50,000 watts, ten years later
by Elizabeth Jardina
Flipped on 91.7 lately? Chances are, if you're an undergraduate you haven't. In 1991, the station was changed forever, when it went from 650 to 50,000 watts. Not only could the signal be heard all over Houston and halfway to San Antonio, but it also couldn't easily be heard on campus, because the buildings downtown blocked the signal.
Over the years, the added community audience and the difficulty in hearing it has separated KTRU from the student body.
In the past three weeks, the Athletic Department has asked KTRU to play twice as much sports as it did last year, bringing the question of who controls KTRU's programming to a head.
Some administrators, President Malcolm Gillis among them, call the tower a "university asset," the singular radio station Rice can own - and insist that KTRU would be serving the Rice community more fully if it played more university programming, ranging from Shepherd School concerts to sports.
The students of KTRU - and some vocal alumni - disagree vehemently, talking about how KTRU is a student organization and should be exclusively controlled by students. Whether it's a student org or a university asset - or both - it is certainly unique on the Rice campus.
What they play
KTRU's format is "free-form, eclectic radio," according to its Web site (www.ktru.org). The music played is divided into general shifts and specialty shows, with the majority of specialty shows being in the evenings between 7 and 10 p.m.
"We think KTRU's bread and butter is the general shift, and it's an eclectic mix of stuff," KTRU DJ Director Ben Horne, a Wiess College junior, said. "The general KTRU shift is across the board, all types of music."
Music Director Holly Hinson, a Will Rice College senior, explained that KTRU focuses on avant-garde music and world music. "And of course, we play other genres that we feel are important: underexposed hip-hop, ska, indie rock, pop, just a whole variety," Hinson said. "This is all music that would be incredibly hard to find in Houston, just generally artists that people are not familiar with. We can hopefully help guide them to types of music that they may never have heard of before."
The schedule has specialty shows ranging from the "Treasures of the '60s" program to a spoken word show to an hour of music for children on Saturday mornings.
KTRU also broadcasts some athletics - last year, 13 women's basketball games and 18 baseball games were covered.
Hanszen senior Abi Cohen, who has worked for KTRU since she was a freshman, DJs during the Tuesday night "Nitro" specialty show. The show plays ska and punk music.
KTRU didn't always play such an eclectic mix of music, however. In the first days of the station, it was a mix of news, music, sports and other interviews.
DJ Director Sarah Pitre, a Wiess College senior, said that in the '80s KTRU played bands like R.E.M. and the Cure, before they became widely popular. When alternative music broke out in the early '90s, though, KTRU moved away from this focus on the alternative music genre, she said. "Bands that we might be playing at KTRU that wouldn't have had exposure earlier are now getting picked up really quickly by record labels."
However, Pitre said she felt that the purpose was the same as it was in earlier generations of the station - to play music that is not in the mainstream and to educate both the DJs and the listening audience.
"It actually hasn't changed, it's just that looking back, it's like 'Wow, KTRU played R.E.M.? They're so cool now.' Maybe in 10 years people will look back and say, 'Wow, they played Negativeland?' or 'Wow, they played the Supertones? That's so cool now,'" Pitre said.
As part of their yearly fees, undergraduate students pay $5.50 in blanket tax for KTRU. They also pay a 50-cent KTRU emergency fund blanket tax, originally established when the transmitter was located on campus and was vulnerable to minor natural disasters, such as in 1990 when flooding at Sid Richardson College damaged it, causing KTRU to go off the air for several days.
KTRU, the Thresher, the Campanile, the RPC, Beer-Bike, the Honor Council, University Court and the Student Association receive blanket tax funds.
The roughly $14,000 brought in by blanket tax is KTRU's operating budget. It's used to pay licensing fees, to buy new music for the music library and office supplies and phone service for the studio, to sponsor concerts, to create training materials and to hold KTRU social events.
Because of their contract with KRTS, the university theoretically neither makes nor loses money paying for the transmitter, Vice President for Finance and Administration Dean Currie said.
However, Associate Vice President for Finance and Administration Neill Binford said that incidental maintenance expenses for the tower have been higher than were anticipated when the contract was made with KRTS. "The tower has to be painted more often, which is a significant thing to keep it maintained," he said. "It's required a little more maintenance in terms of replacing insulators. We've had to replace the air conditioning a little earlier than we've thought. The tower has been hit by lightning once or twice and so we've had to replace the primary coaxial cable ... and we've had to essentially maintain the site, which is in the riverbed area."
Binford said that Rice has been able to not lose money on the tower by selling space on the tower to other companies and by "saving our pennies."
He also said that part of this revenue will be used to pay the salary of the new part-time engineer, but that enough money has been saved for only one year's salary. "It comes out of a modest bankrolling of the income that has come out of other tower uses. Something that is delicate in that we can't sustain that year after year," he said.
The primary KTRU expense incurred by the university is the salaries of General Manager Will Robedee and half-time Office Assistant Nancy Newton, both positions hired after a recommendation of the 1997 President's Report. They are staff members in the Division of Student Affairs.
Leadership positions in KTRU are filled by students during elections in the late spring. The elected positions are management positions such as station manager, DJ director and music director as well as other positions, such as coordinator for bumper stickers and the folio director. (The folio director makes the KTRU folio, a publication explaining what KTRU airs and includes information about upcoming concerts). The people elected by the DJs are generally students who have been involved in the station for a considerable length of time, said Operations Director Dennis Lee, a graduate student in biochemistry and cell biology.
Station Manager Johnny So is currently serving as KTRU's business manager, he said.
Unlike the other student organizations that receive blanket tax money, no member of the KTRU staff - the station manager or any other member - is elected in a general election, an issue that has been raised recently as the Student Association is in the process rewriting its constitution, President Lindsay Botsford said.
"Part of our process is wanting uniformity among the blanket tax organizations," she said. "On a conceptual level, we think it's important that students have someone who is directly accountable to them, so that if they feel like their money is not being well spent or the organization they're giving money to is not operating in the student interest, they should have the ability to remove that person from office and put in someone who will represent their interest and their monetary contribution."
So said KTRU is not opposed to the idea of having an elected leader, but that there has never been any concern about the issue before this year. "We're open to the idea," he said. KTRU is currently discussing the proposition of having an elected leader.
He said that there would probably be stipulations about who could run for station manager, similar to the ones about who can run for Thresher editor in chief, a position elected in the general elections each February.
"There are certain thing things that we have to stipulate so that we aren't run by someone who doesn't know what they're doing," So said.
KTRU community DJ Justin Crane, host of the local music show which airs on Tuesday evenings, has worked at station for 10 years.
Robedee, a staff member in the Student Affairs division, is not involved in the student structure of the organization.
While the students staff and manage the station, the license for the station is held by the Board of Trustees, as it has been since 1971 when KTRU first went to FM. The board agreed to hold the license in 1970 under the conditions that the students would pay for the expenses of the station, that the station would not reflect the official opinions of the university, that the policies should be governed by the university president and the president should supervise the broadcasting.
Currently, the KTRU Advisory Committee is the body that is supposed to resolve the deadlock between the Athletic Department and KTRU over the broadcast of more games. This committee came to existence as a result of the 1997 President's Report on KTRU to advise and make recommendations for the radio station. It was recommended to be advisory to President Malcolm Gillis, but he has deferred it to Vice President for Student Affairs Zenaido Camacho.
The Advisory Committee is similar to the FM Committee established by the board when KTRU first began to seek its FCC license. Students who interacted with the FM Committee, when the station upgraded its signals in 1974, 1980 and 1991 found the members to be helpful, but the FM Committee did not interfere with the station's policies about what should be played on the air.
Associate Vice President for Finance and Administration Neill Binford said that if the committee comes to a deadlock, Camacho may have to make a decision about the committee and possibly "change the current management control."
Who are the DJs?
DJs are selected by the DJ directors at the beginning of each semester. This year, there were 50 applicants for 25 shifts, Horne said. Each person who applied also had a 7 to 10 minute interview with the DJ directors and other members of the staff, but the ultimate decision is made by the DJ directors.
Horne said the most important qualification to be a DJ is a willingness to be open to new kinds of music. He said that it was helpful, but not necessary, to have previous knowledge about "underground" music. "The DJs who are turned down are usually qualified, on the whole, but there are a limited number of spots for new DJs," he said.
KTRU allows undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, alumni and non-Rice affiliated people to apply to be DJs. "We give slight preference to Rice students over community members because it is a student radio station, so we feel it shouldn't be overrun by people outside of Rice," Pitre said.
The 43 undergraduates make up slightly less than half the KTRU DJs, according to numbers compiled by Pitre. Additionally there are 13 graduate students, five alumni and two faculty or staff DJs.
Thirty-four DJs at KTRU are not affiliated with Rice, Pitre said. Many of the "community DJs," as KTRU calls them, do specialty shows and have been DJs for a long time, she explained. The "Chicken Skin" show (a mixture of folk, bluegrass and blues), for example, has been hosted by community DJ David John Scribner for almost 20 years.
As part of the 1996-'97 committee's process of evaluating the station, they commissioned an Arbitron survey of the station, in which they discovered that an estimated 22,700 different people age 12 and older in Houston tune to KTRU during a given week between 6 a.m. and midnight, according to the report. However, because of the relatively small number of people who listen to the station, the committee concluded that these numbers were of limited usefulness. The largest audience KTRU had at one time during the study was .3 percent of the area's listening audience, translating to 8,000-9,000 KTRU listeners, the report said.
Arbitron is a company that measures the number of listeners to a station, usually used to determine the rates stations charge advertisers. Because KTRU is a noncommercial station, it doesn't commission Arbitron ratings on a regular basis. Arbitron determines listenership by asking a randomly selected sample of the population to become an Arbitron household, which means that members of the family keep a diary in which they record their radio-listening habits.
According to a survey done for this week's Thresher, close to 70 percent of undergraduate students had not listened to KTRU in the past two weeks. (See Box, on previous page, for more detailed survey results.)
Music Director Holly Hinson said that KTRU does not intentionally try to ignore students. "I think there's also a misconception in the community that we're like, 'Screw Rice students - we don't care. What we care about is the community,'" she said. "Well, we do care about the community, but we also care about our classmates, our roommates, our friends here too. And we do things for them, hopefully."
However, Promotions Manager Viki Keener said her job is sometimes made frustrating by the lack of student response to KTRU-sponsored events. For example, when KTRU brought the indie punk band Le Tigre to the Grand Hall Oct. 19, student response to the event was bland. "Even when I did advertise them really well on campus, not many people came," Keener, a Jones College junior, said.
Keener is in the process of producing a KTRU folio, a publication describing the station's programming, to be distributed either today or early next week to the Coffeehouse and Houston record stores. When the folio was first created in the early '70s, it was a weekly publication of KTRU's playlist and a description of its shows distributed to the Montrose area and the Village. Keener said this folio will be about 15 pages long and include descriptions of the schedule as well as descriptions of past concerts and previews of future ones. She said it will probably be produced once a semester.