Wednesday, July 14, 2010

48. "An Open Note from the Charlottesville of the Southwest": A Letter from Joe Gross of the Austin American-Statesman, to Carol Wood

This letter was sent before the Town Hall meeting. I post it here because the points are valid and worth considering by all in this time of consensus-building.

My name is Joe Gross, COL '96.

At U.Va., I majored in English and lived at 2 East Lawn my fourth
year. I love the school more than I ever thought possible.

I am a reporter and critic with the Austin American-Statesman, the
daily newspaper in Austin, TX. I cover culture, both popular and not
so popular. These days, my brief is mostly books, movies, television
and a smattering of music. From 2002 to 2009, I covered the Austin
music scene full-time for the American-Statesman. I have written for
Spin, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and more. I love the life I've
been able to make for myself and my family.

I owe most of that to the educational opportunity and contacts
afforded me at WTJU, where I was a DJ for most of my undergraduate
career (end of fall semester, 1992 to spring 1996) and the co-director
of the rock department for about a year.

I've never been entirely convinced that the University knows exactly
how singular, how important, WTJU is for the students who choose to
participate in it.

I want to repeat that: as it is formatted now, WTJU is as crucial to the
fabric of what creates a University of Virginia education as any
academic department or Jefferson's architecture or the honor code. The
musical education that WTJU provided across the spectrum of rock,
jazz, folk and classical was absolutely essential to my liberal arts
studies. The connections made there have been invaluable to me during
my career. I have no doubt there a a hundred DJs that can say the same

Replacing it with a format that the University has been told might
make it more “accessible” is a bit like saying you want to replace the
Rotunda with something that looks like Nassau Hall because looking
like Princeton might increase donations.

As for replacing the multi-genre format with a format that would make
it the “the Austin of the East,” well, as someone who lived in
Charlottesville as as student and has actually lived in Texas for 11
years, Austin for nine and has followed Austin music for the better
part of a decade, I submit that this is an misguided idea at best and
something less savory at worst.

Both are amazing places. In fact, I, a Virginia native was all set to
go to the University of Texas at Austin in 1992. I visited U.Va. with
a very poor attitude. I wasn't interested in what seemed like a
frattish, self-obsessed party school. I wanted something more

WTJU changed my mind (I happened to visit during a rock marathon – I
took a program home and read it until it fell apart). It was the first
place I went after my father dropped me off at my dorm and one of the
last places I left. It symbolized everything I thought a Jeffersonian
education should be – well-rounded, interdisciplinary, creative and
challenging. WTJU's programming opened door after door after door for
me and many others.

And I love Austin. Austin and Texas has a rich history of tweaking the
conventions of country and Western music from Bob Wills Western swing
through Willie Nelson's music to today. It's no wonder “Americana” or
“AAA” is a popular format in Austin – there are strong regional ties
to the music.

But they are regional ties. They are what make Austin Austin. The
intellectual diversity present at WTJU is a product of the
University's public Ivy vibe, from the punk rock shows I used to go to
in Richmond to the indie rock that was present everywhere to the
bluegrass Virginia and D.C. is famous for to the jazz I grew to adore
and the classical I grew to appreciate. You guys have an educational
diamond in your hand that happens to have a layer of coal dust on it
and everyone seems to want to replace it with cubic zirconia.

It sounds like Mr. Burr has proposed a AAA format while also being a
AAA DJ himself. This is a bit like me saying we need to replace the
English department or the law school with a department entirely
devoted to something more profitable, say, mixed martial arts, and, by
the way, I have written the text book we will be using and I have a
mean right hook.

I'll be the first to admit that WTJU has never been all that good at
marketing itself and I'm wondering how much effort has been put into a
serious capital campaign for the station. I'm not talking about on-air
fundraising, I'm talking about serious money from big donors who have
an interest in keeping aesthetic diversity on terrestrial radio. I
suspect the answer is “none.”

(Though it's a little hard not to be cynical about this when the
University's capital campaign is hitting $3 billion and the total
budget for WTJU as it is now is less than $400,000. That's a very
small amount of money over which to sacrifice an institution as unique
as the Rotunda.)

I wonder how much effort has been put into keeping the format and
establishing a vigorous, working relationship with a local club or
venue, so the station can regularly sponsor shows and get its name out
there. I suspect the answer is “none.”

I wonder if the staff was ever told by someone from University
administration "Guys, you MUST raise more money. You MUST do it or the
station is changing for good?" I suspect the answer is "no."

You guys don't have a format problem. You have a marketing problem. We
seem to be in baby with bathwater territory here.

I'm not sure what to tell you about the issue of student
participation other than to say I was a full-time, undergraduate
student the entire time I was there. I wanted to be on the staff of
WTJU the way someone would want to be on a math team or on a
newspaper. And if anything, involvement with the local community is
crucial, raising the quality of the educational experience. Most of
one's life is spent outside of college. It's not a bad idea to get
used to working with people who aren't in it.
But you get the idea.

Thank you very much for your time. If you have any questions, do not
hesitate to call me or e-mail me. I have no doubt you will make the
right decision, one in keeping with the University's traditions of

Very truly yours,

Joe Gross

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