Alternative Signals

UT Student-run KVR-TV

(l-r): Cindy Tomlinson, Whitney Angstadt, Jason Wade, Becky Flores, and Charlie Barns of KVR-TV
photograph by John Anderson

After hauling and assembling their heavy camera gear to the Erwin Center, a student crew is primed to broadcast the Lady Longhorns game to Austin Community Access Center (ACAC, formerly ACTV) channel 16. As the game begins, they wait for word from ACAC. And wait. And wait. Ten minutes later, someone remembers about the students and kindly throws the switch. Never mind that the game ends up on channel 10 instead and that potential viewers have probably gone channel surfing. After all, it is just KVR-TV.

Hidden away in the dank basement of Hogg Auditorium at the University of Texas at Austin, KVR-TV is the only entirely student-run television station in the United States. But, after three years on the air, the staff is still struggling to gain the recognition and support they feel they have earned and these go-getters are not going to give up until they get it.

KVR-TV began in 1989 as a student club looking for the hands-on production experience that was becoming increasingly difficult to come by in UT's overcrowded classes. By February 1994, the UT Regents had granted the group a 20-block radius signal for broadcast on UHF channel 9. Initially, it aired station identification and began with about four hours of programming. Now maintaining a 24-hour schedule, the students also broadcast 10 original programs, as well as live sports events, to prime-time viewers. Unlike their fellow student media counterparts at KVRX-FM radio and The Daily Texan, the KVR-TV crew pulls off this feat without the luxury of a paid, professional staff. And KVR-TV says their time has come for a real broadcast signal or, ideally, a dedicated cable channel.

Their uphill battle for support from the University is not helped by constant criticism of unprofessional production value, or by the perception that five hours of original programming per week is not enough to warrant cable access. "They don't want to give us money because our stuff looks so bad, and it looks bad because we got no money," says maintenance director Carl Jones.

Like all stations reliant on national programming, KVR-TV uses "wraps," blocks of programming from outside sources -- in this case Canada's Much Music (see related story), Bloomberg Information Television, and the local Austin Music Network fill unprogrammed gaps. Additionally, station-produced shows include Texas Politics, a issues panel discussion show which has had guests such as Jesse Jackson, Ross Perot, and Kay Bailey Hutchison; Sneek Peeks, a kind of Beavis and Butt-head meet Siskel and Ebert; and SEE, an avant-garde music video show. But doesn't that music-heavy schedule compete with the local Austin Music Network? AMN artistic director Tim Hamlin seems to regard it as complementary rather than competitive.

"I think [Much] is definitely an alternative and everyone agrees, even MTV, that MTV is not a music channel anymore, it's a lifestyle channel geared at the youth market. Anything offering music is obviously a welcome addition to the market."

Furthermore, the student broadcasters argue that, although the station receives little recognition from academic departments, they actually learn much more from KVR-TV than they ever could in school. "The class I took about putting together a news show is small potatoes to what my staff attempts and learns every week," says Cindy Tomlinson, director of News@Nine, a regular traditional-format news show airing at 9pm on Mondays.

Normally student stations receive funding by acting as vehicles for faculty programming, but KVR-TV will not go that route because they want the same independence that the Texan and KVRX enjoy. "UT is scared of us because they think we'll be loose cannons," explains station manager Charlie Barnes, arguing that those fears are unfounded. "Even when we work according to all established rules we receive a lack of respect because we are student-run. But pride and commitment, unlike market share, cannot be measured."

KVR-TV operates annually on a $100,000 budget, over 70% of which is derived from student fees and Texas Student Publications. The rest of the funding comes from outside jobs and television production classes. Commercial airtime is available, although most of their success with this has been for their sporting events, such as the Lady Longhorns game on ACAC, and that comes in the form of underwriting, not official advertising. And staffing is voluntary; KVR-TV relies on anywhere from 70-150 volunteers, depending on the time of year. Without hard plans for a dedicated station, that's a commitment of love.

And commitment is one thing these kids have down pat. Many juggle a part-time job, full-time school, and 20 hours per week at the station. Even in the face of slams from the critics, little funding, and long hours, though, the students say that all the frustration is worth the satisfaction of trying and learning along the way. Those who stick with KVR-TV for the long haul are highly motivated, but Tomlinson describes an optimistic us-against-the-world outlook which, undoubtedly, helps: "It's a family. We're ignored and laughed at, but we know that we'll win against them all in the end. We have a common bond because we all love TV and we all know that it's tough. We don't listen when they say we suck. We just say, `Okay, how can we get better?'"

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