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WBRU's Radio Silence

With its signal for sale, Rhode Island’s alternative station could go off the air at any time

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It was hard to believe the rumors that WBRU was going up for sale. How could a thing that’s so deeply ingrained in the Providence culture be at risk of ending? But it is. As you read this, the signal that broadcasts WBRU is being shopped around nationally to potential buyers, and what replaces it won’t be anything resembling what WBRU is today.

While the rest of us were busy lamenting the cold and rainy spring, Brown students and the BRU board of directors were deciding the fate of the station over a series of tense meetings. The decision that they came to, faced with the reality of diminishing profits and assets that were steadily losing value, was to sell the 95.5 signal and use that money for different media projects that won’t involve terrestrial radio. It’s nearly impossible that whoever buys the 95.5 will preserve BRU’s alternative sensibility, the one that is a major force in national music and has brought in accolades from the likes of Rolling Stone as “one of the 10 radio stations in the country that doesn’t suck.” While no one on either side of this issue knows the real timing, the consensus is that as soon as the station is sold, which could be any day now, 95.5 WBRU FM as we know it, as this city has known it for more than 50 years, will be gone.

To understand how this is happening, it’s important to understand what WBRU actually is – a non-profit educational student workshop run by Brown Broadcasting Services. Brown University handed over the broadcasting rights to the station in the 1960s, and has had no ownership or oversight since then. Though WBRU has a board of directors, it’s primarily run by students.

There’s a student manager in charge of every department, except sales, though the station does have a few full-time professional employees. The process of how they came to the decision to sell the station is long and complicated, but essentially boils down to this: the board advised the students to sell, and to use the profits to build a different workshop, one that focuses more on programming and less on the day-to-day of running a business. Their plan is to create two 24/7 digital radio streams – one for alternative music, and one for the popular 360 programming that airs on Sundays – and to no longer have an FM signal.

“There’s been a perception that it’s a quick decision, but I’ve been on the board for five years. How to make the workshop successful has been part of the conversation this entire time,” says Ted McEnroe, spokesman for the board of directors and a BRU alum. “There’s a business problem, which is a fundamental one of economics. It’s a challenge for independent radio stations of any kind to succeed in a medium-sized market in this day and age,” he continues. “But there’s a second problem, too, which is a workshop problem.” Potential WBRU students feel as though their time commitments at the station would be too big to balance with their coursework. The current ones feel constrained by the radio landscape and listener habits, and by budget cuts in the past few years. Most are frustrated with the lack of freedom with programming and the amount of airtime they have.

“Our concern is that, if we’re looking to the future, we want to make sure that we’re making decisions right now that help ensure we can keep [providing music] moving forward,” says Brown student and BRU General Manager Kishanee Haththotuwegama. “We’ve been shrinking for so long that we have to get out before it’s too late. We want to exist. We want to keep providing that new music discovery for our listeners. The only thing we’re trying to do is change platforms that they’re reaching us on.”

Behind The Microphone
“It’s a death by 1000 cuts,” says Program Director Wendell Clough, a Brown and BRU student alum who is a longtime full-time employee. “People decided that things added up and they couldn’t make it work. There were too many negatives and not enough positives: running short on income, the dropping value of the FM radio signal, lack of college student interest in broadcasting, the economy in the city of Providence.”

“There was no [serious attempt] to figure a way to take 95.5 FM and create something that people who love it will still recognize,” Clough says, noting that the streaming radio listener is very different than the broadcast listener, and whatever the new form of BRU will be is unlikely to retain much of the current listenership. “They really did turn away and say ‘we’re going to take the money out of that and we’re going to do something else with it.’ And that’s a shame. They weren’t thinking about the audience.”

The Turnaround Plan
A major voice of dissent for that plan has been Patti Galluzzi, who worked at BRU as a Brown student and who went on to become an important player in the music industry, at one time vice president of music programming at MTV. “I felt like I had to raise my hand and get involved because I was one of the people involved in 1992,” when BRU was in dire financial straits, she says. Patti and other alumni, “helped them hire a new salesperson and a sales consultancy and get their finances back on track. They went from hemorrhaging money to making a tremendous amount of money” through advertising sales.

This time, she, with other alumni and radio professionals, put together a seven-year turnaround plan. “I was very confident that we could save the station like we did in the past,” she says. “We were surprised and disappointed when it felt as though some members of the board who don’t work in radio weren’t open minded to this. They worked very hard to discredit the turnaround plan that we had presented and to convince the students that the plan was not viable and the station was no longer viable.” She also believes that the push to sell out of fear of declining value in the station’s signal is misguided. “If WBRU was a for-profit company, that might be a legitimate way to think about it,” Galluzzi explains. “WBRU is a non-profit, and it’s got some responsibility to the public, who in a way has been helping to subsidize WBRU because it has tax exempt status.”

A recent graduate who still works at the station, Tucker Hamilton, also believes that those who were in favor of selling overcame the resistance of those who weren’t. “We voted and it was a draw. The majority of the station member board wanted to sell, but they needed a two-thirds majority and they didn’t get it,” he says. So they spent time persuading students, and called an unplanned second vote. “I didn’t think it was fair. I didn’t understand how a re-vote could happen. I was one of the few stay-no votes. A lot of people had the original instinct of ‘no, we can’t sell, this is a big deal to us and a big deal to Providence.’ But as committees were formed, they were swayed.”

What The City Will Lose
The fundamental issue here is that WBRU means something different to the students who run it than it does to the listeners. (To check my bias here, I have a long relationship with this station: my earliest memories of loving music include listening to WBRU. It’s impossible for me to write a story about its demise without my own perspective as a lifetime listener, and I do make a short guest appearance on Monday mornings to discuss the week’s upcoming events.) For listeners, it’s a critical piece of Rhode Island entertainment. It’s windows down, radio up, here’s a great new song worth listening to. It’s the Summer Concert Series, when thousands of people gather in Waterplace Park to hear a basically unknown band, simply because we trust BRU to give us good music.

For the students who run the station, BRU is an educational opportunity. It’s a resume builder. But they don’t fully grasp what an integral part of Providence’s culture the station is, how it feeds into our spirit of being cool and independent. Almost none of the students who work there grew up in Rhode Island, so they don’t have memories of being kids and having BRU as their local connection to the national musical culture. They’re creating something important to Providence with no real institutional knowledge of what the station means to the city, and no obligation to listen to industry professionals who do have it. It’s also important to note that of the members of the Board who advised the students to sell, only one of them lives in Providence, and only one is inside the station’s target demographic.

“I was out with three of the students, and they met the guy who had owned [former rock club] Jerky’s. He went on and on about how important the station was. I could just watch them crippling a little,” Wendell Clough says. “None of them had voted to support the board’s resolution to sell. One of them said to me, ‘If only the BRU students had met that person.’ The students have not been part of the conversation,” he believes, about what losing BRU means to the larger community outside of Brown.

“There was a discussion of what it would mean for WBRU to be fully run by radio professionals, because in our mind there isn’t much of a doubt that that’s something that would increase our revenue,” station GM Kishanee Haththotuwegama says. “In looking into what comes next in the media world, it doesn’t necessarily overlap with running the day to day of a radio station. It also doesn’t make sense for us to keep a business if the students aren’t involved in any way. It makes sense to keep the students in the forefront of what’s happening in our organization.

That’s the main issue with the turnaround plan. We’d be relegated to internships. It loses the spirit of what WBRU is.” Galluzzi notes that the turnaround plan called for the hiring of industry consultants who could provide students with data to inform their programming decisions, and that students felt as though that would be too much outside interference in a working environment where they are already uncomfortably restrained.

Though Brown can’t make any decisions about the station, the school has been in favor of saving the station, and has offered its support in various ways, all of which the BRU student government declined. “Brown recognizes WBRU as a tremendous benefit to our community,” says President Christina Paxson. “The station has been a very valuable resource for decades and launched many careers in the media... I would be sad if students could not enjoy these opportunities in the future. But WBRU is entirely independent, and the future of the station is ultimately their decision.”

The National Stage
“BRU still matters in a big way to the music industry,” says Jonathan Lev, whose company Jlev is hired by record labels to get artists’ music played on the radio. He believes that the students in power at the station are undervaluing the impact WBRU has on the national music industry, as one of the few remaining stations that breaks alternative music, and that has a responsive audience with an appetite for hearing new bands and attending new shows. “Providence still matters to the music industry. When BRU plays music, it impacts the national market,” helping new bands get their footing and build an audience. “Without it, there’s going to be a huge gaping hole. The airplay that WBRU gives artists is very important on a national level, without a doubt.”

“Without WBRU being a terrestrial signal, the opportunities for new music coming in the market are going to be hugely diminished,” Lev continues. “I feel strongly that Providence is going to lose an institution.” Patti Galluzzi agrees. “They’re going to lose an enormous audience and not be able to move them over to online,” she says. They both believe that’s going to impact how prominently record companies figure Providence into bands’ tours; without BRU’s support playing the music and helping drive ticket sales, fewer and fewer alternative/indie bands will book concerts here. “There are so many people streaming music right now, for them to stand out in that environment it’s going to be very difficult. The people are able to do it well are doing it on the backs of their terrestrial radio stations,” Galluzzi explains, noting that the royalties are much higher for online-only streaming, because record companies want to incentivize terrestrial stations to play their music.

“I respectfully disagree with the opinion that they will still matter to the degree that they matter now,” as an online-only stream, Jonathan Lev says. “They should not anticipate that being the case, at least not nationally how the industry perceives WBRU as a stream versus how they perceive it as a terrestrial property. In the streaming world, there’s thousands of online radio stations, and the big streaming services. Record companies just don’t have the time, the money, the manpower to service these entities. They focus on the big ones, that have critical mass.”

“Both the board and the students think they can replace BRU with a stream,” Wendell Clough says. “They think they can do a Summer Concert Series as big as we’re going to have this year, next year, even if BRU is just a stream. People didn’t want to hear from me or others in the industry that that’s not going to happen. They said, ‘But we’ll figure a way to make it happen.’ No, you won’t. They don’t see that.”