Selling WRVU looks like a great move for Vanderbilt student media

For months, certain quarters in Nashville and Vanderbilt alumni nationwide have buzzed with the idea of selling WRVU, the radio broadcast license owned by Vanderbilt Student Communications. Today VSC announced the sale of the license to WPLN, Nashville’s National Public Radio affiliate station.

My take: This is a great move for student media at Vanderbilt.

First, some background:

  • Vanderbilt Student Communications is a nonprofit organization in the state of Tennessee. Vanderbilt University is the only member of the corporation, but in practice, VSC is run by its board of directors, several faculty and student members.
  • VSC is charged with providing an environment that will allow students to have real-world business and media experience, as well as promoting free speech and expression in the university community. Vanderbilt has no school of journalism or media courses, but thanks to the incredible Vanderbilt student media laboratory, the university has graduated untold numbers of professional journalists, who are serving/have served with every major media organization you can name.
  • I’m a former editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler, the student newspaper. I was editor in 1992, and at that time, division heads sat on the VSC board.
  • When I was the editor of the Hustler, the newspaper was the money-making machine that enabled VSC to support many student media ideas that had little/no commercial viability. In my time on the Hustler, our revenue paid for two separate newspapers that were editorial [opinion] competitors of ours, among other divisions.
  • You know as well as I do what has been happening to newspaper revenues for the past decade or two.

I don’t have any real insight into current VSC revenue, though I understand that the corporation does still receive student activity fees, as it did when I was a student. My knowledge here is obviously quite out of date, but the way it used to work is that most of the VSC AcFee money went to established media divisions [the yearbook, WRVU, the Hustler, a few others], and every year, a new organization might get a small amount. Revenue-generating divisions [again, the Hustler, when I was a student] floated everyone’s boat, including those new, experimental divisions.

Some thoughts on the commercial radio market in Nashville:
Radio has also changed a lot in the past few years, though in somewhat different ways than newspapers. Marketplace consolidation — I’d argue monopolization in most cases — is probably an even bigger factor on this marketplace than the Internet/technology has been, but obviously both are significant.

Though Nashville has a very strong presence by the top 3 radio owners, Clear Channel, Cumulus and Citadel, I’d argue we don’t feel the full brunt of their market dominance because our public radio station, WPLN, is so strong, and because we’ve had independent radio here for years, including WRVU. In the past 10 years, WPLN has grown dramatically, now offering an all-talk AM station, two HD stations and its flagship 90.3. In the past year or so, 90.3 moved from a mostly classical format during the week [with the exception of the major NPR news programs in morning and evening drive time] to an almost-all-talk format. Now, WPLN offers most major syndicated public radio talk shows on one of its stations. If you haven’t lived in another radio market in a mid-sized city, you may have no idea how much choice you have in Nashville.

Now, the deal announced today:

  • WPLN pays VSC $3.5 million for the WRVU FCC broadcast license.
  • WRVU will continue its existing schedule online. [You can already listen to WRVU online.]
  • In fall 2011, WRVU will resume over-the-air broadcasting on WPLN’s HD-3 station.
  • Vanderbilt students are guaranteed internships in WPLN’s news department.
  • Starting tomorrow, June 8, WPLN will begin broadcasting classical music and local arts programming on the new 91.1, WFCL.

The downsides:

  • Vanderbilt loses part of its history with the sale of WRVU.
  • Change is hard.
  • Personally, I know many people who really, really hate this sale. In no way do I mean to minimize the emotion or [in most cases] the personal history they have with WRVU. You can’t put a price on those things.

Why I love this deal so much:

  • I’ll be stunned if it turns out that VSC could have ever gotten more for the license in the future.
  • If this money is managed well, it can be used to safeguard the incredible, one-of-a-kind student media laboratory that Vanderbilt has always supported. VSC does not receive university funding. It is supported by student fees and revenues. With the revenue side of the VSC ledger likely to be just as precarious as any other print-based media these days, this is a fantastic deal.
  • Student radio lives on at Vanderbilt, and in several ways, expands beyond its current scope. Though it will no longer broadcast on the FM spectrum, it will broadcast on HD and online. The learning lab continues at WRVU.
  • Vanderbilt students get a direct pipeline to WPLN. Student media internships are always competitive and hard to come by, so this is a great deal for Vanderbilt students.
  • And for the local community, classical radio returns tomorrow! While I’m not a big classical listener and I was thrilled when 90.3 went all-talk, everyone wasn’t. There’s a market for classical during the day, and I really love that WPLN will have more room to spotlight local performers.

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6 Comments

  1. RachelW
    June 8, 2011 #

    I think part of the disappointment involves the way it was done – over the summer with none of the students around to respond – and concerns about the reach of an online-only or HD-only student station, as well as whether WPLN is required to continue to provide that outlet and student experience on an ongoing basis.

  2. lcreekmo
    June 8, 2011 #

    Actually, VSC started a dialogue with Vanderbilt [and anyone interested] several months ago. They put up a website — uh, end of last year/beginning of this year — to collect comments. And they actively solicited comments from students all spring.

  3. RachelW
    June 8, 2011 #

    Yes, I’m familiar with that. Regardless of previously solicited comments, there was obviously a strong feeling in existence (see Save WRVU, other online comments, etc.) that the comments would not be taken seriously, the sale/move to online was a done deal, etc. Even if everything was done exactly the right way with comments from all interested parties in absolute perpetual benefit for the students and community, announcing it not too long after graduation is bound to stir up bad feelings. Having an announcement while school was in with an opportunity for folks to show up and listen and ask questions could have generated more good feeling and reassurance.

    Honestly, I’m not trying to be contentious, just commenting on why some folks might not react as positively as you. I think there probably are some good aspects here. I’m commenting on what I see as unfortunate timing, not the pre-existing “dialogue” although I’m well aware of it – not sure why you automatically assume I’m not.

  4. Laura Creekmore
    June 8, 2011 #

    Here’s another great blog post on the sale, from a WRVU alum:
    http://joshspilker.tumblr.com/post/6320441835/wrvu

    From having been a student and an alum, I suspect that the community outrage is going to be far greater than the actual campus outrage, if there’s any “outrage” out there. I don’t have any insight into the timing of the deal, but from a business perspective, you usually have to do these things when you do them, and handle the consequences.

  5. Swampwitch
    June 9, 2011 #

    The actual ownership and the choice of content can not be replaced in any way. The students were screwed, they never intended to consider keeping the station. The artistic influence WRVU had on Nashville was irreplacable.

  6. Caroline Roberts
    June 9, 2011 #

    Setting aside my emotions and anger over the way this sale was handled, I understand your points, and you probably have the best arguments for the sale that I’ve heard thusfar.

    That said, you write, “If this money is managed well, it can be used to safeguard the incredible, one-of-a-kind student media laboratory that Vanderbilt has always supported.” That is a big “if.”

    I am unconvinced that the money will be managed well. The press release said, “… its Board concluded the creation of an endowment was critical to ensuring VSC’s ability to service the information and cultural needs of the Vanderbilt student population.”

    What does that mean? It’s PR-speak. Was the VSC on the verge of bankruptcy? If so, why didn’t other VU media outlets take a hit instead of just WRVU? I get that it’s all about the money in the end, but I want an item-by-item accounting of where this money is going to show why it was so important to sell WRVU’s license. Otherwise, I don’t think the sale was worth it.

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