What’s Left of the Dial

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Article in the Nashville Scene:

For a surreal stretch of hours last June, a radio tuned to 91.1 FM in Nashville did nothing but emit bottomless, hissing static. The erstwhile WRVU, which for decades beamed out an engaging, erratic mishmash of everything from punk rock to country classics, jump blues to hip-hop, had been sold to local NPR affiliate WPLN, its signal cut off abruptly.

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A year later, the frequency is home to WFCL and its schedule of classical music, and WRVU is now an online and HD-radio entity. But the broadcast license for 91.1 FM still legally belongs to Vanderbilt Student Communications — and so, although everything has changed, in a sense nothing really has.

As was the case a year ago this week, three things still have to happen before the sale can be completed in full. First, WPLN must pay the remaining $3.05 million balance on the purchase price. Second, WPLN must apply to the Federal Communications Commission for transfer of the broadcast license by December of this year. And last, the FCC must approve the license transfer.

Nashvillians of a certain tax bracket likely have already received an entreaty to help pick up the remainder of the tab for the new classical station. A cheerful yellow package, replete with an engaging narrative by arts writer (and Scene contributor) John Pitcher and upbeat quotes from Mayor Karl Dean and TPAC president Kathleen O’Brien, extols the reader to make “a sound investment” in the nascent WFCL — with an ultimate goal of $4.5 million to cover the purchase, equipment upgrades and additional staff.

WPLN president Rob Gordon tells the Scene that if all goes well, the campaign will probably take “two to three years” to raise the needed money. “We knew that going in,” he adds, while admitting the process has been bumpy at times. “We’ve learned a lot about capital campaigns,” he says with a gentle, self-deprecating laugh.

But no matter how long the fundraising slogs on, Gordon says money won’t be an obstacle to consummating the sale with VSC come year’s end. “We’ve secured bridge financing,” Gordon explains, which will come in the form of a loan from SunTrust.

The new station itself appears to be thriving. “Within weeks more than 40,300 people were enjoying classical music each week on 91.1 FM,” according to the capital campaign brochure. “The audience took off really fast,” Gordon adds, citing an increase of about 10,000 listeners above WRVU’s average FM audience over a previous five-year stretch — though some of the WRVU numbers were recorded using an older, less accurate system of measurement. A recent live broadcast of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra performing at Carnegie Hall showcased the potential for the new WFCL to support and show off an orchestra with growing national clout.

At the same time, WRVU — which College Music Journal called “one of the nation’s top college stations” just four months before it was pulled from the FM band where WFCL is now — has attempted to make do with a potentially limitless online audience but, at least for the time being, a diminished reach in its own backyard. Which raises the question: Does what the Nashville airwaves gain in WFCL make up for what they have lost in WRVU?

One person in a unique position to assess that balance is former Scene managing editor Jonathan Marx. A longtime journalist as well as a veteran of the Nashville band Lambchop, Marx now serves as director of communications for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, which stands to benefit in visibility and audience cultivation from the new classical-music station. And yet Marx himself is a WRVU alumnus — proof of the community impact the old 91 Rock once had.

“Professionally and personally speaking, I think it’s wonderful that Nashville now has a 24-hour classical station, which wasn’t even the case before,” Marx says. “I love the fact that WFCL not only broadcasts classical music, but as WPLN did in the past, it also broadcasts Nashville Symphony concerts each season, which provides an opportunity for people who might not otherwise have the means to tune in and hear their hometown orchestra.

“All that said, I can’t be objective about the loss of WRVU because it was such a formative part of my life, from the age of 10 onward. My brother had a show on the station when I was in high school, and so did a friend of my sister’s. And, eventually, my friends had shows on the station, and so did I. And through that process of experiencing the station’s often erratic and unprofessional output, both as a listener and as an on-air host, I grasped the idea that, wow, maybe I could actually do something with my life where I was able to share the experience of music with other people. So I really do have WRVU to thank (along with a lot of other things) for inspiring me to pursue a job in the arts.”

That kind of testimonial is a major reason why the WFCL/WRVU transition provoked such hard feelings — and why a core group of 91 Rock supporters continues to lobby to thwart the sale.

“The future of WRVU is of course yet to be written,” Vanderbilt Student Communications board chair Mark Wollaeger told the Scene last June. “Largely it is up to the WRVU staff and DJs, who will have VSC’s financial and moral support in making the transition into a streaming and HD future.” (Wollaeger did not reply to repeated interview requests for this story.)

Vanderbilt junior Robert Ackley was student general manager when the sale was announced, and perhaps more than any other WRVU staffer at the moment is in charge of charting the station’s future. In a video interview posted on InsideVandy last June, Ackley characterized the way the VSC board voted on the sale — calling an extra meeting soon after telling him (and the Scene) that no decision had been made — as “kind of underhanded.”

But in the year since, Ackley has moved away from resistance and instead tried to focus on making the new WRVU — streamed via a third-party Internet service called Live365, and over the air to what he admits is a very limited audience via HD radio — the best it can be. And while he still describes losing the FM frequency as “terribly unfortunate,” Ackley says, “We exist for the discovery of music. We can still do that.”

Ackley is careful to parse how he describes the new WRVU’s audience: There are “hundreds of streams open every day,” he says gingerly, which is likely far less than the 30,000 or so weekly listeners the station enjoyed over the airwaves. But it’s clear Ackley sees the advantages, and potential for growth, that come with existing in the digital realm.

“I feel pretty optimistic,” Ackley says. “We have a lot of data to suggest things are going well.” One interesting stat: Undergraduate applications for DJ training have almost doubled since the station went off the air. “A lot of people feel they want to prove WRVU still has a lot to offer, even online,” Ackley says. “Ironically, losing the frequency has rallied support.”

Another interesting stat: According to Gordon, so far only two Vanderbilt students have participated in the WPLN internship program that was part of the sale agreement — “the part that really excites us,” as Wollaeger put it in a video interview with InsideVandy.

Meanwhile, something curious has happened — or rather, hasn’t happened: Some 16 months after college station KUSF in San Francisco was sold to the radio network KUSC, the FCC still has not approved the transfer of that broadcast license. Instead, the FCC issued a letter of inquiry, halting the transfer process until a litany of questions could be answered to the regulators’ satisfaction. As of this writing, the sale is still in limbo.

Asking for some clarification in a multimillion-dollar deal may not sound unusual, but according to Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance in Oakland, Calif., the FCC’s action was “almost unprecedented in a noncommercial license transfer.” Speaking to the Bay Citizen earlier this month, communications attorney Michael Couzens characterized the delay as “extremely unusual,” adding that such a setback has the potential to derail a deal as financial backers tire of waiting. Couzens is currently working with those hoping to scuttle WRVU’s acquisition.

And while some details unique to the KUSF deal may have raised the FCC’s suspicions — accusations of premature fundraising and destruction of station equipment prior to the sale announcement — many college radio watchers see the KUSF case as a potential bellwether. “Our sense,” Rosenberg says, “is that [the FCC is] concerned about consolidation on the noncommercial educational band.”

Sharon Scott doesn’t just share that sense — she’s betting on it. Scott is president of WRVU Friends and Family, a nonprofit group dedicated to returning the station to the FM airwaves. “Below 92 FM is reserved for the people of America to use as communications, and the government wants to be sure it’s being used properly to serve the local community,” Scott says. “That’s a big issue for the FCC, and one issue where we think [the WRVU sale is] going to run into trouble.”

It remains to be seen what the FCC will finally decide in the KUSF case, and what bearing, if any, that decision will have on the WRVU sale. But many observers see a connection. “Our attorneys see this as a national issue,” Scott says, and both she and Rosenberg point to a string of university broadcast license sell-offs in recent years, mostly to classical music stations or religious broadcasters. To college radio stalwarts like Scott, this trend has been detrimental to local audiences.

“We believe WRVU served the community greatly,” Scott says, “and do not believe another Nashville Public Radio station will serve the same community.”

When WPLN applies for transfer of the WRVU broadcast license, the general public will have 30 days to comment. During that time, WRVU Friends and Family intend to submit what’s called a petition to deny — that’s what triggered the holdup of the KUSF sale, and it’s where WRVU Friends and Family see their opening, no matter how much of a long shot it may be. “We realize the only way to really save the frequency is to fight it with the FCC,” Scott says, citing the failure of petitions and letter-writing campaigns to move the needle at all with the Vanderbilt administration, which has remained steadfastly and emphatically hands-off.

“Even though it seems like it’s all over and done,” Scott says, “it’s really exciting when you dig in and see how close and how possible it is to get WRVU back on the air.” While Ackley may not share Scott’s optimism, he says without hesitation, “Everyone at the station would be glad to get the frequency back.”

But would a victory for WRVU Friends and Family really be a victory at all? Even if the FCC did block the sale — which would be unprecedented — the license would still belong to VSC, the very corporation that decided to sell it in the first place. Ackley and Scott both note that there was no representative from WRVU when the VSC board voted to sell the license. But there will be later this year when, if all goes as planned, the FCC will receive the license transfer application and, shortly thereafter, the petition to deny. At that point, the future of the Nashville airwaves will once again hang in the balance.

 

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