Monday, June 21, 2010

11. A Letter from Mike Friend to the Hook Magazine from June 21, 2010

(This can be found in the comments section here. Mike Friend was intimately involved with WTJU until the late 80's, when he parted acrimoniously with the station and started WNRN, which now operates in several markets.)

The purpose of this is not a “told you so” from a bygone era, but rather an attempt to put some perspective on what is happening. It is a drama that has been repeated at countless stations around the country in the past 20 years. There are lessons and caveats for all involved here:

1- The University:

The University of Virginia, in normal economic times, made a decision, probably by default, to allow its property to become an eccentric, eclectic voice for the community. It chose NOT to enforce any standard “radio-ness” any where in the operation, which drove away, or failed to attract, a significant audience, while endearing it to a smaller and ever more loyal “inside” group.

A History lesson: UVA had an opportunity to grow WTJU the right way in the 1960’s when a graduate of the E-school offered them a free 10,000 watt transmitter from his employer, but UVA just couldn’t deal with the associated factors actually of having a “real” radio station that power like this would have created. Then it was an NPR affiliate for 2 years in the 1970’s, but couldn’t muster the very limited resources to remain one. (A founding member of NPR was UVA professor Bernard Mays, who set this up.) In the early 1990’s, the NRN founders proposed a 2-station 91.1/91.9 solution for a Rock/Folk/Urban and matching Jazz/Classical/Experimental pair of stations. They let that slip. The current generation of news/talk public operations was an option 5 years ago….then Radio IQ came along to pick up this un-served market.

Now ,all of a sudden the University is concerned that their radio station is a money drain? WTJU’s future is now to be the 4th tier non-comm station in a market with 3 regional networks, one (WNRN)headquartered in its home market. Hey Rotunda folks, it’s a little late to be smelling the coffee. What you’ve got is a “college station,” that if you stripped the unnecessary costs
from it could probably make it fine with some minor twaeks, and the standard resources that universities of the size and caliber of UVA (w/o media depts.) put in to their “college stations.” Trying to turn WTJU into something it isn’t with the resources (human & otherwise)realistically available will do more harm than good.

2-The Volunteers:

The problem with WTJU volunteers starts with a misunderstanding
of what “their” station is. I have consulted for “community stations” before, where music & broadcasting loving community
members start with a plan, get a license, and build a station and a business. Plenty of controversy can follow that, but WTJU is not this sort of station. It is the braodcast property of UVA, and they can do with it what they like. They can allow an association to run it, or allow various individuals to do their thing for 2 hours a week. They can broadcast “vacuum cleaner noises” as a previous post-er noted, or institute whatever changes they might like, no matter how questionable. Volunteers there seem to have developed an attitude that somehow UVA owes them what they have always had because they’ve always had it. It doesn’t.

All of the proposed changes noted in the first section above ran into violent, unquestioning opposition, for the same reasons noted in many of the posts. (”Oh we’re unique and charming, and the real world just bothers us and doesn’t understand.”) Lip service is always paid to the general principle of change, but it always evaporates as soon as it becomes clear that a volunteer might have to do his or her show at one time as opposed to another.

It’s easy to look at the silly posts about WNRN and our play lists (none in the Specialty Shows by the way), and laugh at the
generalized broadcast ignorance, like complaining about repetition. We, and even our high school volunteers, know enough about radio to think in a sophisticated manner about this type of thing: When it gets to repetitive, we are happy have listeners spend time with other stations (even WTJU), or their IPOD’s or whatever, as long as they come back as a part of their overall media & specifically radio, use. Comments like, “oh WTJU is going Clear-Channel” reflect upon the intelligence of the commenter: A Clear Channel rock station will play a song 75 times a week, we may play it 12 times, I would expect a WTJU rotation to be less than that…My point here is that WTJU has no one, except maybe this new manager, who I have yet to meet, who understands this medium. Unless he, and the University, are willing to teach them, AND THE VOLUNTEERS ARE READY TO LEARN something about it, no good will come of what’s being done, apparently precipitously.

The University of Virginia needs realistic goals as to what they expect from being both a licensee and educational institution. The volunteer announcers (and “fans”) need to understand that they will not be taken seriously in matters concerning a broadcast station, if they know nothing about broadcasting. (Math grad students may have opinions about the history curriculum, but no one takes them seriously.)

WTJU cannot continue as it is. The university, after having had that pointed out to them often over the last generation, and now that money is tight, seems to now understand this. The volunteers, and concerned fans apparently do not yet. Apparently some of them are ready to let the whole thing go rather than cooperate of something both special to them and supportable –it has happened before. Compromise may not be possible. The University could get some cash by selling it; and the disaffected would be free to apply to the FCC in the soon-coming (prob. in ‘11) FM-LP station filing window to get a license and put a station on the air that reflects their programming values. It would be interesting to see the kinds of decisions these people would make with a facility in which they are personally invested.


  1. I can't think of anything to say here without getting nasty, so I'll just say that I've not missed the presence of Mike Friend for the past twenty years.

  2. Friend ignores two facts: 1.) TJU was regularly lauded as one of the top five college radio stations in the country in the 80's (pre-"modern-rock-and-more") and still provides high-quality cutting edge DJ-researched programming, and 2.) NRN has always been a prepubescent pandering pile of suck that sounds like amateur hour at Wild Wings' karaoke night.

  3. What else would you expect from a station run by someone whose show on 'TJU was just random stuff from the current bin?

  4. What I expect is while everyone here talks about the "music" and WTJU's superior stature it's the same as whistling past the graveyard-

    WNRN will still be here in the years to come- WTJU can't make this claim in it's current state

  5. WNRN is really well-run. No-one is denying that. And it fills an important niche that isn't filled even in many larger markets. It's not my thing. Whether it's anyone's thing or not has nothing to do with WNRN's worth.

    I don't think WTJU is superior; I like it better.

  6. Consider the source. Friend has been grinding his ax against TJU for many years. I know of nobody with a more overbearing animus toward the station.

  7. Yeah, to be fair, NRN has a damn near unbreakable niche and fills it well. It was an immediately successful strategy and Mike deserves great credit. Additionally, they've made spots for theme shows: acoustic, industrial/punk, and local stuff, all of which break free from the rotation. (It ain't TJU, but... I guess that's the point.)

    WTJU's value is the passion of its staff - you guys. I seriously hope this all works out. Can't live without it.