The latest battle of the Bayou City airwaves is over, and, for once, the good guys won. At least that's the preliminary verdict from Houston, home of the 50,000-watt Rice University student radio station, KTRU.
It took a broadcasting shutdown, an instant international protest movement, and a student "gag-in" at the university president's mansion, but (at least for the immediate future) KTRU's student radio volunteers have successfully defended themselves against an attempted November coup by the school's administration and athletic department. Under a new policy announced Dec. 8, a new university-wide "KTRU Friendly Committee" will determine programming policy at the station -- and, students hope, defend the station against administrative encroachment.
"I'm careful not to say we're happy with it," station manager Johnny So said about the new committee. "But there hasn't been an effective mechanism for student and faculty input, and this new arrangement should provide that, and serve to protect the station." Austinite Rodney Gibbs, a Rice alum and former station manager who helped organize the protest, told the Chronicle that unlike previous administrative arrangements, the new committee should make it "difficult if not impossible for the administration to hammer through programming changes."
KTRU (91.7 FM and www.ktru.org) is no ordinary student station. It began humbly enough in 1969, as a two-watt intercom narrowcast, growing in the Eighties to a 650-watt signal available primarily on campus or within the Houston Loop. And though the license is held by the university, the station has remained almost entirely student-run and student-funded.
In 1991, thanks to a windfall from classical station KRTS (which, to comply with FCC regs, upgraded KTRU's signal along with its own), KTRU grew to 50,000 watts. Overnight, KTRU's was one of the most powerful signals in the area. The station became the Houston home to eclectic "alternative" music of every variety -- from cutting-edge college rock to a wide variety of world music. Indeed, with its transmitter now far north in Humble, KTRU had effectively become more a city station than a campus one -- it wasn't until a year ago, says manager So, that additional equipment was installed to allow students easy access to the broadcasts.
And not a moment too soon. Although the station had traditionally broadcast some university events, including sports, music programming dominated the schedule. The Rice athletic department, feeling squeezed by growing consolidation in the city's commercial radio market, pressured the administration to grant more airtime for men's baseball and women's basketball. And it was clearly hungry for even more.
According to students, the administrative committee responding to these "requests" was stacked against student or faculty input. Matters came to a head Nov. 28, when two student broadcasters played music -- including the Ramones' "We Want the Airwaves" -- over part of a sports broadcast. Two days later, administrators shut down and padlocked the station, announcing a pending "restructuring."
The administration clearly didn't expect the outrage that greeted the shutdown, which included an Internet petition, generated by Rodney Gibbs and other alumni, that quickly circled the globe. Denouncing the university's decision "to confiscate from students control of the station that they themselves created," more than 2,000 alums, faculty, students, and station supporters signed the petition, along with online listeners from as far away as the Philippines. Several musical luminaries, including David Byrne, Brave Combo, Mark Hosler of Negativland, and Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, also signed the petition.
Rice President Malcolm Gillis "didn't want to meet with me," said Gibbs, "until I told him I already had several hundred names on the petition. Then he wanted to talk." Gillis couldn't have been happy with the on-campus response, either. On Dec. 5, more than 100 students -- many wearing KTRU bumper stickers as "gags" -- lined up to greet university trustees as they arrived at the president's house for dinner. "I don't see how they can ignore this elephant in the corner," said Gibbs, who drove from Austin for the protest.
Although university spokesmen insisted that station programming was not a "free speech issue" -- "You have a right to say whatever you want," argued student affairs vice-president Terry Shepard, "but you don't have a right to use my microphone" -- students and faculty insisted that the "microphone" belongs to the university community, not the administration or the athletic department. On Dec. 8, the administration backed down. The newly negotiated agreement will supposedly allow greater station "accountability" while maintaining student and faculty direction of the station. Alex Malinin, an alum and former KTRU volunteer (he broadcast Rice baseball from 1987 until 1998) who took part in the protests, said the new supervisory committee allows administrative input, "but they won't be able to run all over the student station any more."
Station manager So is cautiously optimistic about the new arrangement, since it defines the amount of sports programming at the station for at least the next two years. "Before, we had a pseudo-committee that was stacked against us," So said. "Now, the athletic department can come back and ask for more, but they won't automatically get what they want. It will require negotiation with students and faculty, and will have to recognize the integrity of the station's overall schedule."
The test may come soon. According to one source, the athletics department is "quite upset" with the administration's capitulation, but athletics director Bobby May told the Chronicle that "the matter has been resolved in a way that we're satisfied with." May said the current arrangement is sufficient for the department's needs for the immediate future, although he's currently working on additional commercial radio possibilities. "We're okay," he concluded, "with whatever breaks."
Yet on Oct. 10, as the radio crisis was building, athletics marketing director Mike Pedé wrote to May, "[W]e should not need to have men's basketball on KTRU this season, but next season is a real possibility." Students shouldn't forget where they left their gags.