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The evolution of Rice radio

From its humble beginnings as a two-watt station broadcasting to Hanszen College to a 50,000 watt transmitter reaching the greater Houston area, student radio at Rice has had a storied 30-year history. Programming has changed as the years have gone on, as have the kinds of students who work on the station. In the days of low-tech radio - equipment from the station was sometimes acquired from other radio stations and often assembled by students - the broadcast of KTRU was an electrical engineering puzzle. Now, students of all majors work for the station, and their unifying factor tends to be their interest in underexposed music.

KHCR: Hanszen College Radio
In February 1967, students at Hanszen transmitted a two-watt signal through the buzzer system of the college, according to the Thresher article reporting the event. It was as much of an engineering project as it was a communications project - the headline of the article was "Disc-type jocks debut over KHCR; EEs beam truth via buzzer system."

At that point, KHCR (for Hanszen College Radio) was a mixture of news and music. The article said "the station will provide a soothing medley of music ranging from the 'semi-popular to light classical,'" according to then-programming director Bill Vaughan (Hanszen '68). It also had a "roving mike" and did interviews with students; the first of these was with a Girl Scout selling cookies in the Hanszen Commons.

The next fall, plans were made to broadcast the station from the Rice Memorial Center basement throughout campus using a closed-circuit AM station. The funding for that station was provided by the college governments and the RMC budget. At that point, the station changed its call letters to KOWL and broadcast on 580 AM from wires run through the steam tunnels from the RMC basement to the basements of all the colleges.

KOWL's news presence was established firmly in spring 1969. The Board of Governors appointed William Masterson the new president of Rice without the consultation of a faculty-student committee, and campus went into an uproar. Students and faculty protested vehemently, and Masterson resigned five days later. KOWL broadcasted around the clock during the so-called "Masterson crisis."

In fall 1969, plans were already in the works to make the station FM and become licensed by the FCC by the next fall.

In the process of the move toward licensing and FM, the students discovered that the call letters KOWL were reserved by a California radio station. So, they renamed the station KTRU, for The Rice University.

The newly named KTRU's format varied widely. In 1969 the station broadcast live from the launch of the Apollo 12 manned space mission. In 1970, it developed a democratically elected playlist of sorts - the albums put in the automated changer (which broadcast when DJs were not on the air - from 1 a.m. to 3 p.m.) were the 25 albums voted in by the student body.

As a KTRU listening poll mentioned in an April 1970 Thresher article indicates, students preferred a "mixed variety of music," although KTRU also broadcast "events of interest to the Rice community and a short news show."

In June of 1970, the Board of Governors gave permission to seek the license for a radio station with the following conditions:

"The installation be at no expense to the University; the broadcasting to clearly state that the station is operated by the students of Rice University and reflects their opinions; that it is does not represent the official position of the University; that the policies governing the operation of the station shall be determined by the President of the University and continuous supervision of the broadcasting shall be maintained by the President." (From the minutes of the board meeting, June 12, 1970)

That September, then-acting President Frank Vandiver established the FM committee to assist with this licensing process. The license requested was for a station "to provide the university and the surrounding community with quality educational and communicational service which does not attempt to duplicate commercial radio service," said the application to the FCC.

The application was granted in February 1971, and in May 1971 KTRU-FM (with a 10-watt signal) began broadcasting to about an eight-mile radius of campus, from a tower atop Sid Richardson College.

At that point, KTRU had an active presence both as a campus news organization and as a station that aired music. Then-Program Director John Doerr (Lovett '73) said the station was interested in broadcasting "a mix of different kinds of artists and music and moods," according to a May 1971 Thresher article. The station director a the time, Rob Sides (Hanszen '74), put the station's audience in perspective in the same article. "Rice students are first, and now we must also be responsive to the Houston community - we're on the public airways now," he said.

Growth of "the radio": From 10 to 650 watts
In October 1973, KTRU went to stereo broadcasts. Most of the managerial staff of the station - from the program director to the station manager to the publicity director - were electrical engineering majors. These students' specialized knowledge allowed the engineering aspects of the station to be handled by students - including the move to stereo. Then-Program Director Scott Hochberg (Will Rice '75) is now an alumnus member serving on the current KTRU Advisory Committee, the evolution of the KTRU-FM committee established in 1971.

However, Hochberg and the rest of the 70-some members of staff wanted to go further than stereo. That academic year, with the help of the FM committee, they applied for and were granted by the FCC permission to expand to 250 watts. At that time, according to Hochberg, students simply called the station "the radio." The station also produced a weekly program guide, the Rice Radio Folio, which was distributed on campus as well as in the Montrose area and in the Village. At that point, the programming was still quite diverse, playing classical music, jazz, country music and some talk shows as well as some news coverage.

The station went to 250 watts in April 1974, expanding its range from the area around campus to most of Houston.

In an article in the Houston Post in spring 1974, Hochberg explained that the FM committee was helpful in dealing with red tape from FCC. However, he also said that the committee didn't influence what went on the radio. "The university has maintained a hands-off policy," Hochberg said. In the same article, Publicity Director Kim Wertheimer explained the relationship in similar terms. "The only time we have any contact with the administration is when we do a story on them," he said.

Hochberg was also quoted as saying that he was glad for the expansion so the station could get more programming input from listeners.

The next big jump in wattage came in October 1980, when the station became 650 watts, increasing its broadcast range by 30 percent. At the same time, a polarized antenna was installed onto Sid, which the students hoped would increase radio reception in cars and help solve the problem of the signal reflecting off the buildings in the Texas Medical Center. At the time, then-Station Manager Frank Vance (Lovett '81) said that Rice was the only school in the Southwest Conference to have a student-run radio station and that the station operated on a yearly budget of $12,000 to $14,000 each year, coming mostly from blanket taxes. At that point, KTRU had a staff of about 50 people, including both those in management positions and DJs.

The staff was composed primarily of undergraduate students. Only six of the DJs in June 1979 were unaffiliated with Rice. Additionally, seven members of the staff were alumni.

The programming continued to be a mix of music, athletics and news offerings, including interviews with faculty and staff. For example, when family-style meals were under debate in 1980, Food and Housing Director Marion Hicks went on KTRU to field student questions on a call-in talk show.

Moving into the alternative scene: the 1980s
Julie Grob (Jones '88) listened to KTRU as a high school student and recalled that KTRU played a lot of "art rock," as well as bands like the Talking Heads. After coming to Rice, Grob became a DJ and worked for KTRU during 1984-'88. Grob said that under the guidance of Music Director Ray Shea (Sid '86), KTRU was moving "even more towards real - what we called then - alternative rock, real underground rock and punk rock and experimental stuff."

This attitude was perhaps epitomized in the station's nickname: F-word radio.

Playlists published in the folio in 1984 and 1985 include many now-familiar names like Elvis Costello, U2, Depeche Mode, Peter Gabriel, R.E.M., the Eurythmics, Frank Zappa and the Smiths. The schedule included many specialty shows still on the air today such as chicken skin music, a mixture of blues, folk and bluegrass; the "Mutant Hardcore" show, which is an hour of punk and its derivative genres; and four hours of jazz on Sunday afternoons.

KTRU also broadcast news at 5 and 9 p.m. daily, as well as "To the Point," a weekly 15-minute interview with a faculty member on a topic of her specialty.

The station also occasionally ran special shows, such as a broadcast of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds for Halloween of 1984 and a broadcast of a reading of The Hobbit in weekly half-hour segments for the fall semester of that year.

Grob said she felt that the music was a primary part of the station during her time at Rice, which didn't mean only playing what the students wanted. "I think we considered the audience to be like-minded music fans, honestly," she said. "I think that we felt as students that we were making the best radio station possible and a radio station that was based on people who really knew a lot about rock music and really had good and open-minded tastes."

She also said she thought KTRU played some music for the general student body, citing U2 as an example.

KTRU's move toward alternative music strongly mirrored the underground, alternative music movement of the time. In 1991, three members of KTRU sent a formal request to then-Vice President for Undergraduate Affairs Ronald Stebbings asking that a music event called "Lollapalooza" be held on the Rice campus. Because the touring concert (which was in its first year in 1991) would have been held during Orientation Week, the request was denied.

The move to 50,000 watts
KRTS (92.1 FM), a local classical station, made contact with Rice as early as 1986 about arranging for both stations to expand their wattage. KRTS wanted to go to 50,000 watts, but that would have interfered with KTRU's 650-watt signal. According to FCC regulations, KRTS could not go to 50,000 watts unless KTRU also agreed to go to 50,000 watts. Talks between Rice and KRTS went on and off until the deal was finally settled in summer 1991, when it was agreed that KRTS would pay Rice for the cost of installing and basically maintaining a 50,000-watt transmitter until Rice ceases having a broadcast radio station.

KTRU, which had broadcast from a tower atop Sid for 20 years, was suddenly transmitting from a very large, very powerful tower located in Humble, a northwest suburb of Houston.

Rodney Gibbs (Brown '92) was the KTRU station manager from 1990 to 1992. He said students were not informed of the dramatic increase in wattage until about six months before it happened and were not involved in the decision.

Gibbs said he and the other students at KTRU were hesitant about the deal, fearing that a move to 50,000 watts might result in the loss of student control. He met with Stebbings and then-Director of Student Activities Sarah Nelson Crawford to discuss those concerns. "We were promised up and down that the administration was not going to take away any programming control from KTRU at the present time, nor would it ever in the future," he said.

Another result of the transmitter's move away from campus was a significantly decreased ability to receive the signal on campus.

Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Bill Wilson, who was then and is now KTRU's faculty adviser, said that the reason for the problems receiving 91.7 FM on campus was a combination of the signal deflecting off the buildings in the Medical Center as well as the downtown buildings located directly between campus and the tower.

Also, the move virtually eliminated the student engineer aspect of the radio station, Wilson said. However, student interest in radio engineering was declining anyway. "By about '85 or '86, we were running out of students who had either the knowledge or the interest to do anything on the transmitter site," Wilson said.

The transition to a "university asset"

In May 1996, the Strategic Planning Committee for the university recommended that a committee be formed to examine KTRU's role in the community and at Rice and report those findings to President Malcolm Gillis. At the time of the formation of the committee, Gillis spoke to the Thresher for an article.

"There is no hidden agenda here," Gillis said. "This committee will look at much more than programming and operations; it will look at KTRU as an asset to the university." Gillis also said the committee would not be meant to govern KTRU so much as to make recommendations.

KTRU's reaction to the committee was not positive.

Station Manager Andy Campbell, who was later asked to serve on the committee, told the Thresher he was very unhappy about the plan. "Forming a committee to govern a student organization makes no sense," he said at the time. "[The administration is] ignoring the fact that KTRU is a student organization. Either KTRU is a student-run station or it is not a student-run station."

Gillis chose Dean of Continuing Studies Mary McIntire to chair the committee, which was composed of four faculty members, four staff members, a trustee, a graduate student, two undergraduate students (who were both involved with KTRU) and two alumni. The committee surveyed students, faculty and staff, alumni and graduate students about their KTRU listening and commissioned an Arbitron study to determine the listenership of KTRU in Houston.

The committee released a report in spring 1997 with its findings and recommendations for the station. The full report is available online at KTRU's Web site at

The Arbitron survey found that KTRU attracted nearly 23,000 listeners in Houston, each listening for an average of three hours a week.

The committee report states that many students, alumni and some committee members voiced the opinion that the station should continue to be student-run. However, the committee recommended that three permanent staff positions be created: a full-time general manager, a half-time clerical assistant and a half-time engineer.

It also recommended Rice create a KTRU advisory board, which would consist of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff members, alumni and possibly community members.

The committee also made recommendations for programming, although the report says that "the present programs typically should be maintained for at least 12 hours out of 24."

Those recommendations include: Shepherd School of Music concerts, interviews with Rice faculty and visitors to the campus, Continuing Studies lectures, reviews of Rice Players shows and possibly on-air plays and athletics. The report also included ideas for marketing - including ads for KTRU in publications like athletics programs and the Rice News.

Gillis said he was pleased with the committee's results. "I accepted the entire report," he said.

The station manager and music directors for 1997-'98 responded to the report with a letter to the editor in the Thresher. They said that many of the recommendations made by the committee were "issues we have wanted and tried to address but have been limited by labor, time and resources."

However, they did have substantial hesitation about hiring a non-student general manager, because they said they were afraid that he would "advise and administrate rather than oversee."

KTRU gets paid staff members
General Manager Will Robedee was hired in spring 1998, making him the first paid staff member of KTRU ever. At that point, he was aware of the tension between the students and the position of general manager. He told the Rice News in April 1998, "This is a student-run organization. They're fearful of being dictated to."

While Robedee is specifically not in control of the station's programming, he can step in if the station is ever in violation of FCC regulations.

Thereafter, Nancy Newton was hired as Robedee's part-time assistant.

KTRU is currently in the process of finalizing the hiring of a part-time engineer. All three salaries are funded by the university.

The most recent developments
Earlier this semester, Athletic Director Bobby May proposed to the KTRU Advisory Committee that KTRU should double the amount of baseball and women's basketball games broadcast this academic year. It was met with considerable resistance by the KTRU staff, which argued that broadcasting too much athletics would not mesh with its mission to be educational, that its regular prime-time schedule would be too disrupted by the frequent games and that the station's programming should remain in the hands of students.

An interim agreement has been reached, according to Station Manager Johnny So. For eight weeks, beginning in November, KTRU will broadcast eight women's basketball games and the Advisory Committee will continue to meet until a more permanent agreement is reached.

"I hate to say we're happy, 'cause we're not. We came to an agreement that we can live with, I guess, for the time being," So said.

He said that he and the staff of KTRU would like to work out an agreement by which the programming is under the control of the students, not the Advisory Committee. "Ideally we would like to draw up an agreement that would say, 'This is the agreement until the station manager, supported by the student volunteers of KTRU, feel this is necessary.' But we wanna leave the who-comes-to-who in the hands of the students, instead of having athletics come to us," he said. "And it's better than them saying, 'Do you wanna air some games?' and us being like, 'no,' and them saying, 'Well, let's take it to the committee.' Yeah, we just want to leave it in the hands of KTRU, the station manager."

The chair of the committee, Associate Vice President for Finance and Administration Neill Binford, said that if the committee deadlocked, the decision about programming would fall to Vice President for Student Affairs Zenaido Camacho, as the Advisory Committee reports to him.

"The work of the committee would come to a flat dead stop, and the decision would be in Dr. Camacho's hands," Binford said. "I think it might be unfortunate because we might be forcing Dr. Camacho to make a decision that might change the current management control."

However, he said Camacho wants the committee to work out an agreement between athletics and the station. "But he really wants us to negotiate this out in a reasonable way. His style is to develop consensus and that's what we'll do," Binford said. "If either side were to dig their heels in very far, I think it would not work well for anybody."

In the meantime, KTRU is asking for mail from listeners in support of its current programming structure.

So said he is unsure about the committee's next step. "The next step would be draw up a long-term solution, I guess," he said. "I don't know what the next step is - get together in a hot room, turn off the A/C, I don't know."

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