Nashville Cream: Does WRVU Friends & Family plan to block the license transfer?
WRVU Friends and Family: Our organization is dedicated to keeping WRVU on the air for the benefit of the students of Vanderbilt University and the greater Nashville community. At this time, we are pursuing several different strategies to prevent the completion of the sale between VSC and WPLN.
First and foremost, we are appealing to the Vanderbilt University administration to engage on this issue, as we believe they are required to do under Tennessee law.
Secondly, we are planning to continue to appeal to the Nashville and Middle Tennessee listening audience as a whole. We believe that dedicated WRVU fans are deeply distressed over the loss of such a valuable cultural resource. Furthermore, we believe that the broader listening audience appreciates having access to the unique and fresh shows that emanate from a student-run and student-managed FM station.
Thirdly, we believe there are several different opportunities for legal action. We fully intend to challenge the transfer of the license before the FCC. We are also looking into the possibility of legal action under Tennessee law with respect to the disposition of substantial assets under corporate governance standards applicable to nonprofit corporations such as VSC.
NC: Are you seeking any legal guidance for that process?
WRVUFAF: We have retained legal counsel and have been pleased at the response from our fans and alumni who have careers in law.
NC: How would you characterize your chances?
WRVUFAF: Although we are a hastily formed coalition of alumni, students, and members of the middle Tennessee community, we are well equipped with passion, experience, and media expertise. We are working against a public radio station and a non-profit organization associated with Vanderbilt University. Evidently, this action has been planned for some time and they have made substantial preparations.
We realize that we have a challenge before us, but we aren’t going to handicap our chances. We are committed to making our case to the communities mentioned above, as well as to the appropriate regulatory agencies and courts, if need be. Many people threw up their hands when the sale was announced, but our Board focused on the fine print and began adapting our strategies immediately.
NC: Do you believe the VSC lived up to their pledge to be open and transparent about the exploration of the sale?
WRVUFAF: Absolutely not.
By purchasing the web domains savewrvu.org/com and .net one week prior to the Sept. 16 announcement that they were “considering” a frequency sale, the VSC made it clear from the onset that they were not interested in hearing discourse on this subject. VSC discussion boards where WRVU supporters expressed their opinions were closed. Articles in VSC media, such a [former WRVU music director] Hugh Schlesinger’s article “Why I resigned from WRVU” were removed by VSC administrators. Social networking sites such as official the WRVU Twitter and Facebook accounts were controlled by VSC board member Justin Tardiff, one of the primary student advocates for the frequency sale. WRVU staff listserves were and are constantly monitored by the VSC, and those who spoke too loudly against the were removed or sent threatening letters by media advisor Chris Carroll.
Openness and transparency means letting community members and stakeholders know about decisions, developments and events that impact the organization or the question at hand. We believe that VSC’s ongoing reluctance to have open meetings or to share substantial developments with the community generally shows that their commitment to transparency was hollow.
In particular, there were several times when VSC board members or Chris Carroll were asked if there was a deal on the table, or if offers had been received. They indications were always in the negative. They did not say something along the lines of “We cannot confirm or deny that offers have been made or received.” Furthermore, “exploring the idea of a sale” may be “business-speak” for “make me an offer,” but to our many members of the community and our Board, we interpreted that to mean that they were using their own comment period to evaluate the community’s interest. Creating a false impression that there has been little-to-no interest or progress on the sale is not an act of transparency or openness.
Members of the community asked to review the comments that had been submitted or at the very least a summary report of the comments submitted. Justin Tardiff, a member of the VSC Board indicated that it would be impractical and refused. Again, this belies a guarded and distrustful approach, rather than one that sought to keep stakeholders and community members appraised of the environment in which the decision was being made.
Members of our community also addressed the more fundamental question of what VSC planned to do with the money received in a sale and how much money they hoped to receive from a sale. VSC is supposedly operating in the interest of the students. We felt that it would be quite reasonable for an organization such as VSC to offer a budget plan for any potential money received from a sale to its stakeholders. How would the money be invested? Who would manage the money? What was the expected or anticipated rate of return from the endowment? What would that money be spent on from year to year? Moreover, these were framed alongside a valid question of what actions the VSC had taken to establish a fundraising initiative or appeal to alumni for support. Those questions also went unanswered.
Timing, as well, in another indicator of a lack of transparency. No one who listened to WRVU knew that they would be switching formats or that DJs would be locked or escorted out of the station. It is incredulous to think that openness and transparency results in revealing a decision basically only in response to public filings. Furthermore, giving no notice whatsoever to the community or the volunteer staff of the station is another indication that they were intent on unilateral and summary action without regard to giving due attention or respect to the listening audience or volunteer staff.
Certainly, we can appreciate that deliberations that directly relate to business negotiations or to personnel decisions should be outside the scope of discussions and notifications that are open and transparent to the public. We can appreciate that signaling that they wanted a specific dollar amount would be against their interest, they should attempt to get the best offer. However, expressing their desires in broad ranges publicly would not be against their interests. Moreover, it isn’t entirely clear that the Board actively sought out offers from as broad a range of potential buyers as possible. While we strongly oppose a sale, we feel obligated to question whether the process that VSC put in place to solicit and evaluate offers was effective in finding a deal that maximized the value of the station for the students. Finally, in this case, we feel that VSC has been purposely obfuscatory about their true intent and the status of their negotiations. They clearly had no desire to pay any attention to the input they solicited from the community.
NC: How would you characterize your interactions with board chair Mark Wollaeger or other members of the VSC or its board?
WRVUFAF: Several of our board members were once members of the VSC board. Part of our initial outrage at the prospect of losing the station was due to the realization that the VSC’s membership has been culled to reflect a tiny slice of opinion within the Vanderbilt media community. We were concerned, and rightly so, that it would be difficult to persuade VSC to change course or to take a more considered approach. Time and again, we found that members of the Board or the advisory members of the Board seemed committed to echoing sentiments expressed by VSC staff. Admittedly, in our haste and shock at their initial announcement last fall, we expressed anger and concern over things for which we did not have our facts straight. However, it is worth noting at this date that our concern that Chris Carroll was intent on selling the station was unfortunately quite accurate.
Generally, we believe that Mark Wollaeger and other members of the board have been dismissive of our concerns and have refused to engage with us intellectually. We believe that they committed to a course of action in the fall. Not only did they steadfastly ignore our entreaties to engage in an open and honest dialog about the fate of the station, but they also refused to commit themselves to the very standards of process and review that they had pledged.
In Sept. 2011, Mark Wollaeger met with WRVU DJs to discuss the potential frequency sale. During the meeting Wollaeger insulted the DJs on several accessions by calling their listenership "small". He openly misrepresented the Arbitron ratings of the station. As reported in the Nashville Cream, Wollaeger told the WRVU DJs "Arbitron ... the listenership is so small it doesn't even register. ... It's way down in Nashville. ... The estimates are, like, 300 regular listeners in the community."
The New York Times later that WRVU had an average of 30,000 unique weekly listeners. In February of 2011, CMJ, The College Music Journal, called WRVU “one of the nation’s top college stations”.
Time and again, VSC chair Mark Wollaeger, media advisor Chris Carroll, and board member Justin Tardiff have degraded the accomplishments of the Vanderbilt students who built radio station WRVU nearly 60 years ago and those who maintain it now. We have never felt they would act in the best interest of the station. Now, it painfully apparent that they have not.
NC: Feel free to express your personal reaction to the news, and to add anything you feel relevant.
WRVUFAF: “Public” radio in the United States, referring specifically to stations that broadcast shows developed by National Public Radio, American Public Media, and Public Radio International, as well as certain niche, non-commercial formats like classical, jazz, talk, radio drama, or bluegrass certainly play a vital role in our cultural landscape. It is a valuable public service that is justly supported in part by the taxpayer and by loyal, local listeners. However, many of us in the WRVU community have begun to question to what degree these stations are serving the public interest. Certainly we have our own perspective on this sale, but what about the WPLN audience in general? Did they have any say in whether they’d like to undertake a multi-million dollar campaign to acquire another station license?
WRVU definitely operated for the benefit of Vanderbilt community and the Middle Tennessee area. Members of the VSC definitely called into question whether Vanderbilt students were really enjoying the benefit of the station since so many students “didn’t even have a radio in their room.” This perspective is relatively myopic in the sense that most of the benefit of the station accrued to the Vanderbilt community was to the students who were afforded opportunities to host their own shows, develop and produce news and sports shows, and to learn the business of managing a broadcast station. We know from our experience as alumni, community DJs, and even current students that the hands-on opportunities that WRVU offered something truly unique to students and, in turn, the listening audience. VSC has callously disregarded the input they themselves solicited in order to consummate this sale that has clearly been in the works for many months. Moreover, they are squandering a valuable resource that will put Vanderbilt at a disadvantage in developing alumni who might have substantial and notable careers in broadcast media.
On a more personal basis, there are many from the DJ community and the listening audience who have spent the last few days in shock. Without warning, a cultural light was shut off in Nashville. There is palpable sadness at our entire community’s loss.