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Battle Emerges Over RI Public Radio Acquiring UMass Dartmouth Radio Station

Thursday, January 12, 2017


Photo: FB, SaveWUMD

A group of local college radio staff and volunteers have launched an effort to “Save WUMD” to try and block Rhode Island Public Radio (RIPR) from acquiring U-Mass Dartmouth’s 89.3 FM license. 

RIPR recently announced it will pay $1.5 million to UMass Dartmouth to buy the license for WUMD. Presently, RIPR is on three different FM frequencies in the market, but lags behind in listenership to Boston-based WGBH and WBUR. 

WUMD staff and supporters, however, have organized to try to stop the acquisition, citing the diminishment of local radio in the south coast of Massachusetts. 

“They’re hurting southeast Massachusetts, where WUMD's programs have been heard," said Toni Marie Pennacchia, who disc jockeys for WUMD. “We’ve been around 45 years this Friday, I’ve been a volunteer since 1996."

Pennacchia spoke to who would be impacted by the move, including WUMD's volunteer producers and staffers, and students. 

“It could be up to dozens of different folks involved in different capacities," said Pennacchia. “This is a radio lab. The picture [RIPR] is painting is they're going to offer internships. Most of these students are in Dartmouth, if you’re able to produce your program and be involved here, that’s the benefit."

RIPR Responds

RIPR General Manager Torey Malatia responded to the charges made by the group. 

“I think people have a right to express their opinion about the [acquisition] and what they think is the best thing to do,” said Malatia.

“As for the claims of diminishment of local content, that's incorrect, but they're entitled to feel that way,” said Malatia. “If anything there will be a radical increase in local journalism. There's a real difference between journalism and music programing -- journalism is not going to replace music and vice versa. If it's music that's important to them, that's not going to be there. And if that should be their primary emphasis, there's nothing I can say.”

Pennachia spoke to WUMD's local journalism, however, contesting Malatia's claims. 

“WUMD in its current form balances nationally syndicated alternative news and commentary shows such as Democracy Now! and Counterspin with unique locally-produced content like State of the Queer Nation (LGBTQ issues) and Spoiler Alert Radio (behind-the-scenes filmmaking interviews),” said Pennacchia.

“These local shows are produced and broadcast weekly in dedicated times slots, unlike RIPR’s schedule which mixes in occasional local programming segments amongst primarily generic syndicated content like BBC News (comprising one-third of the weekday programming schedule) and All Things Considered," said Pennacchia. 

Photo: FB, SaveWUMD

Pennachia said that in legal documents for the acquisition, RIPR points to other local radio options remaining, which she contests. 

"I discovered in one of the acquisition documents where [RIPR] mentions there still needs to be local content for the community,” said Pennacchia. “They mentioned WTKL as 'local content' — and that’s not. That’s K-LOVE. We sold our 99.1 signal to K-LOVE. WTKL is a local affiliate of K-LOVE and produces no local content."

Malatia responded to allegation. 

"They may be confusing an analysis of the number of licenses in certain communities that has to be itemized for the FCC when you're moving the license,” said Malatia.  “It's a technicality, and I'm not a FCC attorney, but they may be reading something significant that might not be there. You’d have to ask a FCC attorney."

Defending Local Content

“Fans of independent and eclectic music (not to mention independent musicians seeking avenues of exposure) will certainly be disappointed by the shift in programming focus. RIPR has essentially no music programming, whereas WUMD is over 80% music – from jazz to reggae to metal to world music to folk to indie rock,” said Pennacchia.

”On the educational front, WUMD has a unique program, Rock 'N Roll High School, where local high school students can try their hands at on-air hosting, recording and audio production, as well as being exposed to all sorts of genres of music that they could not discover on commercial radio," added Pennacchia. 

Providence resident and music reviewer Rob Duguay, who has been outspoken against the move, talked with GoLocal on Wednesday. 

“I’ll pretty much say that college radio still deserves a place in the American media spectrum. Regardless if it's a conglomerate like IHeartMedia or a government funded entity like NPR, seeing student-run radio stations being bought up by these types of organizations is disheartening,” said Duguay. 

“WUMD and many other college radio stations around the country offer students a chance to express themselves over the airwaves while teaching them how to run a radio program and the potential of what someone can do during an allotted time slot,” said Duguay. “NPR buying WUMD's FM signal expands their reach that is already state-wide and does little to benefit the student body of UMass-Dartmouth. What would they have to offer? Teaching a young adult how to manage levels and press buttons? The students involved in the station are already learning that and more through producing their own content. It seems awfully unnecessary on NPR's part to buy another signal when they already have 3 of them.”

Pennacchia said the group is appealing to the public to petition against the sale with the FCC.

"The campaign is seeking community members to join their voices in opposing this maneuver on the part of the university and RIPR," said Pennacchia. "The public is able to petition against this sale until February 3rd, either by emailing [email protected] or writing a petition to deny. 

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