Riding the radio waves

November 2017

While I was at Brown University, the only thing I did outside of classes, studying and working in the library was work at the college radio station, WBRU. I learned more about politics and business at WBRU – a closed circuit station that broadcast only on campus – than in any of my classes. I never got paid, but I worked many hours a week for four years. I was disk jockey, newsman, program director and, at the end, general manager.

The station took as its mission training students to work in radio, so we had an eclectic format, with middle of the road (big band) music, beautiful music, rock and roll, news, sports, classical music, jazz and some folk. We even did a bit of experimental programming.

I did some news (including a news satire program I developed with another guy) and played what we then called “top 40” music. To this day, I have never had more fun with my clothes on than I did sitting behind the board at WBRU (and after college for a few months at WHIM, a daytime AM station in Providence), spinning disks. I did talk-ups, talk-overs, witty one-liners, and all the sexual innuendo I could get away with. I was in the groove, as they said it then.

It was the only time in my life that I ever paid any attention to music. I used to know a lot about early 60s rock and roll, and almost nothing about anything after 1964 (when the Beatles came to the US), including the Rolling Stones.

The station members elected the officers who ran it (and we did run it as the University paid no attention to us), so I learned a lot about retail politics in my campaigns for office. And even though our annual budget was under $10,000, we had to pay the bills and break even.

As General Manager I agreed to co-sponsor a folk music concert (Tom Rush, Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, and others) with a new production group run by two DJs at WBZ radio in Boston. Because we were confident we would get a huge audience we chose to rent a 2,300-seat hockey rink from the University for the show instead of a much cheaper 900-seat auditorium. Thanks to rain and a competing Dave Brubeck concert, we got roughly 900 people and lost money. At the end I was standing outside the box office in a shouting match with the promoter, Jefferson Kaye, who had lost more than we did. Hootenanny ’64 was over.

During my tenure at WBRU we were trying to get an FM license. FM was just beginning to have something more than classical music and simulcasting of AM stations, and we wanted the University’s support to apply for a vacant channel. The University turned us down, and someone successfully applied to move the channel out of Providence.

Then WPFM, 95.5 went up for sale, and we started a report to convince the University to buy it. A classmate named Les Blatt (who ended up in news at ABC and Fox) did most of the work on the report, which included a survey of cars with FM radios in and around the University (most cars had AM-only radios until the FCC ordered the car makers to add FM receivers).

It worked, and for what now seems like the ludicrous amount of $25,000, Brown University bought the license for WPFM, 95.5 and, unnecessarily afraid of liability problems, turned it over to a new entity, “Brown Broadcasting Inc.” No equipment, no tower, no studios. It was just a license to broadcast, but it was a commercial license (they could sell advertising) so it could be self- sufficient.

To get on the air, WBRU had to borrow money for an antenna and equipment. The University loaned the station enough to launch, but when the station came back for more a year or two later, the administration balked. The total owed would have been about $120,000, and the University was afraid they’d never get it back.

One of the administrators was appointed to study the situation and I and three or four other alumni met with him to convince him that not only did the University have little risk of losing its money, but if they did not loan the money, they would be the only Ivy League school without an FM outlet (Dartmouth had an AM, then considered to be more valuable). We did not think we had convinced him, but not long after our meeting the University agreed to the loan (Later we were told that someone had called the University and offered $250,000 for the license!).

The station finally became profitable by dropping the eclectic format and all vestige of public service and going for leading edge rock and roll. It hired professional sales people and enjoyed a 50 year-run playing the rock format. At the peak it was probably worth $15 million.

On three occasions I tried to get the station or the University to make WBRU the first National Public Radio station for Rhode Island, the only state without one. The students, who came to the station because of their interest in rock and roll, had no interest. And the University continued its policy, consistent over 50 years, of ignoring the station (and me) despite its value, both in dollars and as a promotion vehicle of the university (like WBUR at Boston University).

But, as Buddha said, everything changes; and the Internet, podcasts, and huge station groups with multiple stations in one market made it impossible for WBRU to be economically viable. The board (mostly alumni) and student managers, after much wrangling, decided to ignore the objections of some station alumni and the president of Brown, and sell the station. They planned to use the money as an endowment for a student radio workshop that would broadcast and distribute podcasts over the Internet which is where they saw the audience migrating (A former president of the Brown Broadcasting Board said, simply, “Terrestrial radio is dead.”).

This all came to pass in the summer of 2017. They sold to a religious broadcaster for $5.75 million, I believe, and are well on their way to creating a radio workshop. I applaud the decision and would love to see where they are 50 years from now.

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