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Spin Control Rice University's slow, systematic makeover of KTRU is just the latest example of a college determined to pattern itself after corporate America
By Lauren Kern

From houstonpress.com
Originally published by Houston Press January 11, 2001
©2001 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

It was 6:45 a.m. Kristin Stecher dragged herself out of bed and pulled on a sweatshirt over her flannel pajamas. She wasn't resentful at having to wake up at an hour most college students never see. Stecher was heading for her 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift at KTRU, Rice University's student-run radio station, and she couldn't wait to start playing music. Stecher settled into KTRU's tiny graffiti-covered cluster of offices in an upstairs corner of the student center. She picked her music from the vast library of rare live recordings, old albums and underground CDs lining the walls. She pulled the big microphone close to her mouth and announced, "This is 91.7 FM K-T-R-U Houston." She took a request for Miles Davis.

Then, at 8 a.m., in the middle of the requested song, the radio signal turned to static. As soon as she realized that this was not the jazz great's very experimental stuff, Stecher panicked. "I thought I had, like, broken the station or something," she says. There was no one else around to ask for help, so Stecher frantically began flipping through the pages of KTRU's operations manual. What to do when the radio signal turns to static… If there was an answer, she didn't find it.

Within minutes two well-dressed Rice administrators were on the scene. They didn't speak to her, and Stecher wondered how they got the station's door code, a closely guarded secret. Then it dawned on her: "Oh my gosh, they figured out that I broke the station." But the administrators, Vice President for Student Affairs Zenaido Camacho and Assistant VPSA John Hutchinson, didn't seem alarmed. They calmly told Stecher that she needed to leave. They told her that she couldn't answer the station phone, which had by then begun to ring off the hook. The administrators escorted the pajama-clad girl out the door.

"It was so weird," Stecher says. "They came in and they were all professional, and I was just this kid behind the music."

The door code was changed. Web site links were dismantled. The station's collection of KTRU bumper stickers was peeled off the door. World Radio Network programming was piped in from a satellite. And an e-mail announced a "reorganization" to KTRU volunteers.

It was an administrative coup d'état -- smooth, calculated, successful. It was the climax of a struggle for control of the station that had begun nearly a decade ago. And it was an example of what some in the Rice community think is a disturbing trend in higher education: a tendency for American universities to think of themselves as businesses, as places where things like student-run radio stations are little more than assets or liabilities.

Stecher didn't know much about the tensions that had been escalating between KTRU and the administration. But she had heard the fearful rumors about an administrative takeover, about students losing control of programming. The paranoia stemmed from problems across campus in the athletic department. Mergers on the AM dial and exclusive contracts with bigger schools like the University of Texas and Texas A&M were pushing Rice athletics out of the commercial market. Luckily for Rice, the school had its own radio station, one that the administration thought was being underutilized.

Rice University had not always been so concerned with the best possible uses for KTRU. When the station began in 1967, it was just another instance of bright Rice students using their heads to goof off rather than study. A few electrical engineering students at the Rice dorm Hanszen College figured out how to broadcast music and student interviews over a campus-wide intercom system. They also figured out how to scam promotional LPs from record companies, which, as the story goes, was the real reason for starting the station.

Intentions aside, the station caught on and the following year moved to the basement of the student center. Funded by the dormitory governments, KOWL, as it was then named after Rice's mascot, broadcast an AM signal over carrier wires that ran through the labyrinth of tunnels under the school. According to the student newspaper's history of the station, KTRU students broadcast live from the launch of Apollo 12 in 1969. They also encouraged campus protest when the board of governors appointed a university president who was widely opposed by both students and faculty members. The president resigned just days after the appointment. As for music in the early days, the station took a student vote and put the 25 most popular albums on an automatic changer that would broadcast when DJs were busy studying or sleeping.

In 1970 KTRU, which had changed its name because KOWL was being used by a California station, was ready for the big time: FM. They would broadcast at 91.7 with a ten-watt signal emanating from the top of Rice's tallest residential college. Now all they needed was an FCC license. The university's board gave the students permission to apply for a license, but with a couple of conditions.

In light of the current controversy over control of the station, the interested parties are fond of referring to the minutes from the board's meeting about the license. Students point to the part that says, "The broadcasting [is] to clearly state that the station is operated by the students of Rice University and reflects their opinions; that it does not represent the official position of the University." Administrators point to the part that says, "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." It would seem that in this card game the administrators trump the students. But the students had a wild card: 30 years of virtually complete control of the station.

It was easy to fly below the radar of the administration. After all, KTRU wasn't costing the university anything. The operating budget of about $14,000 per year was paid by the student body in the form of a blanket tax. And even with occasional power upgrades, KTRU stayed small enough to avoid major FCC complaints.

Just because the students controlled the station didn't mean its operation was a wild free-for-all. Over the years, KTRU developed a well-defined, if unwritten, mission: to educate both its DJs and their audiences by playing music they weren't likely to hear anywhere else. In the '70s the students played art rock before it hit the commercial stations. Underground punk was hot on its heels. In the early '80s KTRU went alternative; playlists included then-unfamiliar names like Elvis Costello, the Smiths, R.E.M. and the Eurythmics. But it was also in the '80s that student music directors pushed KTRU toward its current mantra of noncommercial, independent and eclectic. In recent years, folk, country, jazz, classical, punk, alt rock, world music and a smattering of news have coexisted peacefully on 91.7 FM.

KTRU guards its programming zealously. Not just anyone can be a DJ. Station manager Johnny So says that KTRU leadership selects DJ applicants who are quirky and creative and seem interested in exploring genres that they are unfamiliar with. One successful student attached a slice of cheese to the back of his application. And as for musical taste, you can like 'N Sync, he says, but if you like 'N Sync, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, then you are simply too narrow for KTRU. Not that you could play 'N Sync anyway. Student DJs must play music found in the station's library, and they must play a certain number of songs off a playlist compiled by the music directors. Keeping students from bringing in their own music solves two problems: It ensures that all music is screened for obscene lyrics per FCC recommendation, and it keeps out the crap.

KTRU's hiring and programming policies make the student volunteers a tight-knit and distinctive bunch. So says that he didn't fit in at his residential college, the focus of campus life for most Rice students. He considered his dorm-mates too conservative. Now, he says, he's a member of "RMC College," referring to the Rice Memorial Center, the building where KTRU is housed. Almost all of his friends work for the radio station. KTRU DJs, he says, "dance to a different kind of fiddle." It's a self-perpetuating phenomenon: KTRU leadership selects, and fires, new DJs, and the leadership is elected from within KTRU's own ranks.

All of this has led some "regular" Rice students to regard KTRU volunteers as green-haired, funky-clothed snobs who want to impose their weird musical tastes on a student body that foots their bill. In October, the Rice Thresher conducted an e-mail survey of 400 undergraduates and found that 69 percent of them had not listened to KTRU in the past two weeks. In fact, only 4 percent were regular listeners, tuning to KTRU for at least five consecutive minutes eight or more times in the two-week period. The Thresher agreed to support the station in its battle with the administration over athletics broadcasts, if KTRU made a concerted effort to reconnect with the student body -- including shifting the range of music "a little more toward mainstream tastes to help bring in student listeners."

The disjunction with the student body wasn't entirely KTRU's fault. In 1991 KTRU took a massive leap from 650 watts to 50,000 watts -- rare for a college station, and unheard of for one that was not run by professionals. KRTS 92.1, KTRU's neighbor on the FM band, wanted to up its power to 50,000 watts but couldn't, according to FCC regulations, because the increase would drown out the student station's broadcast. KRTS owner Mike Stude happened to be the adopted son of Brown and Root founder Herman Brown and vice president of the Brown Foundation, which contributes significantly to Rice. Stude offered to pay a reported $250,000 to increase KTRU's power as well. Rice administrators agreed, with little consultation with the students of KTRU, and a new transmitter was built north of town near Humble.

KTRU had been popular with progressive listeners in Montrose since the early '80s, but now it could be heard all the way out in the suburbs -- halfway to Austin, in fact. The only problem: Downtown buildings directly between the tower and campus blocked the signal at Rice. For the next nine years, until a translator was installed on top of the lights of Rice's football field, the student-run radio station could barely be heard by students.

It's not as if no one was listening, though. As KTRU lost much of its student audience, it developed one in the city. An Arbitron survey in 1997, the most recent one to look at the station's numbers, found that nearly 23,000 Houstonians listened to KTRU for an average of three hours a week. Chuck Roast, a KTRU DJ who also owns a record store in the FM 1960 area, says the station's influence with kids in the suburbs is phenomenal. "I can see what they buy," he says, "and I know they're listening to KTRU, because that's the only place they'd find out about it." The power surge had an influence within the station as well. Non-Rice-affiliated "community" members like Roast now make up 34 of the station's 97 DJs. (Houston Press staff writer Bob Burtman is one of them.) KTRU student leaders say that these community DJs offer the station expertise in certain genres that they would not be able to find within the student body.

But the real fear that came with the 50,000-watt upgrade was not of turning into a community radio station. The student leaders in 1991 worried that a high-powered station would be a prime target for an administrative takeover. Bill Cordell, a veteran radio man and the engineer who built KTRU's tower in Humble, warned them. "Guys, it won't be long before the administration sees what this will really do," he told them. "It will be like my alma mater, University of Houston. It will become more of a conventional radio station as opposed to something for the students to enjoy….They run it like a commercial venture." A Press story on the subject ("They Got the Power," by Tarbox Kiersted, June 13, 1991) predicted a scenario in which the university exercised more and more control over KTRU and the station ended up "safe, sterile and boring."

Then-KTRU general manager Rodney Gibbs voiced his concerns about losing control of the station, in whole or in part, to administrators at the time. In a recent letter to current VPSA Camacho, Gibbs says these former administrators assured him, "unequivocally, that the university had neither present nor future desires to end KTRU's history of being student-run."

But university administrations turn over just like students do, and this promise does not appear to have remained in Rice's institutional memory. In 1996, just three years after President Malcolm Gillis took office, the university had a new "strategic plan," and it included the recommendation that Rice begin using the valuable resource of KTRU in new ways, such as the broadcasting of language courses, lectures, music school concerts, interviews with visiting scholars and even radio drama to provide "a public voice for the University."

It is not coincidental that the very same section of the strategic plan suggests partnering with industry to open up new research arenas for the university and using Rice's athletic programs to bring people into a closer relationship with the school. "Some who come to cheer will stay … to support one aspect or another of the University's agenda," the strategic planning report states. It is also not insignificant that Rice was about to embark on a massive six-year, $500 million capital campaign. A KTRU that would broadcast the school's many splendors, as opposed to some weird music, would be a great advertising tool to attract money, students and recognition to what seemed to be becoming Rice University Inc.

The trend of university corporatization is not just a Rice phenomenon. A deal at Berkeley in 1998, in which Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical company and genetically engineered crop producer, paid one-third of the research budget for the university's department of plant and microbial biology, sparked debate on that campus over the end of disinterested scientific inquiry. The Atlantic Monthly recently reported on a study conducted by Harvard professor James Engell and former Dartmouth professor Anthony Dangerfield on the state of the humanities in American universities. "Test what you will -- majors, salaries, graduate programs … the results come back the same," the professors write. "Since the late 1960s the humanities have been neglected, downgraded and forced to retrench, as all other areas of higher education have grown in numbers, wealth and influence." It is a result, they say, of the "Market-Model University," in which disciplines that "make money, study money or attract money are given priority." Filmmaker Kyle Henry, a Rice graduate, made a documentary titled University, Inc. in 1999 about the University of Texas's dismantling of the Union Film Program because it wasn't adding to UT's bottom line.

The same sorts of things are happening at Rice. University spokesman Terry Shepard says Rice has more than 70 research partnerships with the Texas Medical Center, invites venture capitalists to campus to help launch Rice-affiliated businesses, and has an Office of Technology Transfer to ensure that faculty inventions make it to the marketplace. Some of these business dealings undoubtedly will benefit the common good. Shepard says that one Rice nanotechnology researcher may be leading the way to a cure for cancer. But the corporatization has negative implications as well. Rice undergraduate Ben Weston wrote a recent column for the Thresher complaining that administrators see no place for undergraduates in the university's quest to become a world-class research institution. "We don't do research," he writes. "We don't bring Rice international acclaim. Instead, we tie up the university's beautiful 50,000-watt transmitter with crap like 'Free Guitar Lessons for Animals.' We drive huge trucks around the inner loop and chuck water balloons at each other, causing a dozen injuries and a liability nightmare each year. We get drunk as hell and have to be taken to the emergency room….[A]n undergraduate population that won't behave is just in the way."

Other editorials in the Thresher have noted many Rice traditions that have been sterilized and politically corrected by the administration in order to limit liability risks: orientation-week pranks; college cheers that could offend; a drunken orgy called Night of Decadence that was once written up in Playboy magazine's list of top ten college parties; and Beer Bike, a relay race in which students guzzle beer from specially engineered cups and bike around a parking lot track. Upperclassmen and alumni remember a Rice where students studied hard and partied even harder. They remember a Rice that encouraged its students to experiment, be independent, take risks and make mistakes without ruining their lives. It was this quirky character that made Rice different from the other institutions of its academic caliber. It was this climate that made it possible for a few Rice students to start their own radio station back in 1967.

It's true that some of the things that Rice undergraduates want to hold on to are difficult to defend. Obscenity, drinking and a sexually charged atmosphere are not traditionally considered the hallmarks of higher education. But John Stroup, professor of religious studies at Rice, contends that a sense of play is important at universities -- be it intellectual, athletic, social, even sexual. "What stimulates someone to become a great writer or painter or politician, for that matter?" he asks. "Risk takers may make the university famous….We could use a few more off-the-wall students, as far as I'm concerned." Stroup hopes that maintaining the playground model of higher education may keep American universities from turning into little more than corporate training grounds. "Rice needs courses, teachers and activities not as immediately defensible as training people in accounting or nanotechnology," he says. Rice needs things that are outside the bounds of business and law and purely in the realm of culture and experience.

Stroup points to recent controversies over the Rice student press as an example of corporate-style liability concerns stifling student rights and free speech on campus. In 1996 the Thresher published a column on its humor page titled "Rice Women Are Like…" The metaphors were juvenile and sexist ("Rice women are like … eggs: They only get laid once"), and the column led to a student-initiated forum on the problematic climate for women on campus. What was most troubling about the matter was that the Thresher uncovered a letter sent by administrators to the Student Association recommending that the association "override the editorial policy for the Thresher" in response to the column.

That spring Thresher editors published their yearly parody issue, the Trasher, in which they poked fun at a female student leader who had been profiled in Glamour magazine. According to the Trasher, a fictional female student, with a very similar name, had been profiled in Hustler magazine. Tasteless, yes. Defamation, no. But Rice administrators punished the editors for violating the school's very broad sexual harassment policy, the first time that policy had ever been applied to a student publication. One editor, a graduating senior, was given 100 hours of community service; the other was threatened with suspension until she wrote an administration-approved letter of apology. In the aftermath of the finding, two smaller satirical student papers ceased publication, and administrators appointed a student media adviser and an ad hoc committee to study the Thresher's relationship to the university.

KTRU, too, would soon be seen not just as a potential Rice asset but as a liability in the hands of the students.

In 1997 a committee was formed to follow the strategic plan and to "realize the fullest possible potential for the station." KTRU already had a committee to determine general programming and operating policies, one created in 1970 when the station went to the FM dial. But this structure was ignored by the administration and superseded by the new committee, perhaps purposefully. KTRU student representatives held a greater percentage of spots on the original committee than they would be granted in the new one. In fact, the new committee included 11 board members, deans, faculty and administrators, but only three students.

The 1997 committee surveyed members of the Rice community and concluded that KTRU could better reflect the entire campus by broadcasting more sports, lectures, music school concerts and conferences. "[U]niversity programming should be gradually expanded to approximately six to 12 hours in a given day," the report recommended, even more for special events. Student committee member and then-station manager Andy Campbell has said that the committee never discussed the six- to 12-hour university-programming goal that somehow got included in the report. He would never have agreed to give up half of KTRU's broadcast day.

Yet another committee was formed to oversee the station and implement the recommendations from 1997. Again, faculty and staff far outnumbered the student members. It was this oversight committee that Rice's athletic department came to in October asking that KTRU double its sports broadcasting this year and expand even more in the years to come.

The station historically has aired selective sports contests, with KTRU DJs themselves calling the games. But the athletic department frowned upon the irreverent nature of these sportscasts, and the practice was phased out in recent years. KTRU volunteers say they would have no problem broadcasting some Rice athletics today -- on their own terms.

But within the KTRU oversight committee, students were in no position to dictate terms. Johnny So says that he and the other two KTRU students on the committee were coerced into an agreement to broadcast three games a week every month except February and March, when they would air four games per week. They also agreed to broadcast all WAC semifinal and final events, pre- and postseason NIT tournaments, NCAA tournaments and College World Series games. So claims that an administrator told him, "If you don't implement these changes, I can see resources being withdrawn from the station until the station atrophies." So decided to play ball with the athletic department, just so KTRU could stay in the game.

KTRU may have made an agreement, but that didn't mean the student volunteers were happy with it. On November 28 two DJs protested the arrangement by playing punk rock songs over the last half of the Rice women's basketball game. As the Lady Owls fought a losing battle against the Arizona Wildcats, the DJs played "We Want the Airwaves" by the Ramones, "No Surrender" by Lickity Split and "I Don't Want to Hear It" by Minor Threat. The DJs thought it was an appropriate act of civil disobedience, a comment on the struggle for control of the station, a protest of the university's power. Administrators thought it was an outrage. Neill Binford, chair of KTRU's oversight committee and associate VP of finance and administration, called So and demanded to know what he planned to do about the troublemakers. So chose to do nothing. "The job of station manager is not to be their yes-man and expunge the political enemies of the administration," he wrote on the KTRU listserv.

This was not the answer administrators wanted to hear. Although the sports-punk simulcast was not an FCC violation, Shepard says that So's lack of action indicated that KTRU DJs were answering to no one. Administrators worried about future FCC violations and even the destruction of the equipment inside the station. Two days later the station was shut down.

President Gillis explained the shutdown in an interview with Thresher editor Brian Stoler. "Am I supervising the broadcasting in a responsible manner if I am told that we're going to keep doing that?" Gillis asked rhetorically. "In this day and age when MIT gets sued for $6 million for allowing something to happen on campus, my responsibility is to the university and its students, and I cannot condone anything that makes it vulnerable."

Strangely enough, the shutdown was the best thing that could have happened to KTRU. University corporatization might be too subtle a subject to inspire student activism, but it was easy to pick sides after administrators locked students out of their radio station.

Rice administrators surely didn't expect traditionally apathetic Rice students to rally around a station they never listened to. But the KTRU listserv transformed into a PR war machine; the Thresher printed extra editions; and over 300 students showed up at a meeting the night of the shutdown. Students loudly demanded answers from Camacho and Hutchinson, and KTRU managed to get the event on the evening news. A few days later KTRU supporters gathered in the main academic quad, holding signs and listening to speeches on the importance of student autonomy. After that, they headed to the president's house, where they stood outside with bumper stickers over their mouths as the board of governors arrived for a fancy dinner. Alumni wrote letters to the Rice administration saying that they would no longer donate money to their alma mater. Former station manager Rodney Gibbs took out an ad in the Thresher for an open letter condemning the university's actions. It was signed by 872 alumni, 352 students, 14 faculty and staff members, 1,251 non-Rice KTRU supporters and artists like David Byrne and Paul Westerberg.

The bad press and student protest brought administrators to the negotiating table and turned what looked like a one-sided "reorganization" into a compromise. And KTRU leaders decided to take what they could get in the limited time they had before the semester ended and their momentum vanished. The result is a brand-new operating policy that appears to make everybody happy: KTRU gets language confirming that the station is indeed "student-run." The student body gets to vote on a station manager in a campus-wide election. The athletic department gets its three to four games a week for at least the next two years. And administrators get the "clear lines of accountability" they claim to have wanted all along.

The operating policy also establishes one more programming committee, this one with the amusing name of "KTRU Friendly Committee," or KFC. KTRU has been screwed by committees before, but this one seems slightly stacked in its favor. The voting members include the elected station manager plus three undergraduates appointed by the Student Association Senate. Of course, the other voting members are all ultimately appointed by the president of the university: a KTRU alum, a staff member and three members of the faculty. Students are still in the minority, but they pushed for a clause saying that all programming recommendations must be approved by six members of the KFC -- meaning that at least one student must vote for a recommendation for it to be passed.

KTRU appears to have won this battle, but it has lost the war. For better or worse, a station that was run by generation after generation of like-minded students and community members now has two new masters: the Rice student body and the university administration. The 23,000 KTRU listeners in Houston can expect some programming changes, however gradual. The election of station managers is likely to usher in a new breed of KTRU leadership; So himself says he doesn't think he would have been elected by the student body. And the KFC's purpose in part is to field programming suggestions from students outside of KTRU. Sure, the committee will be able to turn down the "All Black Sabbath Hour," but refusing all suggestions will lead to criticisms that KTRU is unresponsive to the students that pay for it and fought for it.

And there is always the potential for radical change to the station. The board of governors still owns the FCC license, and the administration has sidestepped committees and promises in the past. "The president still can, if he wants to, dictate programming," So admits.

But right now, in the wake of all that's happened, So would rather not think about that. He's sitting in a formal Rice conference room, slouched in a red leather chair with his tennis shoes propped up on the table. So has survived his first major confrontation with what he calls "the Man," and he seems mostly relieved that the station is back on the air in any form. Nevertheless, he's disappointed at the university's attempt to turn something creative into something practical.

"I'm kind of sad that the university has such a lack of respect for diversity of tastes and intellectual opinions," he says. "You gotta watch out for the status quo. Men in Italian suits will tell you it has to be that way, but it doesn't. Just because you're wearing flip-flops doesn't mean you don't have rights, man."

He says this last part half mocking hippie radicalism, but there's a hint of seriousness to it. So still has the idealism of a student educated at a university that is not just a corporate training ground, at least not yet.


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