Wednesday, July 14, 2010

49. A Letter from Antoinette Roades to Carol Wood et al.

This letter was sent before the Town Hall meeting. Ms. Roades' credentials are, frankly, eye-popping; her opinions should be considered by everyone.

To: Carol Wood, U.Va. Assistant Vice-President for Public Affairs
Marian Anderfuren, U.Va. Director of Media Relations
From: Antoinette W. Roades
Date: 9 July 2010
Re: Future of WTJU

Please accept this as a comment on the future of WTJU. As preface, I would note that I have some experience with both the issues and practical matters involved.


I have been listening to WTJU off and on for 50 years - on whenever I lived here in my hometown, off whenever I lived elsewhere. I began listening at 13. The station played a large part in building my enduring interest in both music and broadcasting. As a student at Barnard College, I joined WKCR FM at Columbia University. There, in 1967-68, I was part of a news staff -- along with future NPR anchor Robert Siegel and future ABC medical correspondent Peter Salgo -- honored by the Writers Guild of America for coverage of "Crisis at Columbia."

In the four decades since, my resume has included stints as an editorial assistant at Broadcasting Magazine/The Businessweekly of Radio and Television, assistant radio promotion director at WMAL/Evening Star Broadcasting, office manager and sometime producer for the Australian Broadcasting Commission's Washington News Bureau, administrative assistant and studio schedule manager for CBS Television's Washington Bureau, operations manager of CBS Television's Washington bureau for its five owned-and-operated stations across the country (a job I held during the hectic Watergate period), member of a team charged with developing a prototype for a daily local television news program at Northern Virginia Community College, press secretary of the 1976 Democratic National, member of the U.S. House of Representatives Radio and Television Correspondents Gallery, on-site anchor for live broadcasts of Richmond City Council meetings on WCVW (sister station of Richmond's WCVE Public Television), Charlottesville-Albemarle correspondent for WVTF Public Radio, and regular commentator on NPR's "Performance Today."

In addition, I have some familiarity with the University of Virginia. Besides growing up in its shadow and working summers in several of its departments, I have covered it regularly as a state correspondent for The Richmond News Leader and as local correspondent for WVTF, and also on occasion for such publications as Preservation News (of the National Trust for Historic Preservation). I have also written for U.Va. publications including Alumni News, Virginia Law School Report, Helix, and The Virginia Advocate (the bulletin of the project for the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution). And I have taught non-fiction writing in the English Department, the School of Continuing Education, and the Curry School's Young Writers Workshop.

So I take interest in WTJU not just as a local citizen, long time listener, and donor, but as someone who has had sufficient inside experience of both broadcasting and U.Va. to understand the station's assets and liabilities, the challenges it now faces, and the options that it may or may not have at this crossroads.


As has been revealed over the last few weeks of public conversation on this subject, U.Va. had ample opportunity at many points in the past to pursue a different course with its broadcast capability and its prominence both academically and geographically. In response, the University chose to let pass all such opportunity. That response allowed radio stations based at Virginia Tech, James Madison University, and in Richmond (where what became WCVE radio began as the station of Union Theological Seminary) to grow into dominant presences that today reach the majority of Virginia's population while also absorbing the lion's share of listener support in Charlottesville, Albemarle, and surrounding counties. That response further allowed aspects of U.Va.'s public face and prestige to be appropriated by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities via programs like "Backstory" and "With Good Reason."

So instead of growing and changing as it could have, WTJU became a function of the extraordinary amalgam of individuals that have given it the distinct character and distinctive relationship with the community that it has today. I love some of that distinct character. I dislike some of it, too. But I applaud all of the relationship with the community. And I am in awe of not just the continuity but of the consistent quality supplied to it by unpaid people with demanding day jobs and other weighty responsibilities.

Would block programming make for a better product? Probably. Would requiring every host to create a show at least once a week rather than less frequently help? No. It would serve only to run off most of the volunteers. Would dictated playlists be an improvement? Absolutely not. They would destroy a prime element of the station's value to its listeners.

Like it or not, through both general indifference and specific defaults over many years, U.Va. has ceded WTJU to volunteers who have never been indifferent and never defaulted. The University owns the frequency and the real estate. It does not own the voice or the identity. Can it legally pull the plug? Of course. Can it do that with moral impunity and/or without a public relations debacle? Not a chance. Could it continue WTJU staffed primarily with students? Given what I know of today's undergraduates, highly unlikely. Can it be abruptly converted into an entity that could compete head to head with WVTF, WMRA, and WCVE, not to mention WNRN and the wide array of commercial stations that saturate local air. Not unless the University is willing to invest millions of dollars to that end -- hardly likely when an overrun of a few thousand dollars is official excuse for the current crisis.

Could the existing WTJU be made to pay its way while also holding an appropriate place in local ratings. Quite possibly, but not by August and not under threat of imminent death. Only incremental change effected over reasonable time by the sustained effort of committed parties -- current volunteers, U.Va. managers, community representatives, et al. -- can do that.

The swiftness with which this situation has been visited on all stakeholders and the dire terms in which it has been cast have inflicted damage as devastating and indiscriminant to WTJU's volunteers, listeners, and supporters as recent meteorological microbursts have inflicted on the local landscape. In both cases, clean up and recovery will take time. Meanwhile, however, there is an upside to this otherwise unseemly thrash. That is, awareness of the station has been raised radically. I have no doubt that thousands of people who never before tuned in have and will. I also have no doubt that many of those first timers will become contributors -- if, that is, there are future fund drives to which they can contribute.

WTJU's current financial shortfall is not a crisis. That U.Va. is treating it as one suggests strongly that minds have already been made up and that the station's fate is already sealed. I sincerely hope that is not the case and that U.Va. will prove it is not the case by giving the station's participants and supporters at very least a full year to clean up, recover, review, reconnoiter, perhaps reinforce, perhaps reinvent. That is the ethical course. It is also the efficient course. Most importantly, it is the course that would prove that U.Va. understands that it owns a unique entity that fills a small but valuable niche. And it would further prove that U.Va. respects the people who are WTJU as well as the diverse community that truly appreciates those people and the University for making them and their myriad talents available.

Please give WTJU time.

Thank you.

Antoinette W. Roades
Charlottesville VA

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