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Twelve years

Twelve years ago today, I started this blog. That was on blogspot – believe it or not, it still exists; truly, the Internet is forever – and a few months later I had my own domain. I don’t do retrospectives, I don’t have a list of favorite or “most popular” posts readily available, and sometimes I don’t even remember to mark my blogging anniversaries, but I figured I ought to mention it this time, as I enter my baker’s dozenth year at it.

I tend to be a creature of habit, and when I find something I like that works for me, I just keep doing it. That’s the basic answer to the question of why I do this and how long I plan to keep doing it. It’s fun, I get something out of it, I’d miss it if I weren’t doing it, so I have no plans to stop. The day when those things are no longer true will come, but it’s not on my radar just yet.

One of the things I have enjoyed getting from this blog is a long list of friendships and acquaintances from across the political spectrum and in media, traditional and otherwise. I’ve gotten to meet a whole lot more people in real life because of this Internet thing than I could have without it. I’ve gotten to be on TV – I’ll be doing another episode of Red, White, and Blue to be aired on January 17 – and on radio – I’m doing another segment of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” for Houston Matters for this Friday, the 3rd – and discovered that I enjoy doing those things as well. More recently, I discovered that I have achieved the pinnacle of Internet fame when I stumbled across a Wikipedia page for this blog. I swear on whatever you have handy that I had nothing to do with that, and that I have no idea who created it.

Most of all, I enjoy the feedback I get from you, my readers. It still amazes me that there are people who read this blog. Thank you for doing so, thank you for commenting, and especially thank you for letting me know when I’ve got something wrong, and when I’ve got something right. I’d probably still write this thing if all my words were going into a big void, but it’s a lot more fun this way. As a reminder, there are multiple ways you can be notified about new posts on this blog. There’s good old fashioned RSS, there’s the Off the Kuff Twitter feed, and there’s the Off the Kuff Facebook page, which has 422 followers and which I’d dearly love to get to 500, if you’re so inclined. But however you access this blog, thank you for doing so, and thank you for coming back. Here’s to another fun year.

KUHA debuts Monday

KTRU is now off the air, but 91.7 on your dial won’t be dead air for much longer. KUHA, the spawn of the KUHF takeover of 91.7, begins broadcasting Monday.

KUHA Classical programs will include The Front Row, Exploring Music, Metropolitan Opera, Performance Today and From the Top plus recordings from Houston cultural institutions such as the Houston Symphony and Houston Grand Opera.

KUHF News will offer programming from NPR, American Public Media, PRI and the BBC, in addition to local news, weather and traffic.

As I said at the beginning of this saga, having a real 24-hour news station in town is good. Sacrificing KTRU to get it, especially given the gallons of effluvia elsewhere on the dial, is not. But like it or not, it’s what we’ve got now.

FCC approves KTRU sale

It’s official now.

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday approved the controversial sale of Rice University’s radio station, KTRU, to the University of Houston.

The decision comes after a group called the Friends of KTRU filed a petition and three radio listeners submitted objections hoping to scuttle the deal. They argued the sale violated FCC rules and state law because it was not in the public interest, but the FCC, in its order, said the sale was “consistent with the public interest, convenience and necessity.”

[…]

Rice student and KTRU station manager Joey Yang said he wasn’t happy with FCC decision.

“It’s disappointing in terms of the FCC preaching localism and local programming,” Yang said. “In the decision they said programming content was not their concern. It seems contradictory.”

In the petition, supporters argued that the change of format contradicted the commission’s policies promoting local programming. The FCC, however, found no grounds for the objections.

“Although the commission recognizes that the station’s program format has attracted a devoted listenership, it is well-settled policy that the commission does not scrutinize or regulate programming, nor does it take potential changes in programming formats into consideration in reviewing assignment applications,” the decision states.

You can read the FCC’s decision here. Not surprisingly, Save KTRU isn’t happy with it.

The decision shows a lack of commitment on the part of the FCC to its own public statements regarding the importance of localism and diversity in American broadcast media.

If the segment of the FM radio dial reserved for noncommercial stations is now also subject to the unobstructed machinations of the free market, it is highly likely that local voices will increasingly disappear from American broadcast radio. Indeed, evidence of such a trend is already overwhelming, and it is quite clear that market forces are promoting uniformity at the expense of diversity. Only through protection by a government agency properly enforcing its mandate to regulate this resource on behalf of the public, and thus maintaining sources of relevant locally produced programming, will such stations continue to exist and enrich the public cultural discourse of their communities.

The degree to which a station serves its local community can be evaluated independently of its particular format. We propose that in the future, the FCC not hold itself hostage to outmoded precedents running contrary to its stated goals, but instead consider and base its regulations and actions on what is truly in the public interest, to spare other communities the fate of a media bereft of meaningful local voices.

KTRU has been broadcasting on KPFT’s HD radio channel and will continue to do so. It’s not been determined yet when new station KUHC will be up and running, but according to Rocks Off, Rice and UH have ten business days to transfer the money from the sale. One way or another, the era of KTRU on 91.7 is at the end.

More on the KTRU/KPFT deal

After I read about the KTRU/KPFT deal, in which KTRU will broadcast over one of KPFT’s HD radio channels, I wondered what the folks at Save KTRU thought of it. At the time I posted, there wasn’t anything on the website about the deal, but there is now:

Friends of KTRU, a group of students, alumni and community members devoted to stopping the assignment of KTRU’s non-commercial (NCE) FM license, as well as KTRU’s student management, reject any notion that the dispute over the future of KTRU’s FM license and transmitter has been resolved by the agreement, announced today, regarding the simulcasting of KTRU’s programming on KPFT’s HD2 channel.

“HD radio is better than no radio,” said KTRU Station Manager Joey Yang, “but is orders of magnitude less viable than our current FM broadcast.”

Potential and actual listenership of HD radio is a fraction of that of conventional FM radio, and reception of HD radio broadcasts requires the purchase of a specialized receiver, putting it out of the reach of those with limited financial means.

The FCC has not yet ruled on Friends of KTRU’s Petition to Deny the transfer of KTRU’s FM license. Both Friends of KTRU and KTRU’s student management remain committed in their opposition to any sale of KTRU’s assets.

That quote by station manager Joey Yang seemed to contrast with what he had said in the earlier Chron story:

“We’re excited,” said Joey Yang, KTRU station manager and a junior at Rice. “We think HD radio is going to be a viable option for us.”

I was curious about that, so I sent him an email and asked him to elaborate. This is what he said to me:

Yes, I’m happy with the deal. HD radio, as I’ve said before, is better than no radio. We realize the value of FM, though, and still seek to deny the transfer of the license. That’s still the main goal. HD radio is still an up-and-coming technology, hence my comments in the Friends of KTRU release, but it’s important to note that FM was an up-and-coming technology once upon a time. So, to clarify, FM is much more ubiquitously available than HD radio, but I, and the DJs at KTRU, are very excited about the possibilities that HD radio holds.

Fair enough. I also asked him what will happen to the KPFT deal if the FCC ultimately denies the sale of KTRU’s license, as SaveKTRU and others have advocated:

If the FCC denies the sale of KTRU, then I guess we’ll have both an HD stream with KPFT and an FM stream. Two is certainly better than zero.

So there you have it.

KTRU supporters go to the FCC

I wish them luck, but I would not hold out much hope.

Supporters of Rice University’s student-run radio station have formally asked the Federal Communications Commission to deny the station’s sale to the University of Houston, contending it would weaken the educational mission intended by the FCC and harm listeners.

Joey Yang, a Rice student and KTRU station manager, said the goal is to stop the $9.5 million sale, which was approved last summer.

[…]

“There’s nothing like KTRU on the air right now,” Yang said. “(National Public Radio) and classical music are both well-served by KUHF’s current format. We think the loss of the independent, eclectic format is a net loss to the community.”

The petition was filed Friday, the final day public comments on the proposal were accepted by the FCC.

No date has been set for a decision, but FCC spokeswoman Janice Wise said the commission tries to act “in a timely manner.”

The full Petition to Deny is at Save KTRU. Here’s their press release, with a brief summary of what the petition contains:

  • The proposed programming for the new station would significantly decrease community-oriented programming, in contravention of the FCC’s emphasis on broadcast localism
  • The proposed assignment would be contrary to the educational purpose of the non-commercial FM license
  • Internet transmission of KTRU would be a poor substitute for FM broadcast
  • Houston-area non-commercial, educational FM licenses would be overly concentrated in the hands of UHS and non-independent operators
  • Questions exist as to the qualifications of UHS holding an additional NCE FM license
  • Rice and UH’s secrecy, deception excluded student and community participation
  • Characterization of FM radio license as a “declining asset” and sale at a below market price is harmful to the public interest

These are all valid points, I just don’t think they’re going get anywhere with them. I could be wrong. Regarding that penultimate bullet point, I refer you to the Houston Press “Turkey of the Year” award for David Leebron. I’m hard pressed to think of how they could have done this any worse.

What about the classical music?

This Chron story adds a dimension to the KTRU debate that I haven’t seen discussed before.

Classical music fans in the city’s southern and western suburbs may not be able to hear the station intended to serve their interests.

“It’s all static,” Clear Lake resident Jay Bennett said of the radio signal that would be designated for classical music and arts programming if the deal goes through. “It seems odd that they would degrade their (classical music) signal and alienate a lot of their listeners.”

[…]

[N]ot everyone in the sprawling metropolitan area now served by KUHF would be able to hear static-free programming on the new station, which would be renamed KUHC.

The 50,000-watt KTRU tower is north of Bush Intercontinental Airport, with its signal reaching about 30 miles in all directions, UH spokesman [Richard] Bonnin said.

Some people can hear it farther out, depending on the terrain and the listeners’ radio equipment.

KUHF’s 100,000-watt transmitter in Missouri City reaches 50 miles or more in all directions, Bonnin said.

The university knew about the limits to KTRU’s reach when it began negotiations for the transmitter and license, he said.

Their proposed solution to this is HD radio, which is to say pretty much what had existed before for those wanted classical or NPR 24/7. I have three questions:

1. How expensive would an upgrade to a 100Kw transmitter be? My guess is “very”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not feasible.

2. Would there be any technical reason why KTRU couldn’t be upgraded to 100Kw? Like another station nearby on the dial whose signal would be obliterated by a stronger one at 91.7, for example.

3. If the transmitter cannot be upgraded for whatever the reason, would this be grounds for the FCC to disapprove the sale?

I don’t know, so that’s why I’m asking. If you do know, please leave a comment.

Reactions to the KTRU sale

Unsurprisingly, the Rice community is not happy.

“We are totally opposed to the sale,” said Joey Yang, a junior at Rice and program director of the station, which relies upon student and community volunteers for its eclectic music programming. “This is our radio station, and we’d like to keep it.”

[…]

KTRU launched a campaign against the sale Tuesday, urging supporters to flood Leebron and other administrators with “sincere and civil” protests.

Kelsey Yule, a Rice junior and KTRU station manager, said she had e-mailed Leebron and tried to call other administrators, to no avail as of late Tuesday.

“So many people are devastated that they won’t be able to listen on their commutes or at work anymore,” she said.

Wi-Fi access is widely available on campus, so students still will be able to tune in, she said. “But we really consider ourselves a cultural institution for the city.”

Rocks Off rounds up a bunch of reactions from local music scene folks, and nobody thinks the transition of KTRU to Internet-only is a win. Among the points raised are that very few people can listen to an online radio station in their car, and that nobody will want to work an overnight shift any more – why bother, when you can just make a podcast? At least with terrestrial radio, you can believe someone is awake with you and listening in.

Linda Thrane, vice president for public affairs at Rice, said administrators will meet with students about the issue, although no date has been set.

“We want to hear their ideas about what we can do to make the internet station better,” Thrane said.

She acknowledged that some students are upset about the proposed sale.

“KTRU is not going away,” she insisted. “It’s going to remain a student-managed operation. The students aren’t losing anything.”

Well, no, as noted above they are losing something – a much wider audience and influence over the local music scene, among other things. The administration would know this if they had involved any of the stakeholders in the process, which is of course another bone of contention here. I don’t think the administration fully appreciates how much of the discontent is driven by that.

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.

Houston Have Your Say 2.0

So last year I got to serve as an on-the-spot blogger for KUHF’s production of Houston Have Your Say, which was about immigration. I blogged some of it at Kuff’s World and some of it at a blog that was set up for the show. Tonight I’ll be back in the KUHF studios along with my compatriot from the last time, Ree-C Murphy of Lone Star Times and Chronically Right, and the topic will be growth. There’s a new blog for the occasion, which you can find here – expect to see our output there this evening.

That blog already has a few entries on it, from some of the guests who will be on the program to discuss the issues. One such entry is here, from Tory Gattis of Houston Strategies. In the spirit of kicking things off, I’m going to pick a nit about his case for why we shouldn’t fear growth, a thesis with which I otherwise concur.

Houston has a pedestrian-hostile tropical climate five months of the year. While northern transit-based cities benefit from a personal warming technology – the coat – the only personal cooling technology that exists for southern cities is an air-conditioned vehicle.

All due respect, but as someone who grew up in a northern transit-based city and spent ten years of his life walking or taking public transit to get to school, it’s cities like New York that are pedestrian-hostile for five months of the year; essentially, November through March. It’s true one can wear that magical personal warming technology Tory refers to when it’s cold, but up north we also have what’s known as “snow”, which turns into “slush”, and trust me on this – your coat only helps so much in those conditions. I’ve seen snow as early as Halloween and as late as Easter – in fact, the last snow day I recall as a student was on Good Friday, in the first week of April. Some day, when I tell my daughters that I often went to school in a foot or more of snow, I won’t be exaggerating. (The bit about it being uphill both ways will admittedly be a stretch.) You want weather that’s not fit for walking, or for waiting for a bus? Let me introduce you to the concept of the “wind chill factor”. That’s my idea of an I’d-rather-be-driving climate.

As for Houston, well, I may be more heat tolerant than some, but for the most part outside of July and August, I’ll take our weather over theirs. And you know, in a well-designed transit-oriented city, they do have a remarkable pedestrian-cooling technology available. It’s called “trees”, which when planted along sidewalks can make a big difference in the ambient temperature. You may recall a big argument over the redevelopment on Kirby Drive regarding the dispensation of its trees. And though it may not provide as much relief, unlike your car’s technology, a tree canopy won’t break down on you and require a costly repair.

Anyway. Like I say, Tory has some really smart ideas, but to me at least, the suggestion that Houston has worse walking weather than New York or Boston or Detroit is frankly ludicrous and in need of some pushback. For more on being a pedestrian in Houston, I’ll refer you back to Andrew Burleson’s recent post about walking as well as this earlier one about urban corridors and the need to value sidewalks and walking as much as we do cars and driving. May we have a lively and informative debate on all these topics tonight.