Tuesday, June 22, 2010

19. "Christmas to End Yet Again": A Letter from Charles W. Taylor III to the WTJU Staff and Volunteers

(Charles W. Taylor III is, of course, the former General Manager of WTJU, who stepped down a couple of months ago.)

“Christmas to End” is a reference to an email sent station-wide by a volunteer when I posted my comments made during a meeting discussing changes at WTJU in the mid-2000s. As in the current situation, announcers declared the end before hearing the complete proposal. This note includes a bit of history and a warning about pre-judging a proposal before it’s actually presented for discussion. Please also note that I have NOT read Burr’s preliminary proposals and specifically didn’t want to before writing this. Whether I agree or disagree is not the issue. Please attend Thursday’s meeting with thoughtful, pertinent and succinctly prepared support or viable counter-proposals or comments.

Look for a moment at the whole and not just the parts. Please give Burr Beard your utmost attention. Listen carefully, cogitate, consider seriously and engage. Research and negotiate…but ONLY with all knowledge at hand and weigh everything carefully as if the station’s future depends on it. Please note that I support Burr's right to present his proposal for discussion because of what I know about the Division of Public Affairs investment in WTJU (attention, time, money and more) and the fact that they heeded most if not all of MY recommendations for WTJU.

A little history: In 2000, through the generosity and support of the University of Virginia, WTJU moved out of the stinky-rug basement of Peabody Hall and into a $450,000 facility upgrade at Lambeth Commons. We spent another $125,000 (that we borrowed from UVA) in equipment upgrades. In 2005 that loan was paid-off and I began meeting with groups of you to enable growth and change at WTJU to ensue in 2006 after the above reduction of financial risk.

It would include: Reducing fund drives from four to two; taking a hard look at programming; looking at the location of various programs and adjusting them just as I did in the mid-to-late 1990s; and adding more news and public affairs. The goal: continue the transformation of WTJU from the “college radio station” model to a full-fledged “community station” model.

If you search U.S. “college” or “campus” radio stations the first entry is the wiki page for “campus” radio stations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_campus_radio_stations#United_States. Please scroll down and read how the world at large views WTJU. Then next search “U.S. Community Radio Stations” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WTJU. The difference in the two wiki entries for WTJU is that an “insider” wrote the “community radio” overview. A “college” or “campus” radio station focuses on freedom to do whatever you want to do on air and if listeners don’t get it, so be it. On the other hand, participants at “community” radio stations ask the question “how can I serve and ENGAGE the community including the under-served?” Please note that in the best case scenarios the CONTENT of programming may be the same whether following the “college” or “community” model. It is the care, presentation and interaction with your audience that is paramount in the latter. It is also requires an awareness of what else is being offered in your community.

Aside: the University of Virginia HAS a student “campus” station, KISS-FM (i.e. WUVA) founded 10 years before WTJU. WTJU on the other hand, though originally all-student, was intentionally envisioned by its founders as a more community-focused radio station.

If KISS-FM is the college radio station then what is WTJU? Many of you have heard me use the phrase “hybrid” and indeed there are several university and college stations around the country that consider themselves “hybrids” stations. Truth be told, a hybrid is just a baby “community radio station”. It is a more advanced waypoint on the road to adulthood.

In 1993 when I got the job at WTJU I hit the road running. It first took a few years of putting out the fires that had nearly led to the demise of WTJU in 1992. Throughout that time I continued my radio shows (“From a Whisper to a Scream” and “Uncle Chuck”) until 1997. But in 1997 I intentionally gave up all my on-air shows and switched from saying “my radio show” to “our radio station”. Was it hard? Oh, yeah. But moving the station forward was more rewarding and I wanted to devote more time to that.

WTJU’s membership in the NFCB http://www.nfcb.org/index.jsp since the late '80s and my attendance at 10 of the conferences…the last two as NFCB Board member…has helped me see the bigger picture and the importance of stations becoming more beholden to their community in order to thrive. It was that realization that led to my actions in 1997 when I changed my focus from inward to outward.

Now, around the country in both the college AND the community radio world, many, if not most, stations are going through some variant of the process that is knocking at WTJU’s front door. That’s because the majority of them…as was true of WTJU…were only able to endure about one year of downturns in financial support before they realized they had to tighten their belts and focus their programming more carefully to survive the current challenges to the economy.

WTJU is not unique in having turmoil during these transitional points in growth. For instance, the host station (KFAI, a “community” station) of the recent NFCB conference in Minneapolis was going through the same transition as WTJU literally while we were there two weeks ago.

It may come as shock to those of you saying “This change is all about MONEY!” but it COSTS MONEY to run a radio station. And as the money has dwindled over the last few years the consequent effect it’s had on equipment and other things has been noticeable. All of radio, whether commercial or noncommercial, ultimately depends upon listenership support, advertising revenue, grants or donations. Our CPB grant, which accounts for substantial support is for “service to the community,” which includes news, public affairs and related. But ultimately, intelligently-presented and entertaining local programming delivers listeners to your doorstep and they will donate to support that.

So why are stations around the country making programming changes or adjustments NOW? Because of the economic downturn of course. Those making change care about the future of community broadcasting first and foremost and realize that it may require some degree of sacrifice.

What is the typical consequence when a station cannot reinvent itself? In the last three years I’ve become aware of other stations both “college” and community that were having the plug pulled by their managing boards, overseers or owners. It continues to be regular occurrence for college/university stations in particular. I would be severely disappointed if it came to that because of an unwillingness to change in any way or form.

Some of you have asked whether I left WTJU because of my increased responsibilities to the University. That is part of the truth. When I was distracted from my duties at the station during the last three years the old tug-of-war between those at the station who want it to remain a “college radio station” and those who are ready for a community station begins anew. Anything unrelated to music suffers and comments from listeners ignored. News and public affairs shows are treated with contempt. “Do we have to do PSAs during the fund drive?” The fact that people even ask such a question illustrates how far we’ve drifted from serving the community. And alternating hosts? I can’t find evidence of that at any other station, yet it is status quo at WTJU. It is NOT good programming.

Burr has 30 years of experience just as I do…but his has the advantage of time being spent at several stations. He also has the advantage of a fresh look and is the station’s BEST BET to survive even another year. He’s coming to a station in a broadcast market that is about as competitive as it gets: you’ve got program variants of WTJU offerings upwards of eleven radio stations with WNRN and “the Corner” having the biggest impact. “Serving your audience” includes understanding the area market. Corrections or changes to programming, when done creatively and with accumulated knowledge and feedback, is the key to moving forward.

So I ask that each of you look inside yourself and ask these questions:

1. “Do I love my show or the radio station more?”

2. “Is it important to have diversity of membership reflecting the community of service (including people of color)?”

3. “Should programming serve the community or serve my own interests?”

4. “Do I want to stymie every change proposed at WTJU or participate, negotiate and propel WTJU to the next phase: great programming supplemented by greater financial support?”

When stations go through this process it is not easy and I won’t tell you otherwise. But most are astounded at how great it is to still have incredibly cool programming…not offered anywhere else…that brings in financial support for the station and doesn’t require propping up from the University.

Finally, this is NOT the University compelling you to be something. I’ll repeat what I stated at the beginning of this note:

It is a sincere attempt to assist the station to grow into its potential. Look for a moment at the whole and not just the parts. Please give Burr Beard your utmost attention. Listen carefully, cogitate, consider seriously and engage. Research and negotiate…but ONLY with all knowledge at hand and weigh everything carefully as if the station’s future depends on it. Because it DOES.

You have a fresh leader succeeding a worn-out leader. Take advantage of that and move the station into the future. Give me a chance to attend the 60th anniversary of WTJU.

Chuck Taylor


  1. Ah, yes....the forest. Charles W. Taylor III saves Christmas (again)!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. In the spirit of research...

    Someone should take a close look at WPKN (www.wpkn.org) in Bridgeport, CT. This is a community radio station that operates from the University of Bridgeport campus. Apart from an obligation to broadcast some sporting events, the station is unaffiliated with the University. They are a Community Station and has 100% programmer independence. Since leaving WTJU in 1987, WPKN is the radio I tune in to.

    WPKN struggles financially for sure, but they are a model community station in my opinion - Very attuned to local issues; deep in original public affairs programming. Across the board the music programmers are knowledgeable and entertaining. Intelligent interviews (on par with Terry Gross) are the norm.

    For the longest time, the station was 100% funded by individual donations as a matter of principal. I believe they have recently started limited underwriting.

    Now, I know that WPKN has had its ups and downs and infighting, but they are surviving with a model that allows programmers complete freedom.

    I strongly suggest that someone at WTJU speak with WPKN folks for an exchange of ideas.

    - Michael Brooks (Rock 83-87, Station Manager 87)

  4. Mike Brooks it's wonderful to see you here. Can you contact me or Marcia Doran?

  5. Chuck has much good to say here, but I want to mention a couple points with which I disagree. First, and most obviously, if Kiss-FM is the "campus" station, what in the world does that have to do with "freedom to do whatever you want to do on air and if listeners don’t get it, so be it?" Analogy FAIL. I actually think the whole campus/community dichotomy is way oversold here, but whatever.

    Second, I don't really understand the desire to be independent from the university. Unless it has changed, WTJU is mandated to "[reflect] the broadest educational goals of the University." (this is copied from post #2). I interpret this to mean that WTJU has the freedom to play anything, no matter how unpopular, as long as, taken as a whole, it enhances the educational climate of the "Academical Village." Heck if it were up to me I'd shift control of the station from the OPA to the Music Department. At least then they'd have a better excuse to subsidize it in the general budget.

    Anyway, this is a great forum to vent, reminisce and eavesdrop.

    -Josh Krahn
    rock jock c. '94-'99, or something like that.

  6. As the sender of the admittedly knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk) Christmas-to-End email, I have to stress that I did not intend it as a swipe at any of the folks involved in making that determination (and certainly not Chuck). Then as now, I have no doubt that the folks in charge are acting in what they believe to be the best interests of WTJU and the community (however defined) it serves. Then as now, the proposed changes may in fact be necessary. But how can liking WTJU the way it is be wrong? That's not to say there's no room for improvement, but given the general sterility of radio today, the suggestion that WTJU take any step towards embracing the dominant paradigm has to be viewed with concern.

    And to respond to a specific point, while it's true that alternating DJs can be frustrating for the listener, there is no reason why this has to be so. As has been suggested, DJs should paired with a view to their musical focus. Having been a volunteer DJ both in the alternating format at WTJU and later at another station where I was on every week, I can honestly say that I believe I delivered a better experience for the listener in the alternating format. The extra time to prepare for a show matters.

    -Tim Ballo
    rocker, mid nineties to early aughts

  7. I've just scraped the surface of this outpouring of grief, anger and every other human emotion. clearly I have some homework to do, and I hope to have more on all this shortly. But for starters I have three things to say.

    1. I believe a key concept that must be brought to the discussion is one at the very core of Western hIgher education – academic freedom. “Department ______ has been hijacked by a new chair, previously believed to be ‘one of us’, who is dragging us all in a new and unfortunate direction.” This is a stock script, and while it must be said that a University radio station is not directly analogous to an academic department, perhaps it OUGHT to be closer than not. Most universities have departments that make money and those that don't. many of the worst things happening to education are the result of decisions that are fiscally driven.

    2. I went straight to Chuck's letter, wherein he make sit clear that I don't have any real understanding of the context within which these decisions are being made - and wherein, quite astutely, he asks us to examine our real motivations. My first reaction to Burr's proposed changes was profound grief over the pending loss of a beloved institution - but Chuck compels me to see I may just be selfishly hanging on to an antiquated ideal that has too many downsides in today's world. Maybe.

    3. Perhaps somewhat of a corollary to 1 (in that it is all too common in University settings), I have to say the secrecy is the most disturbing aspect of what has happened so far. It suggests hidden motivations, politics at work behind the scenes, and underlying inadequacies in the realm of management. If the new WTJU is to be a top-down- managed Arbitron-tailored machine, well, maybe this is all fitting. If it is to be a re-engineered community station truly representative of the University founded by the namesake of Jeffersonian principles, then the cloak-and-dagger "We know what is good for you" stuff has got to end.

    I'll be in C'ville in August, and I imagined it might be possible to request a guest slot somewhere in the schedule. As someone with what I like to think are very broad tastes, I imagined I could accommodate the format of whatever slot was available. I suppose any station that allows that is less than thoroughly professional, and I'm not sure it would be much fun to play Roots music with 5 must-play songs in an hour. Okay, I've had my petulant pouty say about THAT. More considered mouthing off to follow.

    Hal Dean
    rock/jazz/folk, hell I did Classical and damn well too, often on the edges but I love Neil young, and sadly Roots-challenged... perhaps an Epiphyte