The demise of community radio
It has been sad to watch the demise of WRPI, the once great college/community radio station. The Albany Times Union has the lamentable story. (Note the pungent political metaphors, something the university might worry about showing up on Google.) Here are some excerpts:
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Operating on different wavelengths
Host's departure latest sign of conflict between WRPI's student leaders, community
By MARC PARRY, Staff writer
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First published: Monday, April 9, 2007
TROY -- One of the country's oldest college FM radio stations is approaching its 50th anniversary racked by static between students who run the station and community members who host many shows.
The upheaval at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute station, WRPI (91.5), has driven at least five community members off the air, including a 19-year station veteran who was ousted last month.
At one level, the problem is a narrow clash of personalities and competing interests. But the conflict also raises broader questions about the role of college radio.
And its impact is supercharged by the 10,000-watt signal -- stronger than many commercial stations -- that lets WRPI broadcast to listeners over a 75-mile radius that touches New York, Massachusetts and Vermont.
Over the past few months, critics have accused the young leaders of WRPI, a student club, of muzzling diverse voices and targeting older community hosts who help fill air time by broadcasting as their guests. In a published newspaper interview, one went so far as to compare the students to Nazis.
Some of the most recent drama at WRPI's sticker-splattered basement studios began March 1. That's when the seven-student Executive Committee that manages the station, known as the "E-Comm," revoked the membership of 19-year veteran Mickie Lynn.
The self-described retired environmental educator, Reiki practitioner and peace activist from Delmar said the program she produced, a feminist music show called "Face the Music," has since left the airwaves after nearly 29 years.
Lynn's banishment led another community host, human rights activist Judith Brink, to deliver a March 18 resignation speech that opened with these words: "To remain silent is to be complicit."
"I don't know why community members are being picked off one by one," Brink, 67, said in an interview. "I don't understand what's going on. And I don't understand why the atmosphere in the station was making me sick."
WRPI President Trent Gillaspie called Brink's comments a misunderstanding of the situation.
Yes, Gillaspie said, his No. 1 goal is increasing participation and listenership among the Troy institute's 7,400 students. But student leaders are not -- repeat, not -- targeting non-student broadcasters.
When members have been kicked out, the RPI junior said, it was for legitimate policy violations. Lynn's ouster arose from "a persistent lack of cooperation with the E-Comm," both in disrespecting students and trying to manipulate time slots behind their backs, he said.
"If any of these things we've kicked out community members for in the past had been done by students or an E-Comm member, the same actions would be taken," Gillaspie, 21, said in an e-mail. "We're not targeting community members, that's just where the problem has shown because of ongoing conflict."
Though the particular circumstances of WRPI and the Albany-area radio market are unique, in general conflicts over radio time are not. There just aren't that many independent, community-centered radio stations today, said Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist and author of a book about media consolidation called "Fighting for Air."
"One trend I've observed in cities across the country is that, as those kinds of stations have become rare -- as air time for locally engaged programming has diminished -- that leaves a lot of people and groups fighting for what remains," Klinenberg said. "Sadly, I think that the structure of the radio industry today makes it more likely that groups whose interests are probably very similar wind up going after each other. This is a fairly familiar phenomenon." . . . .
Its money comes both from RPI's student union and a nonprofit group that raises funds on its behalf. Its reach is huge. It has turned over more of its air time to community hosts -- about 28 shows right now -- who have kept the station going when student interest has waned. And it's gained a following for airing progressive shows like "Democracy Now!"
Gillaspie says managing WRPI has taught him more than attending RPI. His grasp of its details was evident on a recent tour of the basement station.
Moving through its 11 rooms, the former College Republican rattled off figures about everything from the cost of the soundproof carpeting to the height of the wood-paneled console.
Gillaspie carried a black binder that laid out his 21 station goals. The mission: "To increase recognition of and participation in WRPI by the student membership of RPI."
"This is a student-run radio station, so we're primarily here for the student participation," he said. "The community members have done such a phenomenal job in helping when we're in times of need, and they've added a lot of diversity to our station."
That diversity has eroded over the past two years. Student interest has surged, while conflicts have pushed out community hosts.
Elonge Ekalele, a Cameroon native who hosted the call-in talk show "Africa in Motion," was kicked out. So was Dennis Karius of "The Portside." Judith Brink of "Voices from the Prison Action Network" and Bonnie Hoag of "Necessary Radio" both quit.
All of this worries people like RPI media arts professor Branda Miller. She feels devaluing the community role in WRPI is wasting a tremendous resource.
"I think that WRPI not only gives this incredible real-world experience for the students, but it also serves as an important outreach opportunity for Rensselaer, a real bridge between town and gown," she said.
That bridge was damaged late last year, when a Metroland article about WRPI quoted Hoag comparing the E-Comm to "Brownshirts," a reference to Nazi storm troopers. The executive board of the student union subsequently issued guidelines that, by May 15, non-RPI-affiliated members should amount to no more than 30 percent of station membership.
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The idea that these developments stem from a misunderstanding is ludicrous. While the students have a legal right to run the station, the pattern of recent decisions is clear. Folks from the community who are women, activists and people of color are being drummed out.