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UH buys KTRU

I’ve never been a regular listener of KTRU, but as a Rice partisan and someone who thinks radio in general is too bland, this is a bit of a shock.

The University of Houston is planning to buy the radio station operated by students at Rice University for almost 40 years in a $9.5 million deal that would give UH the broadcast tower, FM frequency and license used by Rice’s KTRU.

UH’s governing board will vote Tuesday on whether to give Chancellor Renu Khator authority to complete the deal. Rice spokesman B.J. Almond said its trustees already have given similar authority to administrators there.

UH currently operates one public radio station, KUHF, which offers both news and classical music and other arts programming.

If the deal goes through, the university would have two stations, one to provide news 24 hours a day and the second to offer classical music and arts coverage, according to a fact sheet prepared by the school to explain the plan.

KUHF would be converted to a 24-hour news and information format, heard at the station’s current frequency, 88.7 FM.

The new station, to be known by call letters KUHC, would broadcast classical music and arts on the 91.7 FM frequency used by KTRU.

Both stations will be affiliates of National Public Radio, as KUHF currently is, UH spokesman Richard Bonnin said Monday.

As neither school is in session yet, neither the Rice Thresher nor the Daily Cougar has anything to say about this, which is too bad. It’ll be interesting to see what the students’ reactions are. I can tell you that the folks who run KTRU will have something to say about it. The following is from an email sent to KTRU’s mailing list, which was forwarded to me:

After paperwork is filed with the FCC, there will be a 30 day period in which comments can be filed by the public. This will be an important way for us all to channel our arguments.

Until the end of the thirty days, operation will continue as usual. Please keep us legal (and extra awesome on the music side) for the time that we have left.

[…]

In the meantime, I would encourage you all to express your thoughts in a variety of ways… comment on the news articles you see (in a respectful manner, that does not cause us to lose credibility), use facebook, twitter, myspace and face to face social networking to spread awareness.

We will be resurrecting savektru.org and doing our best to be heard through a variety of media outlets.

Finally, I just wanted to let everyone know that no students were involved in (or even notified of) these discussions.

SaveKTRU.org, which is not live right now, was created back in 2000 after the Rice administration pulled the plug on the station following a dispute over broadcasting athletic events. See these archived Chron stories for the details. For those who want to get involved in that, there’s already a #saveKTRU hashtag on Twitter, and here’s a blog post by a former KTRU board member about this.

From my perspective as someone who consumes a lot of news and who didn’t listen to KTRU, the idea of having a real news radio station, which is something KTRH long ago abandoned to the screeching monkeys of wingnut talk radio, is appealing. I certainly understand the anguish about this, however, and losing a unique voice like KTRU, even if they continue as an Internet station, is a blow. Something Tiffany wondered about when we first saw this story is what the deal is with KUHF’s HD radio stations, which already broadcast news and classical music 24/7. Neither the official KUHF press release nor the story they’re airing addresses that point.

UPDATE: Via the comments, SaveKTRU.org is now live again.

UPDATE: Here’s the official email that was sent out about this:

Date: August 17, 2010

To: Rice colleagues

I am writing to let you know that we have reached a preliminary agreement with the University of Houston System to purchase Rice’s 50,000-watt radio frequency and broadcast tower for use by Houston’s local public broadcasting station, KUHF. Rice’s station, KTRU, will continue to operate a Web-based radio station at www.ktru.org.

We made the decision to sell the radio tower and frequency for several reasons. The economic downturn which began two years ago has forced Rice — and virtually all colleges and universities across the country — to make hard choices to prioritize spending and maximize the use of our resources. As we have implemented necessary budget cuts over the past two years, our goal has been to focus on our core missions of teaching and research and, to the extent possible, to avoid layoffs. We have constantly asked, and will continue to ask, how we can best apply our resources to achieve our aspirations.

The KTRU tower stood out as one of the university’s most underutilized resources. In an era when Internet radio is rapidly growing in popularity, it became apparent that the 50,000-watt radio station that broadcasts KTRU’s programming is a valuable but vastly underutilized resource that is not essential to providing our students the wide range of opportunities they need, including media opportunities.

A recent Arbitron report showed that KTRU’s audience was so small that it did not even register in the ratings. Most college radio stations around the country have less than 5,000 watts, and since the late ’90s a number of them have added the online format and moved to online only.

At the same time, KUHF, Houston’s National Public Radio station, was looking for a way to provide both 24-hour all-news and all-classical music programming. Houston is the only major city in the country that lacks these dual services. To fill that gap, the University of Houston System expressed an interest in purchasing Rice’s FM frequency and tower, and we eventually agreed on a price of $9.5 million.

The sale must be approved by the UH Board of Regents at its meeting today, and then by the Federal Communications Commission.

Some of the sale proceeds will go toward the cost of the new East Servery, which will be adjacent to Lovett and Will Rice residential colleges on the south campus. This will both provide one of the most desired improvements to the residential experience in the south colleges, as well as help us achieve the overall capital plan approved by our board of trustees. We also plan to form a committee including students to provide input on other uses of the proceeds, such as for scholarships, improvements to recreational facilities and enhancements to the online station and other student media facilities and programs.

KTRU will continue to serve its campus and external audience with student-managed programming via www.ktru.org. The Internet already brings KTRU to national and global listeners, and there are opportunities for that audience to grow. Will Robedee, the station’s first general manager, will continue in that role.

KUHF plans to use the additional frequency to broadcast 24-hour classical music and fine arts programming on 91.7 FM; 88.7 FM will become its all-news channel. KUHF will raise funds to pay for the acquisition.

We realize that some loyal fans of KTRU may lament these changes, but it is important to remember that KTRU is not going away. Fans can still find KTRU’s unique blend of music and programming online. Meanwhile, a greater number of students can benefit from the improvements in campus facilities and offerings made possible by the sale of the broadcast tower.

As much as I prefer to consult widely and involve all stakeholders in important decisions, this sale required months of complicated and, by necessity, confidential negotiations. My management team and I approached those discussions always with the best interests of our students, faculty and alumni and the future of our university as our highest priorities.

For more information about the KTRU plans, see the story and FAQs on rice.edu.

Thank you, as always, for your hard work and dedication.

Warm regards,

David W. Leebron

President, Rice University

I am sympathetic to the justifications Dr. Leebron cites. Certainly, this is preferable to layoffs. But I am also sympathetic to the complaints about not involving students and alumni, who are the primary users and audience of KTRU. This kind of secrecy isn’t an isolated incident, and no doubt contributes to the bitterness that many folks will feel.

UPDATE: Hair Balls weighs in.

UPDATE: More NPR is nice, but if that’s all we’re getting news-wise, it ain’t much.

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10 Comments

  1. Robert Boyd says:

    Isn’t the real issue here that Rice’s administration apparently negotiated this deal in secret without input from the students or alumni? That’s what offends me (Rice alum, BA 92, MBA 08). It also disturbs me. Does Rice have other assets that are secretly for sale? Will we find that we have lost another irreplaceable part of Rice’s heritage when we get an official press release letting us know?

  2. Save Ktru says:

    Good news: As of 2 a.m. last night, savektru.org has been resurrected. Up, operational, and as good as ever.

    Thanks for your support!

  3. Gentry says:

    KUHF can’t get the listenership from its HD subcarriers that it can from this deal. There aren’t enough HD radios out there right now and even if there were the HD coverage footprint can’t match the FM broadcast coverage area of a 50,000 watt signal like KTRU, even if the broadcast tower is far away from the city core.

    Sure the negotiations went on in secret and all parties involved, Rice and UH were sworn to secrecy. Does this mean the sallyport is on the market? Probably not Naming rights for Rice Stadium? That’s another matter. Webster’s New World Rice Stadium? It has a ring to it.

    Having a real 24 hour news radio station staffed by seasoned pros trumps having a 50,000 watt venue for esoteric music. Is the loss of the ecclectic voice of KTRU a blow. Of course it is. But it’s also the way things go in the radio business. Formats come and go, all over the dial. If KTRU’s audience is strong enough, the programming will find another home.

  4. Ginger says:

    KTRU isn’t a commercial station. Its programming doesn’t need to “find an audience”. It’s run for students by students. It’s a Rice asset, and the administration should be ashamed of itself for selling it without even discussing it with the students.

    But hey, the students are just consumers; they’re not part of the university. All they do is pay tuition.

  5. Mike says:

    It would be nice to continue to be able to listen to the occasional Rice sports broadcast in my car.

  6. racymind says:

    The 24 hour news/info station with “seasoned pros” is likely going to be largely an NPR repeater station. You can see what is going to be on the station just by looking at the program schedule for KUHF now. All the slots on 88.7 FM currently with classical music have a corresponding non-musical show on the KUHF HD channels. They can just slide them over. It is gonna be an NPR based programming overdose with some BBC thrown in. (I do like numerous NPR shows… I am not saying NPR is a bad thing in and of itself)

    Maybe there is some more local news content when the new station starts. Great! But I do not agree that the “eclectic” programming of KTRU should be so easily dismissed or devalued, it is not something easily replaced. There are lots of us who start searching for a 91.7 signal as soon as we can when driving in from out of town. Sure, I go elsewhere when Rice athletics is on. But I so often hear the best damn music on radio on KTRU. (Yeah, I’ve heard some crap on KTRU too… so it goes).

    If it is “the radio business”, why can’t the “classical music format” make a go of it out there? Why does the NPR affiliate have to play so many hours of a format that most people can’t stand? It would make just as much sense if KUHF said they were going to drop classical music, do just news/info and let the market take care of the demand for Mozart and chamber orchestras.

  7. Paul Havlak says:

    As a long-time Ricenik whose radios are programmed to exactly three stations (KUHF, KPFT, and KTRU), I’m most upset by the missed opportunity to make Houston radio more interesting.

    KTRU is dynamic and has unconventional musical playlists, but doesn’t succeed in attracting many listeners. I can see valid reasons to do something more exciting with that piece of radio spectrum…

    But since when has UH done anything exciting with radio?

    I still have envy for Dallas public radio, with KERA and now KXT.

  8. unbelievable. it’s money great!

  9. Jeb says:

    Perhaps what Houston needs is a truly community radio station.

  10. Richard says:

    KTRU should play Dean Martin and Big Band music!