What is lost when a city's college radio station is sold and converted to a public radio outlet? It's a question that free-form radio fans are asking with increasing frequency as student-operated FMs drop off the left end of the dial.
In Nashville, where Vanderbilt University's WRVU ended its nearly 60-year run as an FM station last week, radio audiences gained a full-time classical music service from the city's NPR News station, WPLN. But WRVU's fans and advocates lamented the sudden loss of a station that essentially operated as a community radio outlet. WRVU was "one of the only venues for Nashville artists of all stripes to get airplay — rappers, punks, headbangers, even blues and bluegrass bands," the Nashville Scene reported. It also provided a "powerful forum for ideas" in ways that weren't heard elsewhere on Nashville's airwaves, according to Freddie O'Connell, a former talk show host who penned a June 11 op-ed for the New York Times.
"There’s a false but widespread image of college radio as a pointless, narcissistic exercise — that it’s nothing more than a crew of campus oddballs who like playing D.J., even though no one is listening," O'Connell wrote. "WRVU demonstrated how wrong that image is. Not only did it command respect and interest on campus, but, thanks to a longstanding and farsighted policy, it allowed and encouraged members of the off-campus community to volunteer as D.J.’s — and so drew on the rich cultural heritage of Music City U.S.A. as well."
But that community-mindedness and free-form aesthetic didn't add up to a viable broadcast service over the long-term, according to the Student Press Center's account of the sale. Vanderbilt Student Communications, the nonprofit that held WRVU's license, conducted audience research before selling the frequency to WPLN. “We found that about 70 percent of listeners were 35 and older, and many were listening online from out of state,” said Chris Carroll, director of student media at VSC. “When people raise outcries that Nashville is losing something that everybody loves, the data just do not support those claims.”
With the $3.3 million purchase of WRVU's 91.1 FM frequency, WPLN will be better able to satisfy its news and classical audiences, General Manager Rob Gordon told the Tennessean. Only a few years ago, his staff programmed both NPR News and classical music on 90.3 FM, its flagship channel.
Comments posted on the Nashville Scene's blog "ranged from ballistic to disheartened to a mix of the two," and offered conflicting assessments of WPLN's role in the transaction: "Part of me is pissed but then I have to wonder... if not WPLN, it might've been another, more commercial crappy station....Either way, the radio alternative is gone and my contributions to NPR went towards the final solution. That is a kick in the nads."