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.

Crummy Little Podcast Episode 4: FUBU on a Klansman?

George Chidi, who is responsible for this hilarious video of a Klansman wearing FUBU sneakers, is this week’s guest on the Crummy Little Podcast.

George got some attention for that video, as you might expect, but what’s been missed was his coverage of the confederate flag rally from which that video came. He also spent a week covering a shady soccer stadium deal in DeKalb County, outside of Atlanta. It’s a long podcast, but it was a great conversation about news reporting, media, where it’s at and where it’s going. It probably could have been two shows, but I liked the flow of it.

This was an especially fun episode for me because George and I go back a ways. Long before I had a crummy little podcast, I had a crummy little radio show back at UMass on campus station WMUA. George was the news director at that station for a time, and even guest-hosted my show at least once (and did a better job than me, if I remember right). Needless to say, he’s done our alma mater proud since.

Where are they learning this stuff? Oh…

It’s a story that deals with higher taxes, government largess, and an agency that broke it’s promises.

Is it the current budget battle?  The raging debate over Obamacare?  The rallying cry for state public sector unions?  No, it’s Spring Concert at my alma mater, UMass.  This year, for the first time ever, students will have to pay to attend.

In light of the current debate over the size and scope of government spending, this tale is sort of interesting.

Some background: UMass’s annual Spring Concert dates back to at least the 1960s.  It used to be an outdoor event on the vast expanse of  space right in the middle of campus; since 1999 it has been held in the Mullins Center (which also hosts basketball, hockey, and other concerts).  The money to put on the concert comes from the student activities fund, which is charged along with tuition and other fees to each student on their bill each semester – essentially, a tax that funds student government activities.  The article points out that the fee is now $94 (it was in the $70 range when I was there) and includes a good description of the funding process and the way the Spring Concert is put together.

Controversy and disappointment are nothing new for the Spring Concert; the 1998 show (during my freshman year on campus) was scrapped because the agency in charge couldn’t scrape together enough funds after running other concerts throughout the year.  This year, the problem is that the $200,000 special fund that was set aside specifically for the concert (an outgrowth from the ’98 cancellation) isn’t enough to cover the talent and other costs.

In other words, a government agency is having trouble paying its bills, and is looking for taxpayers to make up the difference.

Especially telling is explanation offered by the advisor for University Productions and Concerts, the group in charge of the event:

“One of the problems is that we are a very spoiled campus,” said Lloyd Henley, associate director of the Center for Student Development and faculty advisor to the UPC. “We are used to such top-caliber artists, and so one of the things I said to UPC and the SGA is, ‘Something’s got to break.’”

Met with the dilemma of the high costs of talent and a budget which sounds big but probably goes quick when running an event of this size, Henley’s advice was apparently to charge more on top of what people were already paying – because the students/taxpayers are “spoiled” and the Spring Concert has to be a great show rather than a good free concert.  It’s not surprising; despite the “faculty” advisor moniker Henley’s position within the office that oversees campus activities gives him away as an administrative/bureaucratic figure.  In fact, some folks are calling for increases in student activities fees so that the shortfall doesn’t happen again in future year.  Because why shouldn’t a state school raise its fees to accommodate a really big concert?

It’s both sad and fortunate that the voice of reason comes from a student:

This past year, fees did not increase and, according to Josh Davidson, chairman of the SGA’s Ways and Mean Committee, they should stay the same until the budget process is modified.

“I really feel that we can spend the money a whole lot better,” he said. “The way that we allocate money to groups can be much more effective. I would like to see those things happen before we raise the fees.”

That’s a good philosophy, no matter what level of government you’re in.


John Kerry back on the campaign trail

Sen. John Kerry emailed his campaign supporters yesterday imploring them to get to the polls… and cast their vote for Kevin Youkilis in MLB’s All Star Game Final Vote.  The senior Senator from Massachusetts used the occasion to take a swipe at the Yankees:

Youk deserves to be in the All-Star Game — while the team has grinded [sic] it out in spite of injury after injury, he’s been a rock. But now he needs to win a fan vote to make it to Anaheim next week.

“The stakes are also just a little personal: in the fan voting, currently Nick Swisher of the Yankees is in first place. Swisher’s having a fine year, but Youk is better in just about every category, batting average, slugging, home runs, everything, and he plays Gold Glove defense to boot. Please don’t let anyone say that Swisher beat Youkilis because Sox fans have gone a little soft after ’04 and ’07. Let’s show we’re still the most ravenous fans in baseball.

Give Kerry points for acknowledging Swisher’s year so far.  That’s the closest thing to real bipartisanship we’ve heard from Washington this year.  However, he may be a little insensitive – that “ravenous” fan base has caused problems in the past.

The fan voting has drawn some attention to MLB’s strides in advanced media (they wisely don’t call it “new media”).  Swisher has been active on Twitter for a while, and his 1.2 million followers offer a ready-made network for an online vote.  The voting by text message feature is available only to Sprint customers, making cell phone coverage maps an issue – which looks like a drawback for Texas’s Michael Young and Minnesota’s Delmon Young.

However, anyone handicapping the race must acknowledge that the excitable Red Sox Nation Kerry references is a study in how offline enthusiasm can turn into online action.  The tech-savvy city of Boston has done well in online All-Star balloting since Nomar Garciaparra edged out Derek Jeter in the fan vote to start the 1999 game.

But of course, like so many of the other pressing issues that face our nation, John Kerry is wrong (if only because Swish’s endorsement deals are more wholesome than Youk’s).   You can answer by casting your vote for Swisher – and like some Boston elections of yore, you can vote as many times as you like.

Trying to burn Phoenix

Two guys who got rich when people lost their homes are telling anyone who will listen about the possible insolvency of for-profit education.  Steve Eisman and Manuel Asensio point to the fact that colleges like the University of Phoenix rely heavily on student loans, thus inflating their revenues and stock prices.

It seems like a straight business argument – that a market financed by personal debt would go the same route as housing and auto sales did in the last few years.  But flipping through Eisman’s presentation on the issue tells otherwise.  Eisman complains of placement stats  and advertising practices with anecdotal evidence of nurses working as hospital janitors and billboards lining homeless shelters.  His speech reads like a hit piece on for-profit education; Asensio’s organization piled on by asking the Department of Education to investigate the industry’s business practices.

Some of the points are fair, and it deserves the question: why has enrollment in for-profit education jumped so markedly that it necessitates these altruistic crusades from people who profit on falling stocks?   It might have something to do with the fact that a college degree from a traditional school isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

This puts the questions about Elena Kagan’s Ivy-league background – and the prospect of an all-Ivy high court – into perspective.  It’s not (as some critics suggest) that she and the rest of the court went to schools that are “elite”; rather that they all went to one of two or three schools.  Whether the schools are Harvard, Yale, and Brown or UMass, UConn, and URI.  We know that the idea of the elite school is a crock – the problem is the lack of diversity of thought.

The Obama Triangle?

Our President is establishing a bad track record.

Much has been written and said on his drop in the polls over the last year, but his track record in trying to lend a helping hand has been particularly disturbing:

  • In 2009, President Obama campaigned in New Jersey for incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine and in Virginia for Democrat Creigh Deeds.  Both tied their campaigns to the successful 2008 Obama campaign in varying degrees; both lost.
  • In 2010, the President entered the Bay State to give Democrat Martha Coakley a boost in what was, according to the polls at the time, a dead heat.  We know how that turned out.

Benchmarks for 2010

It isn’t the most refined ad in the world, but in a post at RedMassGroup Massachusetts Republican Congressional candidate Tom Wesley is holding incumbent Rep. Richard Neal’s vote in favor of the health care bill against him:

Neal is pretty entrenched in MA-02, having not even faced a Republican challenger since 1998.  No Republican has represented the district in Congress since 1949.  But with depressed, blue collar economic areas such as Springfield and Chicopee, there may be a chance for Wesley to at least make a representative effort if the Republicans can hang the health care bill (and it’s price tag) on Democrat incumbents.  While 45% of the vote in November 2010 wouldn’t put Wesley in office, it might be a sign that Congressman Neal would head back to Washington, D.C. in the minority party.

“Read the Thesis” means “Read our parts of the Thesis”

In the Commonwealth I currently call home, the fight for Virginia’s governorship is becoming downright Jerseyan thanks to Creigh Deed’s attempt to leverage an old grad school paper written by Bob McDonnell.

Deeds is following an important rule – when negative information is out there about an opponent, the best thing is to keep it alive for as long as possible.  Since the McDonnell thesis is 90 pages long, the Deeds folks have selected the juiciest clips and added their editorial content.  It’s a good way for them to excite a base which is currently unexcited and raise some money.

Missing in a lot of the coverage is a link to the actual thesis.  I had to do about 20 minutes of searching before I found and downloaded McDonnel’s work.  If you haven’t actually read the thesis, it really is heavy on the involvement of church and family, but also has some harsh treatment of federal social programs – such as welfare, which was reformed six years later.

Since few voters will bother to read 90 pages, they may go back to their own memories of writing college papers.  How many people who took political science or current events courses would want their words revisited?   During my time at UMass, the Journalism department offered a class called “The Press and the Third World.”  I took it during my sophomore year, and usually sat next to a friend of mine with whom I worked at the campus radio station’s sports department.  (The class fulfilled a requirement for our major, but we were both aspiring sports journalists.  The subject matter was not in our area of expertise.)  Every Tuesday, our professor would look over the New York Times – what he called the “newspaper of record” for America – and express disgust that the Third World was rarely covered.  And when it was, he would express disgust that the stories would only cover corruption, violence, or the bizarre.

We could have pointed out that the local Springfield, Mass. television stations only covered corruption, violence, or the bizarre in Western Massachusetts, or that regional news outlets usually cover the regions they are based in.  We could have pointed out that his gripe was with media in general, not in American media’s treatment of the Third World.  Actually, one of our classmates brought that up during discussion one day, and was shouted down by other students as the professor encouraged them.  My friend and I shut our mouths, parroted back the professor’s comments when it was time to take a test, accepted our A- grades and went back to WMUA to cover sports.  The content of those papers would be wholly inconsistent with the content of this blog, but the Worker’s World Party might enjoy them.  (Although, I believe I criticized Jon Stewart’s coverage of the Middle East in my final paper.)

With a heavily college-educated voting populace who can identify with the college writing process, McDonnell’s thesis may not have quite the impact that Deeds would hope.

My President…

Look, yesterday was a great day to show the peaceful exchange of power in America, and a big step for racial healing, blah blah blah.

Forgive me for not being excited. For me, no President can come close to my favorite, our only UMass alum to occupy the White House, Bill Pullman:

Now that was a speech.

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Get out and vote, if you feel like it

Your vote probably won’t make a difference today.

That’s obviously not very politically correct to say, but it’s true. It was first pointed out to me by one of my favorite professors at UMass, Vincent Moscardelli, in fall 2000. (The traitorous Moscardelli now teaches at UConn.)

In one of the three classes I took with him, Moscardelli confounded us once by asking, “Why should you vote?” He pointed out that elections were rarely won or lost by one vote, and that our vote for President in Massachusetts was moot since Al Gore would carry the state easily. What was the point?

He grinned as he shot down every argument we made – which were really just arguments we were parroting from feel-good public service announcements about civic engagement. When our faith in democracy was sufficiently shaken, he broke his point down for us: voting was a collective, not an individual action – like cheering at a ballgame. If you see a game at a stadium of 45,000, and a few people aren’t cheering, no one really notices. But if the entire stadium isn’t cheering, then it is very noticeable.

After that discussion, I never again thought of voting as a “civic obligation.” I cast a ballot in 2000 because it was the first Presidential election in which I was eligible, and also because I was able to vote against Ted Kennedy. Neither race was close, but both votes were personally important to me – just like cheering for the Yankees is important to me when I see them play. Voting is a personal choice.

This is a fact that has seemed to escape organizations like Rock the Vote or the now-defunct Youth Vote Coalition – nominally non-ideological organizations that try to encourage voter engagement. For a citizen to actually go to the polls, they must feel like their vote is important – not just to drive up turnout numbers, but based on a genuine enthusiasm and understanding of their candidate.

Tonight, with Virginia apparently close, I’ll brave the long lines and cast a vote – because it’s important to me.

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