the whole WTJU story

June 23rd, 2010 · 6 Comments · By

For those without the inside scoop, or for those who are just catching up, here’s a full run-down of what’s been going on at WTJU:

– WTJU has been around for over 50 years, and is a beloved part of the Charlottesville community.  It’s owned by the University of Virginia, making it technically a “college radio station,” but in practice it has often been far more similar to a community radio station.  It is beloved by many, largely because of the high-quality of content on the station; 100% DJ-selected, with no pre-programmed playlists, no payola; nothing but enthusiastic people sharing the fine music that they love.  There are four departments: Rock, Folk, Jazz, and Classical.  All of the DJs are unpaid volunteers who do it because they love music and they love radio.

The station also has a lot of well-respected musical alumni; Steve Malkmus and Bob Bob Nastanovich of Pavement, James McNew of Yo La Tengo, Dave Berman of the Silver Jews, Rolling Stone contributor / author Rob Sheffield, and the painter Steve Keene all served time in the Rock Department here in the 80’s and early 90’s. The station remains heavily aligned with excellent music in Charlottesville; for example, out of this blog’s seven past/present contributors, five of them are (or have been) WTJU DJs, including myself.

WTJU is listener-supported; we do multiple fund-raisers every year. We are also supported financially by the University of Virginia (~40% of the annual budget, if I’m not mistaken).  WTJU used to be part of the Alumni association, but about 2 years ago it was transferred over to the Office of Public Affairs.  Earlier this year, WTJU’s longstanding General Manager, Chuck Taylor, retired; following a wide search for his replacement, Burr Beard (yes, that’s his name) was hired. He started about two months ago.

Starting last week, tons of rumors began to circulate about drastic changes soon to take place at WTJU. Specifically, there was Burr’s “consistency document,” which was given to some departments (but mysteriously not to others) and which soon circulated around the station; this pre-dated any sort of official announcement or even wide address to the station as a whole.

This document was controversial (actually, “universal disgust” might be more accurate) for a number of changes it proposed at WTJU:

1) The drastic reconfiguration of the station’s weekday on-air schedule; specifically, both the Jazz and Rock departments will have their hours reduced significantly, and shifted entirely to late-night time slots, excluding both departments from daytime hours altogether. (Details of what, exactly, is going to be going on the daytime and weekends are still, weeks later, totally unclear.) Simply put, this will significantly reduce listenership for both of these departments; there’s just not a whole lot of people listening to the radio at 2am.

2) Rock and Jazz shows will now be on a “rotation” schedule, meaning that the DJs will be required to play specific pre-selected songs a certain number of times per hour. This is a drastic change from WTJU’s decades-long tradition of having 100% DJ-selected content, a quality which has been the pride of the station for many years, and a major point of praise from both volunteers and listeners alike.

3) Burr also announced (although this has since been significantly rescinded) that alternating pairs of DJs would no longer be allowed, and that every show would be hosted by a single DJ every single week. This, combined with the elimination of daytime shows, effectively meant that a significant percentage of the stations’ on-air volunteers were suddenly being told (in an extremely passive-aggressive manner) that there was no longer a place for them at WTJU. The actual messy details who would be able to continue hosting a show was pretty much left up to the departments themselves, but these drastic restrictions meant that a lot of folks — like, anyone with a family or a 9-to-5 job –wouldn’t be able continue at the station even if they wanted to,

We were told these changes would be implemented on Monday, July 5th — less than 20 days from when we heard the news.

To say that these changes were poorly received would be an understatement. The entire WTJU community has basically been going nuts for the past week — and rightly so. DJs who have been at the station for decades (literally) showed up one day to hear that their show was no longer there — and they usually heard this news from another DJ, never from Burr or anyone at the University.  Folks who alternated were finding out after the fact that they had already done their last shows.

There have been literally hundreds of emails per day to the stationwide mailing list, ranging from calm and rational arguments to frothing gibberish-filled rants.  This is pretty much what happens when you tell a community of hundreds of hardworking volunteers that, effective almost immediately, you’re going to be telling them to do things the opposite of how they’ve always done them. It’s not just the Rock & Jazz Departments who are up in arms — literally the entire community of WTJU is upset and outraged right now. These changes are so fundamentally contrary to the entire spirit of the station that so many of us have put our time and effort into, that quite frankly I don’t see how any other reaction could be expected.

Some DJs resigned immediately. Many angry manifestos and open letters were written to Burr (here’s mine). Folks who have been on air for 20 or 30 years were resigning in disgust.

Furthermore, every member of the community who heard of the news seemed upset and baffled. These people love WTJU, and have been listening to it devotedly for years (some for their entire lives), and have helped support the station financially as well. WTJU has been an important part of Charlottesville for a long time, and anything that affects its volunteers this drastically is going to have a ripple affect for the listeners as well.

So of course, it was all over the press immediately. Andrew in the C-Ville had an article up early on Monday, Dave McNair at the Hook followed suit later that afternoon, and even the Progress eventually took notice. And all of this erupted before any sort of formal statement from Burr or the University had even been made.

Burr was scheduled to address the entire station on Thursday (tomorrow), but those who have suffered through the annual 2-hour slog in the past are well aware that very little of value can be discussed or decided conclusively in a room with over 150+ people in it. So basically, each Department requested a face-to-face meeting with Burr this week (these are, I believe, in progress; and I think there’s a Board meeting or something happening today).

The Rock Department’s meeting with Burr happened on Monday.  Reasonable discussion ensued, although there were times when voices were raised (including mine). Burr remained evasive, inconclusive, and aloof — although there were a few moments where he awkwardly attempted to joke around, at least one of which was widely misinterpreted as a cruel joke at the expense of one of my fellow DJs. The Department made our position known, and made three demands: the ability to retain alternating DJs, a request for more hours (especially daytime hours), and a request for more leeway and openness in the process of “rotation” so that we can at least attempt to continue to maintain the quality and consistency of the music.

The demand for more hours was soundly rejected, the ability to have alternate DJs was allowed, and the exact nature of the rotation is still under debate; it will definitely exist, but it won’t be quite as restrictive as it initially had been. Several folks have quit already, others (including myself) are biding their time until things become clearer. Colin is working hard to try to put together something resembling a good schedule on extremely short notice and without the full knowledge of who’s even going to stick around. Some are calling for a station-wide strike, a notion which I haven’t ruled out myself. Even without a strike, it may be pretty difficult for Burr to fill the hours of the week, considering the huge number of people he has alienated and insulted over the past few days.

The difficult thing here is trying to assess exactly what room we even have to negotiate in the first place; it’s been incredibly dispiriting that we’ve suddenly found ourselves in the worst-case possible scenario and are trying to talk our way back up to a position that’s even manageable, rather than having been involved in the discussion all along. Plenty of things are unclear, and there are many announcements yet to be made; but the general feeling across the station seems to be that our complaints are falling on willfully deaf ears; that Burr is clearly planning on doing everything as he first intended regardless of how much of a stink is made. It’s still too early to say, but there is not great cause for optimism.

While this is all going on, DJs are preparing what may be their final shows, everyone is trying to take stock of what the heck the station is going to look and sound like after next week, the story is all over the media and the listeners and long-time supporters are extremely concerned. Andrew has an update in the C-Ville, Tyler Magill started a blog called savewtju.blogspot.com, and he was also on WINA yesterday.

Then, yesterday evening, we received word from the Office of Public Affairs; they have acknowledged that changes have been set in motion far too quickly, and that programming will remain “as-is” (presumably minus the folks who have already resigned in disgust) until the end of the summer, with the goal being the debut of the “new WTJU” on Aug 23rd. They have also paid lip-service to the concept of working with the volunteers, rather than against them.

It seems their main stated goals are “increasing listenership, student involvement and revenue.” Obviously, these are things that the volunteers for the station want as well; in fact, many of us have been working hard towards those goals for many years now without any institutional support. So it’s kind of disheartening that when that “support” finally arrives, it’s in the form of an authoritarian pronouncement that the qualities which made us love WTJU in the first place are now being done away with.

It’s hard for me to know what the Office of Public Affairs wants. They are extremely tight-lipped; understandably so, as they are the PR folks for a major state University. So until we’ve talked a lot more with them, it’s hard to tell which way things are leaning.  Are they determined to replace the WTJU of old with a new version of the station which precisely fits their vision? Or are they simply ignorant of WTJU’s traditions and importance to the community, and unaware of what precisely they were getting themselves into?  Was Burr hired as a hatchet man to carry out their specific plan? Or was he just hired to deal with WTJU so that they wouldn’t have to worry about it? Is their decision to push back any major changes until August the result of their realization that things are more complicated than they first thought? Or is it just a tactical PR move designed to save face in the way of an unanticipated media outburst? I don’t know the answer to these questions yet.

Here’s what I do know: if we want to try to preserve the qualities that we love about WTJU, we have two months to do so.  In one week, it wouldn’t have been possible. With two months to work within, I think it’s worth a try.

Now is the time to let Burr Beard and the Office of Public Affairs hear your complaints. Let them know what WTJU means to you, and what you don’t want to see it become in the future. Tell them why you’ve donated to the station in the past, and why you won’t do so again if these changes take place. Talk about why you like free-form radio, talk about what makes WTJU unique, tell them that if you wanted something that sounded like commercial radio, you’d already be listening to a different station. Let them know that unusual and creative programming still has a place on the radio dial, and that you’re willing to support WTJU for as long (and only as long) as that programming is allowed to continue. At the very least, let them know that you are upset. Even if they make every change they want — or end up shutting the station down — we can’t let it go without a fight.

Here’s the relevant contact info, the people who need to hear your voice:

Burr Beard
WTJU General Manager
bb3vx@virginia.edu

and

Marian Anderfuren
Office of Public Affairs
mla7f@virginia.edu

I have phone numbers for both of them, but I’m not sure whether those should be public information or not; I can tell you that the Main Office number for WTJU is (434) 924-0885. The folks who answer that, Gayle and Jane, are both very sweet people and you should NOT give them a hard time about anything. Better yet, you can email wtju@virginia.edu.  If you want to talk to the person who is actually on-air at any given time, the numbers in the studio are 924-3418 and 924-3959. Remember that the folks on the other ends of these two numbers are actually on your side; they are the folks who are ostensibly supporting, here (and keep it short&sweet, since they’re doing a radio show while they talk to you.)

As always, please be courteous and civil; Nailgun Media does not condone any sort of rude, inappropriate, or illegal tactics. I am happy to reprint anyone’s letters to WTJU or the OPA in the comments here, so long as they are well-worded, well-reasoned, and polite.

Tags: news · feature · charlottesville · rants & rambles