July 30th, 2003

You know, I tend to think of myself as one of the world’s more cynical and suspicious people. Still, I never, ever saw this coming. Click on the link. Check out the story. In it, Dan Kennedy tells us about how officials at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell have snuck behind the backs of the students and the community and signed a contract giving control of WJUL, the heretofore student run college ration station, to the Lowell Sun (an absolutely awful newspaper owned by Dean Singleton) for 25 hours a week.

Maybe you’re wondering what’s the big deal. What’s 25 hours a week? Here’s why it’s a big deal: Right now college radio is about the only form of broadcast media not controlled by corporations. (Yes, folks, NPR is a corporation. And whether it admits it or not it has advertisers — call them underwriters if you want; they’re advertisers — who have influence over content.) And unless this move is stopped right away, I promise you it will represent only the beginning of a corporate incursion into the college radio market. If it isn’t stopped, in 10 years there will be virtually nowhere on the radio dial where content isn’t bought and paid for — other than pirate radio and, maybe, low watt community stations (assuming your friendly local public radio station doesn’t succeed in its ongoing attempts to squelch that movement — and yes, Valley folks, your happy little pals at WFCR are part of that cabal of NPR types working to keep you from having more options on your radio dial) — nowhere to turn for music from outside the commercial mainstream, and certainly nowhere to hear voices other than those that meet the approval of the corporate overlords (and you know what those voices sound like; they’re ultimately only half a step away from the ones you hear on Fox News, if you’re stupid enough, or enough of a glutton for punishment, to watch Fox News).

And this isn’t just about UMass-Lowell. It’s about UMass. So if you’re in the Valley and you dig WMUA — any part of WMUA — keep in mind that Lowell isn’t the only UMass campus that’s hurting for revenue. How long do you think it’s going to be before some corporate interest (be it the Newhouse paper down in Springfield or the Tribune-owned alternaweekly I write for — don’t worry about the Gazette; they’re a nice little local daily, but they won’t ever have it in them to run so much as 15 minutes a week of radio time) gets a piece of WMUA’s programming schedule. And even if you believe one or more of the local papers has its head on straight (obviously, I do, or I wouldn’t be writing for one of them), that’s not the point. The point is that college radio should be run by the people it serves — the students and the community — not by some commercial enterprise.

There’s probably little anyone reading this can do about the situation out in Lowell. But maybe you know someone who’s involved with WJUL. If you do, tell them this: They have to do whatever it takes to stop this. The students who the station will still be counting on to fill the other 143 hours a week, should refuse to participate. They should walk en masse. And they should find a way to compete with the “college” station, even if that means going pirate. The student government, in turn, should withdraw all student funding for that station. Student activities fees shouldn’t be used to fund a station at which the students don’t have decision-making power. They should send a message that if the Sun wants a radio station it should go out and buy one — a commercial station. They should not allow the Sun to masquerade as a community interest. If they won’t do it for themselves, they should do it for the good of college radio.

Will any of that stuff happen? No. The Sun will get its 25 hours a week. Then in a couple of years they’ll get 25 more. And sooner or later everyone will forget that college radio used to be run by college students. Because no one will be talking about it. They won’t have anyplace to talk about it.

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