DJ plays me some real, especially new, music. But alas and alak, fuck it. Maybe we should just let it die. I wish UH would buy 97.9 The Box instead and fire all those motherfuckers and play nothing but bassoon music.
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