What Killed WBRU?

Friday, September 01, 2017


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On August 1, 1981, MTV began broadcasting and the first music video the new network played was "Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles.

Now, as the autopsy is being done on WBRU, the appropriate mantra might be that the Internet killed the radio star, or as Bruce McCrae, aka Rudy Cheeks told GoLocal LIVE on Thursday, “I had predicted this some time ago [about the death of radio]. TV is soon going to be Internet. Younger people who are the basic consumers of alternative rock music -- and alternative journalism -- are internet oriented.”

“It's not that complicated -- it was a business decision based upon the best interests of the university and its students. In the best of all situations, they'd have the funds to do everything they want to do now,” said Michael Harrison, one of America’s top analysts of radio and publisher of Talker’s magazine.

The new 95.5 signal owner, Education Media Foundation, is a Christian radio broadcasting group that reported assets of more than half-a-billion dollars according to the company's audited financials for 2016.

Years in the Making

One former top Brown student WBRU leader says the death of the station took years to develop, “Years of waning recruitment, high student turnover, and fatigue with the strict guidelines imposed by the commercial radio model all contributed to the decision to sell the 95.5 signal,” said Leah Michaels, formerly a GoLocalProv intern and top WBRU staffer.

“Rather than continue operating at a loss in what many saw as a dying market, the student leadership decided to sell the signal and use the money to continue WBRU with more freedom online and make the student workshop into something that they felt would revive student interest and fit better in the modern media landscape,” added Michaels who today is Associate Producer at Lucky 8 TV.

"I must say, I was not totally surprised - this is what's happening with radio. Most of the alternative press is gone. Everything has become Internet-based. This is the same for radio -- the old brick and mortar [stations] are being bought by niche operations,” said McCrae. 

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Shifting Revenue

This past year, WBRU generated approximately $1 million in revenue. Former executive Randy Hershoff tells GoLocal that in the 1990s the station's revenue was up to $3.1 million.

The spokesman for the Board of WBRU, Art Norwalk claims that WBRU is not dying -- it's just changing, “Today's young people, who form WBRU's staff and desired audience, do not engage with music or information on the radio. We expect an increase in student interest in working at WBRU now that it will be an online workshop focusing on future-oriented development of content and distribution.”

Harrison agrees, “The alternative radio will be online. The station is not going away. Right now there's more nostalgia and emotion than practical reality. You can be sure it's going to be better. With the amount of money it takes -- to keep on air -- to sell while the money is there [is smart]. Every year they wait, that [price] diminishes.” 

“I salute them for it. I think it's a smart move, and it shows a lot of courage. If all things were equal it would be nice to keep, but running a school is big business -- I get a feeling they're smart and doing the right thing,” added Harrison.

Rob Duguay, a veteran journalist and board operator for WEEI, weighed in on the changing face of radio. 

"The future all depends on whether people will actually buy into it or not. It's definitely an interesting situation for internet radio these days. For example, Boston.com, which is owned by The Boston Globe, has an internet station called Radio BDC which features ex-WFNX DJ's Adam XII, Julie Kramer and Paul Driscoll among others. To have an internet radio station backed by a big media entity in one of the biggest markets in America is a big thing for the format's development," said Duguay. "Will people still listen to WBRU even though it's on the internet? Time will tell. I think eventually people will get sick of listening to what the terrestrial music stations have to offer, which isn't much, and log on to the internet stations. It could happen next week or 5 years from now but that's where a lot of media is headed."

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Tucker Hamilton is fighting to block the sale

Battle Brewing?

Norwalk claims students made the decision, but one former WBRU student board member strongly disputes his claims.

"Students decided to sell the FM license after several years of study and soul-searching, supported by research and consultation from industry experts. While signing off FM will be a bittersweet moment, the students are excited at the prospects for keeping both alt-rock and 360 playing on wbru.com and for being once again at the cutting edge of media, music, and information," said Norwalk. 

Former WBRU board member Tucker Hamilton says that the sale of WBRU was coerced and the process did not follow the proper steps. He is raising questions about the legality of the sale.

Hamilton appeared on GoLocal LIVE and told News Editor Kate Nagle that process violated numerous rules of the board for the iconic college radio station. He and others are seeking to engage the intervention of Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin to block the sale.


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