Wednesday, June 23, 2010

23. Letter from Rob Sheffield, WTJU Alumnus and Critic, to Marian Anderfuren and Carolyn Wood

Rob Sheffield hosted the Description Without Place show in the 90's, and his book, Love is a Mix Tape, describes living in Charlottesville and being a DJ at WTJU during that period. The book was a New York Times bestseller. Rob Sheffield has also had his criticism published in a variety of magazines, among them Details and Rolling Stone, for which he was also a regular columnist. Rob was one of my DJ-ing idols. His show and others, such as Ground Rule Double Dutch and Frolic Diner, taught me what a wonderful responsibility to the listener DJing should be.

Dear Ms. Anderfuren, Ms. Wood, and fellow friends of WTJU,

My name is Rob Sheffield. I’ve been listening to WTJU for 21 years, ever since I started grad school in 1989. Now I listen online while I’m working, usually the afternoon rock shows, here in Brooklyn. WTJU has been the most crucial influence on my life as a music listener, my knowledge as a music journalist, my work at Rolling Stone, and everything I write. As you know, this station and its volunteers are listened to, supported, and treasured around the country. I live in New York, where there’s lots of radio--but there’s nothing like WTJU anywhere. The bond between the station and its listeners is unique. I went down a few years ago to help with the 2003 marathon and ended up marrying the rock director.

I’m writing to express my concerns over the proposed changes to the station, from my perspective as a listener. I am grateful to you for reading. I am also grateful that the University has decided last night to open these proposals to discussion and deliberation, rather than rushing them through. As they stand now, these well-intentioned proposals have potential to do long-term damage to the station as a reflection of the University’s diversity and uniqueness.

We listen to WTJU because it has roots--it’s rooted in the University, the University’s educational mission, and the University’s community. It isn’t programmed. We listen to Professor Bebop and Rhythm & Romance and Nowhere Near and Reggae Vibrations and Radio Wowsville and Broadcasting System because they’re NOT playing the same songs. We don’t really tune in for chatty personalities--we get plenty of those on commercial radio. We go to WTJU for what we can’t get elsewhere.

The diversity and uniqueness of WTJU are its strengths, rather than weaknesses--especially in 2010, when the radio market is more crowded than ever. When I want to listen to programmed radio, I have literally hundreds of options at my fingertips, from Sirius’s XMU to Charlottesville’s own WCNR, stations that do their jobs extremely well. I choose more often to listen to WTJU because its local volunteers go well beyond what is possible with programmed radio. There’s no reason to believe that WTJU could or should compete with these stations, with skimpier resources, at the expense of its own audience.

The proposed “New WTJU” seems to mean writing off the core WTJU audience, starting over from scratch, and hoping a different audience (of the same size, or greater) can be manufactured. It also means hoping this audience is ready to pledge money for what they can hear on other stations. But perhaps, in the immortal words of Edwin Starr, “there’s got to be another way,” a more practical way. And if increasing student involvement is a goal, confining rock shows to late night would seem to be a move backwards.

WTJU is a major part of the University community’s presence in the world at large. When I moved into my current apartment, my neighbor asked if I was from Charlottesville--she heard my voice in the hallway and recognized as a WTJU voice. One Friday night last fall, my burrito delivery guy asked if I was from Virginia--he recognized the Professor Bebop show coming out of my laptop. That’s what they call “brand equity,” and WTJU didn’t grow it overnight--it earned it over the years, through the sacrifice and devotion and commitment of its volunteers. It’s part of the University’s brand equity, too. It’s worth building on.

In your eloquent and informative June 21 letter, you summed up WTJU succinctly and, I think, brilliantly: “The WTJU community is passionate.” I agree, and I hope WTJU can continue to inspire that passion. I’m very grateful to the University for deciding to open the discussion, and I’m confident that discussion will help the University make the wisest decisions possible.

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your time and your consideration.


Rob Sheffield

GSAS M.A. '91
WTJU '89-'00


  1. I believe that WTJU represents the Hospitality that Mr. Jefferson would offer us all -- as visitors or newcomers to Charlottesville and the surrounding area -- and as guests of The University of Virgina.

    In the past 25 years that I've been involved with the station as a volunteer, closely observing what WTJU offere to our
    community, in the most respectful and diverse way, it's as close to embodying his true mind and heart in a living thing to pass along as can be imagined.

    Let's look to a measure of its worth more in line with the pursuit of happiness, than the pursuit of mere property. I have no doubt that we can meet the objectives to increase listenership, student involvement, donations and underwriting by 15 or 20% over the next few years without altering our identity through an "extreme makeover"

    Ginger McCarthy
    CLAS '85

  2. Rob Sheffield. Benevolent Alien Spirit.

  3. Actually, he is one of the few things the Earth can be proud of, along with Lem's "Steal My Sunshine" and the vuvuzela.

  4. I believe the man himself referred to Lem as "The best brother-sister duo since (insert insanely accurate yet remote reference to some 60's pop act that I can't recall at the moment)"

  5. Tyler, this post is even better than a million vuvuzelas! I love this post.

  6. come on, fellow music nerds: the group is called LEN, not Lem.

  7. I said Len. It just sounded like Lem because I have lush sensuous radio-announcer lips.