Rhode Island Public Radio (RIPR) is making a big push to acquire the radio station at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, vowing to raise the $1.5 million required for the deal, but many listeners and DJs of WUMD say the deal will destroy a radio station devoted to art, entertainment and radical politics.
RIPR and UMass Dartmouth announced on January 4 that an acquisition was in process, but critic Toni Marie Pennacchia questions what she calls “the secretive nature of the negotiations between RIPR and university administration.
“The university did not solicit input from WUMD staff or management, UMass Dartmouth students, or the general public, including station listeners. Given that both RIPR and UMass Dartmouth are allegedly operating in the public trust, this sort of closed-door approach is worrying,” said Pennacchia, who runs the #Savewumd Facebook group.
RIPR reporter Ian Donnis wrote on January 5 that the acquisition will allow greater coverage for RIPR, since the signal will be moved from Dartmouth to Tiverton.
“About a year from now you’ll be able to hear us on 89.3 FM, very clearly in the major population centers of Rhode Island,” said Rhode Island Public Radio General Manager and CEO Torey Malatia in the Donnis piece.
Pennacchia contends that the timing of the public announcement is suspicious, “conveniently timed for when UMass Dartmouth students are all away on winter break. Station management has also been prohibited from making any comment on the proposed sale and transfer.”
While Donnis quotes Malatia as saying that, “We have an arrangement with the journalism program…” to provide public forums and internship opportunities for UMass students, Pennacchia counters that “a visit to the UMass Dartmouth website reveals no journalism major or program, just a couple of introductory journalism class electives within the English major.”
According to Pennacchia, “RIPR rather dubiously claimed that the loss of WUMD will not deprive the South Coast area of its only local service, as “noncommercial education FM station WTKL will continue to serve the community,” in its FCC filing. “However, WTKL is merely a local affiliate of Christian radio giant K-LOVE, and produces no local content – WTKL doesn’t even have its own local website or local studio, and K-LOVE’s “educational” component is targeted to a limited Christian audience.”
Pennacchia maintains that the local content WUMD produces is special in ways RIPR’s nationally syndicated content is not:
WUMD in its current form, on the other hand, 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). 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.
“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. 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.
“Unlike RIPR’s approach of rebroadcasting national content and having a skeleton crew to operate locally, WUMD has actively engaged in student and community outreach in its forty-five years of existence. The station currently allows community members to participate in programming, providing unique educational and volunteer opportunities that a small outlet of a national organization like NPR cannot match.”
Here in Providence, when RIPR took over the Wheeler School signal, it sent a host of local programming such as the show Sonic Watermelons, to the Internet. The same thing will happen to WUMD.
Adam Lawrence, a UMass Dartmouth alumnus who in addition to producing State of the Queer Nation hosts a music show, pointed out that he gets feedback from listeners from Rhode Island, along the Route 24 corridor, or Martha’s Vineyard who said that they stumbled on WUMD while scanning their FM dials. A shift to online-only would makes discovery much more difficult. “The sheer magnitude of music available online makes WUMD a needle in an absolutely enormous haystack – and to be frank, we simply don’t have the sort of money on hand required to effectively promote ourselves (and despite the University’s windfall from the proposed sale, only a disturbingly small sliver of that money will find its way back to WUMD.)”
The station members have started on a #SaveWUMD campaign on social media with a dedicated page. The campaign is seeking community members to join their voices in opposing this maneuver on the part of the university and RIPR. The public is able to petition against this sale until February 3rd, either by emailing Tom.Wheeler@fcc.gov or writing a petition to deny.