Big shake-up at a small radio station

You’d think a university wouldn’t need to tell everyone they were making their campus radio station more “student-focused.” But the University of Massachusetts, my alma mater, is doing just that with WMUA. This spring, the airwaves on 91.1 FM will have no more than 24 hours per week of non-student programming. This comes as a review committee checks out the controversy which led to the ouster of non-student DJ Max Shea and faculty adviser Glenn Siegel last spring.

For all this to make sense, you have to understand a little bit of backstory of the station.

Even as the radio voice of UMass, WMUA has enjoyed an awful lot of community involvement over the years- as in, tuning in meant you might hear a fellow student or you might hear a townie. Blocks of programming included jazz, world music, and even polka, so we aren’t talking about a typical college radio station that was playing Snow Patrol circa 1998.

Though the station was largely funded through student fees, community members always felt part ownership. It hasn’t been unwarranted.  Community DJs ate up time during the non-student-friendly hours when classes were being attended (early on weekdays) or hangovers were being nursed (weekends).  The signal from WMUA stayed strong through winters and summers because non-students felt like they were a part of the action.

My own show, Politics as Usual, was a student-produced Sunday morning outlier from 1998-2000. I was scheduled back-to-back with the late Ken Mosakowski, a nice older guy who would be cheering on Bernie Sanders each week if he hadn’t passed away some years ago. He was always remarkably nice to me despite our political differences, and I was really happy that I got to bump into him – by complete chance – on the day I graduated. Listening to the beginning of his show as I cleaned up after my own was fun and I learned a good bit from him about local politics. It was a benefit to have these folks around the station to serve as mentors.

Ont the other hand, the mission of the university – and, by extension, its radio station – is education, which means giving students the microphone. Reaction to UMass’s decision to focus on student-produced programming  drips with entitlement and self-importance:

At a press conference in the Bangs Community Center, community members said they are frustrated that mediation was not offered after they raised concerns about student leadership … 

Louise Dunphy, spokeswoman for the task force and host of “Celtic Crossings,” said she is particularly frustrated with what she sees as a “total absence of moral leadership” at UMass, pointing to a meeting she, Sax and community representative Maria Danielson attended Tuesday morning with Associate Chancellor Susan Pearson and Enku Gelaye, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life.

“The very worst of our community played out in the chancellor’s office yesterday, when Associate Chancellor Pearson and Vice Chancellor Gelaye told us they would release a statement to the press soon while they had already planned a presentation with the students who have participated in conduct directly in conflict with university policy,” Dunphy said.

If I was a  student, or a parent writing checks to UMass, I’d wonder why the hell the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs is spending time meeting with a bunch of Amherst-dwelling hippies whose biggest beef is that their weekly volunteer world music radio show might get cancelled so that some Communications major can spin the Decemberists and Band of Horses for three hours. Pearson and Gelaye were right to dismiss these issues because they are non-issues. It’s disappointing to see adults getting so involved in the workings of a student radio station.

But like so many other things that UMass does, this has the potential to backfire. After all, the fact that no one listened to WMUA when I was a student had more to do with the advent of MP3s than people turning away from jazz or polka. College radio was the place to hear edgy, rare music once, but by the time the century turned people found that stuff online. Even back in 1997, older students told rookies like me that radio station jobs weren’t going to be easy to find as national syndication services edged out the old-school DJ-spinning-records model.

As both a reflection of UMass campus life and a training ground for real careers, WMUA may not be particularly relevant anymore. They can set aside programming blocks for students, but will the students actually want it anymore? UMass could find itself stuck with a choice: reinstate the dual student-community focus of WMUA, or be forced to shut the station down.

Hopefully, the students will come back – because even if radio is a dying medium, it’s still pretty cool to have a show.

Holding higher education accountable (but some schools more than others)

Two stories that have been floating around in the last week haven’t really been connected in most media coverage, but they should have been.

The first is the US Department of Education’s website designed to “increase transparency” by providing prospective students with information on college costs – including tuition and fees and rates of increases over the past few years.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the hope is to keep students from being “saddled with unmanageable debt.”

Another story is the ongoing effort to exterminate for-profit colleges – the Strayers and Phoenixes of the world.  Last month the Obama Administration promised new rules on for-profits; earlier this week several Democrat Senators pounded their chests and released a statement condemning schools that exploited GI Bill benefits after they saw a story it on PBS.  (Of course, now that a statement has been released, the problem is sure to be cleared up.)

As a sidebar: When did seeing something on TV become a reason to make a statement?  Shouldn’t there be more study and consideration that goes into an official statement?

The Senators’ statement comes a few weeks after the Obama Administration promised to regulate for-profit colleges.  These so-called educational institutions, it seems, receive large amounts of federal funding through student aid programs and other grants but often leave students with student loan payments and questionable career prospects.

If that sounds familiar, it should, because that’s how just about every other institution of higher learning operates.

Tuitions and fees at saintly non-profit colleges have skyrocketed in the past several decades precisely because the cost of education has been so subsidized – from easy student loan programs to Pell grants to federal work study programs that pay two thirds of a student worker’s wage.  (Another sidebar: It just dawned on me that, due to the Federal Work Study program I once ran a snack bar with federal aid.  That means federal tax dollars went toward making sure people in Coolidge Hall at UMass got exceptional grilled cheese sandwiches served to them.  Suddenly, the existence crippling deficit makes a little bit more sense.)

How much have tuition rates risen?  Enough to motivate the Department of Education to launch a website so that students could keep score and avoid overpriced schools.  It’s a good thing those schools aren’t making money, too, or they’d be facing new regulations, too.