Friday, September 17, 2010

VSC Board Member: Student Listening Habits 'Not the Main Motivation' For Proposed WRVU Sale

Posted By on Fri, Sep 17, 2010 at 3:38 PM

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As reported here on the Cream yesterday, Vanderbilt Student Communications, the body that controls WRVU 91.1-FM, is "exploring the migration of radio station WRVU to exclusively online programming and the sale of its broadcast license." Mark Wollaeger, a faculty member of the VSC board (who, incidentally, voted in favor of the cap on community DJs last year), says that even though surveys show that the vast majority of Vanderbilt students now listen to WRVU online as opposed to over the air, "that's not the main motivation" for considering a move from terrestrial to Internet radio.

A post this morning on radio-info.com states that, "The immediate local speculation centers on a potential buyer such as K-Love parent Educational Media Foundation, which doesn’t have a Nashville outlet for its contemporary Christian network service." I'm not sure where this speculation is coming from. Wollaeger says that no potential buyers for the broadcast license were ever discussed in the "extensive talks" the board held on the subject. A call to Educational Media Foundation has not been returned.

As for the sale of the broadcast license: "As the board sees it, we have a valuable asset of declining value, at a time when ad revenues for print ... which is the main source of revenue for WRVU ... are declining," Wollaeger says, "and ... the possibility of selling the license came up because, by selling it, there's a chance for endowing VSC, and thereby being independent of ad revenues."

So in Wollaeger's view, this is pragmatic: With revenue streams slowing — if not quite dried up yet — cash in your most valuable asset while it's still worth something, and build a new media model. In addition to the money from the sale of the license, WRVU would "instantly have $25,000-a-year savings," Wollaeger says, because it would no longer have to rent the broadcast tower or pay an engineer.

Of course, cost savings are going to come as cold comfort for fans of 91 Rock who, like me, have never attended Vanderbilt but discovered and became regular listeners by stumbling across the station on the FM dial. "People in the general community can also listen to it streaming," Wollaeger says. And while he says that, like me, he mostly listens to WRVU in the car, even that's not a reason to mourn the loss of the FM version. Citing smart-phone apps that are able to stream Internet radio, Wollaeger says, "The car industry is betting that this technology is the future."

Still, Wollager admits, "I'm not going to pretend there isn't going to be something lost."

Even so, Wollaeger says, WRVU's audience as it stands is "very small," and "with more money to promote it, there might be an even bigger audience." Some have suggested a parallel with WOXY, the Austin-based Internet radio channel — motto: "the future of rock ’n’ roll" — that went belly-up in March. Key passage from this obit at Radio Survivor:

Streaming stations don’t require much in the way of a physical studio — though certainly some of the best ones, like WOXY, have them. They also don’t require transmitters and the power to run them, nor compliance with FCC rules. But while free of these liabilities, streaming stations do have other significant costs to bare.

First, streaming music stations must pay royalties for the right to play music online, which scale up in cost as listenership increases. Second, and most significantly, streaming stations have to buy bandwidth to deliver their streams. And here’s where popularity can become a double-edged sword. Unlike broadcast, each additional listener requires additional bandwidth, which in turn costs more money. If your listenership grows, so does your bandwidth bill.

A new, all-streaming WRVU would start from a much different place than WOXY: It would have the endowment established by the sale of the broadcast license to lean on — assuming that's enough capital to sustain the station, its new infrastructure and, potentially, the bandwidth required to reach a larger audience in and beyond Nashville, in perpetuity.

In an email that went out to WRVU DJs in advance of the public announcement, VSC Board secretary Paige Clancy wrote, "We’re eager to hear comments and reactions from you." Wollaeger admits that feedback from alumni has so far been "universally negative," adding, "I think I'd feel the same way."

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