"We just play stuff that the other stations won't touch"
August 17, 2010 12:33 AM   Subscribe

Rice University to sell student-run radio station KTRU 91.7FM for a reported $9.5million to the University of Houston.

Originally started by engineering students in a dorm basement in 1967, KTRU's mission was "to educate the station membership, the greater Houston community, and the students of Rice University through its progressive and eclectic programming in the spirit of the station's non-commercial, educational license."

In the 40 years since then, KTRU has had a rich and controversial history, including a strange turn of events in 1991 which led to its power being boosted from 3,000 to 50,000 watts, and an effective listening radius of 50 miles, to prevent interference from its "neighbor" at 92.1FM, KRTS (now KROI).

Taking its educational mission to heart, the station earned a reputation for being independent, unusual, and (to many) unlistenable.

In 2000, Rice administrators locked out student and community DJ's over conflict related to increased university demands for athletics broadcasting. After 8 days of protests and much negative media attention (including a petition signed by 2,000 students, staff and alumni, as well as Mark Hosler of Negativland, Paul Westerberg, and David Byrne) the station was reopened.

KTRU 91.7FM was chosen as best radio station in Houston in 2000 and 2006 and best hip hop show in 2003 by the Houston Press.

The University of Houston intends to replace KTRU's current freeform eclectic programming (including specialty shows dedicated to blues, jazz, bluegrass, reggae, africana, americana, experimental/noise, local music, children's music, and metal) with classical music and arts programming, thus freeing up KUHF (UH's existing station) to focus on 24-hour NPR news and information.
posted by unknowncommand (38 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Despite the fact that KTRU isn't incredibly popular at Rice, I can't imagine that this will go over well with the student body.
posted by GammaGoblin at 12:39 AM on August 17, 2010

On its website, KTRU describes itself as "a free-form, eclectic radio station that thinks it's a bad thing to play the same song twice in a span of an hour." But much of the programming is automated, not live.

$9.5 million would pay the tuition of 1113 in-state students for one year:

UH Tuition and Fees: $8,532

And the annual operating costs of a 50,000 Watt transmitter would probably pay for another few hundred students.

But you know "to play the stuff other stations won't touch" it's probably worth forcing UH students to borrow more money.
posted by three blind mice at 3:00 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

The University of Houston intends to replace KTRU's current freeform eclectic programming (including specialty shows dedicated to blues, jazz, bluegrass, reggae, africana, americana, experimental/noise, local music, children's music, and metal) with classical music and arts programming,

Sigh. That's just fucking great. Those knuckleheads wouldn't know actual culture if it came up and bit 'em in their fat suburban asses. Classical music, jesus...

Pretty sure it was KTRU where I did an interview once, in the early 90s, while on a Knitting Factory-organized tour with my band.

What a bummer.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:02 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Get it while it's hot.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:08 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

They're not really selling the radio station, are they? They are just selling the equipment and the bandwidth, the station itself is being killed.
posted by ninebelow at 3:36 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well, that sucks. Sucks sucks sucks.
That is all.
posted by pomegranate at 3:49 AM on August 17, 2010

I think this is a net win for Houston. We need 24-hour NPR. And, I've been pretty pleased with UH's KUHF (guess I'm one of flapjax's uncultured suburban fat-asses).
posted by Houstonian at 4:47 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Classical music, jesus...

Well, I'm not sure what He thinks, but it's not like there are many classical stations left anymore, either (seven in the entire state, by my count).

Besides, when you look at it in the broader sense of the entire Houston market, it's effectively NPR talk that's replacing it (since UH is shuffling classical from one station to the other).
posted by pmurray63 at 5:31 AM on August 17, 2010

My impression has always been that people like the idea of KTRU better than the actual KTRU.
posted by uberfunk at 5:40 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll say it: I lived the first half of my life in Houston, and it's a boring place that now just got a little more boring. KTRU was the one cool station on a radio filled with morning zoos and a couple of classical stations. Now it's going.

It's the death of college radio. It's the death of radio, period, which has been dying a long time. At least it will be mandated by the government to be on my cell phone now.
posted by fungible at 6:22 AM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

$9.5 million would pay the tuition of 1113 in-state students for one year:

UH Tuition and Fees: $8,532

And the annual operating costs of a 50,000 Watt transmitter would probably pay for another few hundred students.
Yes, and now Rice will be able to have more students, and won't need to power their radio antenna. So what? Money is being transferred from one school to another. These schools are not intended to be nothing beyond graduate factories, It's not the university of Phonex. And providing more entertainment and culture on campus will help attract better students and faculty.

Obviously these people think doing this will be worth the cost. If people tune into the station regularly it's basically going to provide advertising indefinitely, both on the classical station and for everyone who tunes into NPR.

Maybe it sucks that the station is being taken off the air. And personally I find classical music pretty boring most of the time. But simply making a $$$ and ¢¢¢ argument against the deal is kind of ridiculous when you don't consider the other side of the balance sheet.
posted by delmoi at 6:24 AM on August 17, 2010

WREK in Atlanta is a similar station, run by Georgia Tech's (mostly engineering) students and with programming philosophies similar to KTRU. Hopefully the GT administration doesn't get any wild ideas from this. In the meantime, get it while you can.
posted by intermod at 6:24 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

KTRU has a spot on my preset buttons but I've never been able to listen to it for more than five minutes at a time. Their 50,000 watt license is what's valuable and Houston needs NPR programming that's on for more than morning and evening drive time.
posted by Standeck at 6:44 AM on August 17, 2010

I am so down with that religious professor, Stroup! That education should be both religiously profound and a no-limits self-exploration is my SHIT!
posted by MNDZ at 6:47 AM on August 17, 2010

The president of Rice just send this email:

Date: August 17, 2010
To: Rice colleagues

I am writing to let you know that we have reached a preliminary agreement with the University of Houston System to purchase Rice's 50,000-watt radio frequency and broadcast tower for use by Houston’s local public broadcasting station, KUHF. Rice’s station, KTRU, will continue to operate a Web-based radio station at www.ktru.org.

We made the decision to sell the radio tower and frequency for several reasons. The economic downturn which began two years ago has forced Rice -- and virtually all colleges and universities across the country -- to make hard choices to prioritize spending and maximize the use of our resources. As we have implemented necessary budget cuts over the past two years, our goal has been to focus on our core missions of teaching and research and, to the extent possible, to avoid layoffs. We have constantly asked, and will continue to ask, how we can best apply our resources to achieve our aspirations.

The KTRU tower stood out as one of the university’s most underutilized resources. In an era when Internet radio is rapidly growing in popularity, it became apparent that the 50,000-watt radio station that broadcasts KTRU's programming is a valuable but vastly underutilized resource that is not essential to providing our students the wide range of opportunities they need, including media opportunities.

A recent Arbitron report showed that KTRU's audience was so small that it did not even register in the ratings. Most college radio stations around the country have less than 5,000 watts, and since the late '90s a number of them have added the online format and moved to online only.

At the same time, KUHF, Houston’s National Public Radio station, was looking for a way to provide both 24-hour all-news and all-classical music programming. Houston is the only major city in the country that lacks these dual services. To fill that gap, the University of Houston System expressed an interest in purchasing Rice’s FM frequency and tower, and we eventually agreed on a price of $9.5 million.

The sale must be approved by the UH Board of Regents at its meeting today, and then by the Federal Communications Commission.

Some of the sale proceeds will go toward the cost of the new East Servery, which will be adjacent to Lovett and Will Rice residential colleges on the south campus. This will both provide one of the most desired improvements to the residential experience in the south colleges, as well as help us achieve the overall capital plan approved by our board of trustees. We also plan to form a committee including students to provide input on other uses of the proceeds, such as for scholarships, improvements to recreational facilities and enhancements to the online station and other student media facilities and programs.

KTRU will continue to serve its campus and external audience with student-managed programming via www.ktru.org. The Internet already brings KTRU to national and global listeners, and there are opportunities for that audience to grow. Will Robedee, the station's first general manager, will continue in that role.

KUHF plans to use the additional frequency to broadcast 24-hour classical music and fine arts programming on 91.7 FM; 88.7 FM will become its all-news channel. KUHF will raise funds to pay for the acquisition.

We realize that some loyal fans of KTRU may lament these changes, but it is important to remember that KTRU is not going away. Fans can still find KTRU's unique blend of music and programming online. Meanwhile, a greater number of students can benefit from the improvements in campus facilities and offerings made possible by the sale of the broadcast tower.

As much as I prefer to consult widely and involve all stakeholders in important decisions, this sale required months of complicated and, by necessity, confidential negotiations. My management team and I approached those discussions always with the best interests of our students, faculty and alumni and the future of our university as our highest priorities.

For more information about the KTRU plans, see the story and FAQs on rice.edu.

Thank you, as always, for your hard work and dedication.

Warm regards,

David W. Leebron
President, Rice University
posted by jjray at 6:57 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm a UH alum and I love NPR, but this makes me really sad. KTRU is on my dial, but I never push the little number 5. (It really is quite hard to listen to, unless you are obsessed with rare tracks.) Rice doesn't seem to need the money, as they have a $4 billion endowment fund. I think their decision makers just plain didn't like that quirky part of the university. I'll leave it to Rice Alumni to comment on the impact on student life, but I just hate how all the little wrinkles that make institutions fun have to be ironed out of our whole society before the type-A personalities will be happy.
posted by SkinnerSan at 6:58 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Their 50,000 watt license is what's valuable

"KTRU gave something that no other station in Houston can offer. While some may not understand KTRU’s music, it is not difficult to understand how a city as large as Houston can benefit from something like KTRU. Houston strives to be a world city, and Rice benefits from that growth. However, Houston is often mocked for its art scene, or lack thereof. KTRU provided Houston with a desperately needed outlet for local talent. Now, Houston loses that artistic outlet, and Rice loses the constant praise that came from hosting that outlet. It may cost more than $10 million to get that kind of praise again."

From this excellent blog post.
posted by 2or3whiskeysodas at 7:07 AM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

This is horrible. The fact that they are going to use the money to build a dorm cafeteria is a sign of everything that has gone wrong with 21st-century higher education in America.

From the history link:
Rodney Gibbs (Brown '92) was the KTRU station manager from 1990 to 1992. He said students were not informed of the dramatic increase in wattage until about six months before it happened and were not involved in the decision.

Gibbs said he and the other students at KTRU were hesitant about the deal, fearing that a move to 50,000 watts might result in the loss of student control. He met with Stebbings and then-Director of Student Activities Sarah Nelson Crawford to discuss those concerns. "We were promised up and down that the administration was not going to take away any programming control from KTRU at the present time, nor would it ever in the future," he said.
posted by grouse at 7:09 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

this is terrible. it's not like they're going to be doing anything outside-the-box with the license & equipment; they're going to add another shitty npr station that plays classical music between state-subsidized news segments. it's the cheapest, easiest thing to do with the license, and a whole heckuva lot less trouble for the powers that be.

$9.5 million would pay the tuition of 1113 in-state students for one year: ...

if you think one dime of that $9.5M will go into someone's scholarship fund, you're mistaken. The money will be used for campus improvements, including a new food service venture. A student committee will help determine how to use the rest of the money.

i wonder if this is a 'private' sale or if there was some notice of public sale? at those prices, though, you wouldn't find many takers outside of corporations or huge institutions.

this is just terrible.
posted by msconduct at 7:17 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I gotta say, I've tried to listen to KTRU and found it unlistenable. Most of what they've been doing was served much better by KPFT. But at the same time, I liked knowing that KTRU was there.

Those knuckleheads wouldn't know actual culture if it came up and bit 'em in their fat suburban asses. Classical music, jesus...

You, sir, are incorrect.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:24 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Tip for "unlistenable" college radio stations/locally indispensable cultural jewels: spin yourself off into an independently-owned non-profit which the associated university can't as easily touch.
posted by 3.2.3 at 7:39 AM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Tip for "unlistenable" college radio stations/locally indispensable cultural jewels: spin yourself off into an independently-owned non-profit which the associated university can't as easily touch.

Yeah, like Rice ever would have allowed that.
posted by grouse at 7:40 AM on August 17, 2010


As a college radio nut, I'm almost embarrassed that I never listened to this station.

I was familiar with KTRU through its GM, Will Robedee. He was very active in CBI, a consortium of college radio stations; gave a lot of great advice on the listserv on how to run a college radio station, and most importantly, an advocate for affordable licensing for college radio stations' web streams, and was instrumental in recently negotiating with SoundExchange [a royalties collection agency] which resulted in no increase in licensing fees from 2009-2016 for college radio stations and removed a proposed stipulation in the deal that would have required college radio stations to log all music played [including extraneous info like album and label] and would have been a large and expensive burden on college radio stations that broadcast online, especially smaller stations [my station would have been probably forced to shut down or broadcast illegally].

I don't doubt that he put a lot into KTRU.
posted by fizzix at 7:53 AM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

The last real alternative (as opposed to "mallternative") station which consistently played music less than twenty years old vanished here recently. It, too, was under an educational license. Money was funneled away from the station to pay for, well, items not related to the radio station. Eventually, the station was defunded, in some amazingly dumb ways, and then sold as a Bible-thumping repeater station, more or less making a mockery of the local community push behind having those Class D licenses in the first place. Most of those have been snapped up by the religios, which is why you find all of the hellfire and brimstone chat at the lower end of the dial.

The next best alternative is a college radio station which is listenable, but only on campus, because the nearest NPR affiliate quivered in fear that there would be interference, despite all available engineering evidence. FM, now, has only so much bandwidth to work in, and with territory overlap, you can only have a finite number of licenses in an area.

The license is everything. The license is the property. Not the name, not the transmitter. The license is the only asset of import.

Everything about radio in America is dirty and has been so for decades.
posted by adipocere at 7:53 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really want to be upset about this... but I can't. When I lived in Houston, I was like SkinnerSan in that I had KTRU as a preset, but ultimately never actually listened despite being a big fan of the idea of KTRU. I suspect that a lot (though certainly not all) of the station's audience is the same way. Hence the terrible ratings.

If KTRU had a more typically powered transmitter for a student radio station, this wouldn't be an issue. However since it doesn't, I can't help but agree with the press release that the money spent on the 50,000 watt transmitter is just not worth it.

That said, I don't find that the compromise, continuing the station as a web-only stream, particularly satisfying. I would much rather see the university invest in a lower power transmitter somewhere around Rice Village, assuming that an open frequency can be found, so that there would be an over-the-air signal at least in the area around the university which would allow the station to continue to serve the university and surrounding area in its original capacity.
posted by Joe Schlabotnik at 8:12 AM on August 17, 2010

See, I find the opposite. Most of what KPFT plays is lame folk music. I love KPFT, but only for its talk segments.

Yeah, now that I think about it, I was thinking of KPFT from about 15 years ago. I haven't really been listening to them much for several years now.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:13 AM on August 17, 2010

Yeah, I gotta say, I've tried to listen to KTRU and found it unlistenable.

a friend of mine told me once about the new orleans college station: 'i love wtul. i don't always like it, but i love it.' he went on to say that he, at times, found it unlistenable; at other times, he was introduced to some of the best music he ever heard. so even when he doesn't like what he's hearing, he's pretty much guaranteed that he won't hear it on any other station he can pull in on a radio. the same cannot be said about npr.
posted by msconduct at 8:18 AM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

A bit of a tangent here, but for anybody on the other end of I-45 (DFW area), the new KXT, a spinoff from KERA, has been pretty damn awesome. I still miss KGSR a bit, but KXT trumps it in the no ads department.
posted by kmz at 8:39 AM on August 17, 2010

Anecdote: I can remember driving my car, packed with all my belongings, into Houston when I was 21. Flipping around the dial, seeing what radio was like here. Surely it would be better than in Ft. Worth, right?

Suddenly...death metal. Death metal?! DEATH METAL! OH MY GOD, THERE'S A RADIO STATION HERE THAT PLAYS DEATH METAL! Not that I particularly care about death metal; in fact, I find it pretty much unlistenable. But still, I was moving into a city big and weird enough to have a radio station that plays DEATH METAL! It was the first thing that reassured me that I just might like it here.

Let's say that I'm an 18-year-old moving to Houston today. I flip around the FM dial. Hm. They have two NPR stations...and one of them plays exclusively classical music. Sigh.

posted by 2or3whiskeysodas at 8:41 AM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


I was a teenager in Houston in the 1980s and KTRU was my window out of the world of Air Supply and Bon Jovi. So many options: not just Sonic Youth and Skinny Puppy and Ministry and fIREHOSE but local industrial bands like Blistering Moments, awesome local funk bands like Sprawl, synthesizer moodscapes like later Wendy Carlos, pure weirdness like French Toast Man. And at the tender age of 14 I'd never conceived of non-commercial radio. Here was a radio station just 3 miles from my house, played by folks just a few years older than me, why I could even go visit! So awesome.

I think the era of college radio is mostly over, just like the era of commercial radio is mostly over. Fortunately we now have the Internet, so a jealously hoarded little slice of FM bandwidth is less precious and essential than it used to be. Still, KTRU was awesome, and I miss it.
posted by Nelson at 8:42 AM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yeah, and the death metal on late Saturday nights. The band names were the best part. I'm sure I heard the various death metal DJs over the years calmly tell me things like "That was Aborted Messiah. Next up: Sacrificial Son from their new album Murder by Number. But first, this PSA."

Another great memory is the children's show. Around 2002 or 2003, there was a DJ who clearly loved the show. She was very enthusiastic about each song. That show is where I learned about Free Guitar Lessons for Animals.
posted by Pants! at 9:29 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

"They have two NPR stations...and one of them plays exclusively classical music. Sigh."

Unless you, you know, like classical music. Then you'll say, "Awesome, we can listen to classical music on the radio."
posted by Jahaza at 9:40 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I listened in the 70's and also found it a nice break from the top 40 crap. Still, most of my friends were listening to Crash on KLOL while we cruised Westheimer. Then somebody got a tape deck for their car and our world was never the same.
posted by jabo at 10:42 AM on August 17, 2010

The University of Houston Board of Regents approved the purchase of the transmitter and broadcasting rights this morning at 11:15am. Further details and interviews will be available via the Houston Press's site later today.

KTRU DJ's have rebooted SaveKTRU.org, the website initially created during the station's shutdown in 2000. Rice students and alumni are weighing in on both sides of the matter at the university's Facebook page.
posted by unknowncommand at 11:01 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was a DJ at KTRU for three and a half years. KTRU was one of the things that made Rice Rice. This is all kinds of suck.

I wish I could say I was surprised.
KTRU is operated by the students of Rice University, and the opinions expressed on this station are not necessarily those of the students, faculty, or administration of Rice University. Obviously. KTRU operates and a frequency of 91.7 megahertz, with an effective radiated power of 650 watts*. Portions of our programming are mechanically reproduced, and we now end our broadcast day. KTRU Houston.
posted by erniepan at 11:29 AM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

If it means getting a real round-the-clock NPR station, I welcome this news.

KPFT is mostly local content, and is largely unlistenable crap. (and I say this as someone who agrees with the lefty politics they espouse).

I see the value in campus radio from the perspective of students who want to start a career in the business. I'm also sure that Rice radio has had some great people put their blood, sweat, and tears into the station. All that said, the Rice station never impressed me much. Every time I tune in, I find myself flipping stations pretty quickly.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:19 PM on August 17, 2010

This is the sort of thing that makes me both distrust and fear becoming an old person.

KTXT, the Texas Tech radio station (in Lubbock) was shut down with essentially no warning earlier this year. As a former employee of KVRX (UT Austin's station) and a member of the student media oversight board at UT, this trend is really disturbing.

I've never been in Houston long enough to listen to KTRU, but it's kind of surprising to hear it described as "unlistenable." I did check out the playlists and see that they make the station I worked a look like Top 40 (and that is a station where any famous songs/bands are disallowed). However, who is to say that classical music is objectively better than African music, or rare experimental tracks? It's just a matter of taste. College radio is a place for people to get their start and to learn the trade, as well as to share new and unusual music that you will absolutely never hear anywhere else (except the internet... if you go looking for it). Classical stations can be marketable enough to be formed as a for-profit enterprise. Buying up a college radio station needn't occur for there to be more hours of NPR or a devoted classical station in Houston.

To be fair, I always thought that KTRU was underutilizing their 50k watts (my station is only 3,000 and only on at night and we would've died if we had 24-hours at 50,000 watts), but that should result in some overhaul of how they run the station, not a sneaky sale with no student or community input.

Honestly, if Rice wants to save money, shut down their crappy football program. Nobody, including students and alumni, have ever cared that much about the team. I'd be willing to bet it operates at a loss.
posted by elpea at 3:54 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

But then where would the marching band play?
posted by Pants! at 9:01 PM on August 27, 2010

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