KTRU Deal A "Black Mark" On Rice University, Says Yang

If you've got a spare hour or two this holiday season, Rocks Off recommends you take a gander at the petition to deny Rice University's proposed sale of 91.7 FM's facilities to the University of Houston system, which the Friends of KTRU filed with the Federal Communications Commission last Friday. (You can see it online here.) At fortysomething pages, not counting appendices, it's a whopper but still a good read.

The petition is full of familiar arguments, such as the deal wrongfully vanquishing KTRU's docket of local-music-heavy programming to the Internet, and that Rice and U of H's secrecy-clouded negotiations may have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. But Rocks Off has covered the story of Rice's deal to sell (or sell out) the student station extensively since it happened in August, and we still found a few surprises.

For one thing, we did not realize many Houston-area classical-music fans - especially in the suburbs - may be in for a rude awakening when (and if) the deal goes down. 91.7 frequency's is not nearly as strong as at 88.7, so should U of H shift KUHF's programming to 91.7 in favor of 24-hour NPR syndication, it might be bye bye Bach for a lot of people.

Joey Yang has been there since the beginning, both as current KTRU station manager and one of the founders and board members of Friends of KTRU. Rocks Off spoke with Yang Tuesday morning at of a rather busy time for the member of Rice's class of 2012 - besides the acting point man for a group trying to overturn a $9.5 million transaction, he's also in the middle of final exams.

Rocks Off: Realistically, what do you think the chances are the FCC will deny this transfer?

Joey Yang: We were told that the precedence isn't great - that a petition to deny assignment of license has never been successful. However, the FCC has come out lately making some really strong statements about the importance of localism in radio, and I think if they consider what the new station is planning on broadcasting and what KTRU currently broadcasts, the way that we focus on local music is exactly what the FCC is looking for. If they care about what they claim to care about, I think we should have a very strong argument.

RO: Overall, what is morale like at the station right now?

JY: We're happy to get this petition to deny sent off. It's a reflection on how hard everyone at the station has worked since the middle of August. And especially to be students who are balancing full course schedules, to put together something like this is an incredible accomplishment. Morale at the station is getting pretty high, especially since we are looking at going off-air perhaps a little later than we originally thought.

RO: What do you think the strongest argument is within the Friends of KTRU's petition?

JY: It would have to be the localism. We have a local show, we feature local music on our playlists; it's something that we strive to focus on. It's not something that any other radio station focuses on. The hip-hop station might play chopped and screwed, but that doesn't mean they're supporting the entire breadth of local talent that we are.

There was an article [in Radio Online], "FCC Commissioner Copps Calls for Emphasis on Local":

The goal here is more localism in our program diet, more local news and information, and a lot less streamed-in homogenization and monotonous nationalized music at the expense of local and regional talent.

I mean, the FCC commissioner just said that a few days ago. When they look at our petition to deny, they're going to see a proposal for streamed-in homogenization and monotonous nationalized music at the expense of local and regional talent [on KUHC/A] - that's exactly the words they say. So when you consider what the FCC claims to care about, if they care about it, then in terms of real value to the community with local programming, there's no comparison.

RO: If you had to guess, what would you say the two universities' administrations' strongest counter-argument might be?

JY: I think it would just be that this is business as usual, the FCC shouldn't be standing in the way of business transactions, that a petition to deny has never been honored, so there's no reason the FCC should make an exception.

RO: Explain why Friends of KTRU says broadcast radio isn't quite as dead as a lot of people think.

JY: A recent study showed, and unfortunately I don't have the exact study to reference, but it showed that the majority of people - especially in 18-35 and the next age bracket - still find out their new music mostly through the radio. As much as Internet radio has proliferated in recent years, with Pandora, iTunes and whatever other online music-streaming services, the biggest way for people to learn about new music is through the radio.

Internet radio may or may not be the future, but for right now, broadcast radio is still the most important medium. I get calls every shift I take, you know, "What is this? This is really cool." It's people finding out about new music, and it's through FM, because FM is so widely available.

RO: Have you or the Friends of KTRU's attorneys found out anything else about how the negotiations may have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act?

JY: To be honest, that wasn't really the focus of our efforts recently, because that's really not an argument the FCC cares about - whether or not they followed due process or whatever. The FCC's not concerned about that. They're just concerned about the localism [and] whether or not U of H is a suitable holder of the license. So we haven't really looked into it at this point, but it's something that we will continue to look into.

RO: From what you said Monday, why do you think Rice still hasn't gone "on the record" about its decision?

JY: The way they went about it was embarrassing for the institution, and it leaves a black mark on the way that they're perceived. It doesn't surprise me, that they're avoiding coming out on the record and saying "We did this," more than what people already know.

RO: Do you have any idea how many people took advantage of this public comment period, and what they might have said?

JY: We have over 800 messages in our Friends of KTRU email account. Those are people who emailed the FCC and copied friendsofktru@gmail.com in their letter. There are probably a lot more people who forgot to add our email address, so I would guess somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000.

RO: Now that the comment period is over, and it could be months before the FCC announces a decision, what are Friends of KTRU and the staff planning to do in the interim?

JY: Rice and U of H have ten days to reply, and we'll have another week after that, so we're going to prepare for some counter-arguments they're going to make.

RO: Is either the staff at the station or Friends of KTRU concerned about any kind of reprisals from the administration?

JY: Well, the administration, despite their promises to talk to us, hasn't really gone out of their way to even acknowledge us, so I'm not worried about it. However, the thought is in the back of our head, but we're just trying to do what we think is right.

RO: Best-case scenario: If the sale does get blocked, there would still be significant issues about signal strength, size of the audience and so forth. What are your thoughts about that?

JY: So what exactly are you referring to here? Sorry.

RO: Just some of the points I think that Rice cited in their explanation why they were selling the station - the signal's not very strong, the audience isn't very big. Have you thought about what you might be able to do to counter that?

JY: Well, in terms of signal strength, there's not a lot we can do, because of the way the FCC governs at what power you can broadcast. The signal we're pretty much stuck with. We'll look into the issues with reception around campus, obviously.

In terms of size of audience, we're going to keep doing what we're doing, basically. I think the situation will draw a lot of attention to the way that we provide local programming that's homegrown, produced by students and all this stuff. I think we'll play that up.

It's always been tacitly acknowledged that we do try to provide the community with a place to hear Houston music. I think we'll play that up going forth. Regardless of if we stay on FM or not, if we do go on the Internet, one way we can stay grounded to Houston is by showcasing local talent.

RO: If the transfer goes through, it seems like KTRU might have a contentious relationship with the administration. What do you think you guys might do if that should happen?

JY: We've historically been a thorn in the administration's side. I think with the whole 2000 incident and when they upgraded the station without our permission in '91, KTRU and the administration have had a long, interesting history. We've dealt with it before, we'll deal with it again. Whatever they throw at us, we're a pretty resilient group.

RO: Have you given any thought about how you can spruce up the Web site?

JY: Yeah. We're actually looking into a redesign. Expect to see a new Web site roll out maybe this winter, probably before we would go off-air. Obviously if we're going to be Internet-only we need to have a Web site that's easy to navigate and things like that. I think the current design for our Web site has to be over ten years old.

RO: And is there any kind of KTRU smartphone app right now, or plans for one?

JY: Yeah, we have an iPhone app. A listener actually created one and submitted it to the app store for us, and told us, "Hey, I made an app for KTRU," which was a pleasant surprise. It's pretty basic - it tells you what's playing and streams KTRU, but it's a way to listen on your iPhone. We're looking into developing an Android app.

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