can wbru find a new voice?
During the last days of August, alums and reporters streamed in and out of the WBRU building at 88 Benevolent St. Phone calls, texts, and tweets bombarded the radio station. Gifts like cookies and even a pinata streamed in as well. By the end of the day, seven times the normal number of people were listening to the online stream; countless others tuned in to the radio while driving across Rhode Island and southern New England, hearing the last few songs of WBRU’s FM era over the on-air crying of DJs. The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” played WBRU out before the first song of the online-only era: Green Day’s “Welcome to Paradise.”
But while August 31 marked the end of an era that began more than 50 years ago in 1966, when the radio station first began broadcasting over the 95.5 FM terrestrial radio signal, WBRU isn’t going off the air—it just stopped being one thing and became another.
Over the past week, I have sat down and discussed the future of WBRU with three of the students who are helping the station transition amid a rapidly changing media environment: Hannah Maier-Katkin ’18, a former general manager; Kishanee Haththotuwegama ’19, the current general manager and a student representative on the alum board of directors; and Natalie Mesa ’19, a long-time DJ and current program director.
All three say they inherited a difficult task: to secure and transform a radio station that had been bleeding money and student support since long before they came to Brown. Their challenge was not just to preserve one of the oldest student organizations at Brown, but also to provide a new degree of financial and musical independence for the students who make up WBRU today.
As Maier-Katkin tells it, the possibility of selling WBRU’s FM license was raised as early as the 2008–2009 economic recession, during which advertising revenue declined precipitously. Every year the station waited to sell, WBRU was losing money. Two similar FM licenses were valued at $10 million in 2014, yet WBRU’s license was sold this year for $5.6 million to the Christian Broadcaster Educational Media Foundation. Even after spending most of her 2016 term as general manager reviewing plans to save the license, Maier-Katkin says it was impossible to find a workable alternative.
Neither Haththotuwegama or Mesa was caught by surprise about the sale. Haththotuwegama even attended a meeting in December 2016 that very nearly saw the board of directors authorize a sale. A month later, the board would meet again to unanimously approve the sales plan. In April, after multiple student body meetings and votes, the station membership authorized the sale as well.
The sale left WBRU with an endowment of at least $5.4 million and only two paid staff members, down from the five professionals who worked for the station earlier this year. One of the remaining staff members, Jim Ladino, is a bookkeeper and the other is Naana Obeng-Marnu ’17, who served as media director in 2016 while a student.
The result of this one-time windfall has been a push toward a new management structure that is more “student-driven than it has even been,” according to Maier-Katkin. Starting next semester, there will no longer be a general manager. Instead, the responsibilities will be shared: A CEO will be responsible for setting the overall direction of the station, a chief financial officer (CFO) will handle business strategy and monitor cash flow, and a chief operating officer (COO) will be most prominent in the day-to-day operations at the station.
Exactly who will be named the new CEO and COO of WBRU is still up in the air; Maier-Katkin said that elections will be held in December, and the hope is that sophomores and juniors will emerge as candidates who can offer continuity over the next few years. Since she is still a junior, Haththotuwegama is planning to work “as a project manager [focusing] on research and development” once she steps down in January.
The future of programming at WBRU will transform with its leadership. Mesa promises a shift from older, traditional alternative rock (bands like Greenday, Nirvana, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers) to a more indie-leaning format. Already, she says, “foundational indie bands like The Cure are getting more airplay…and then we’re doing newer indie music like FKA Twigs, Courtney Barnett, and Sylvan Esso.” As Haththotuwegama notes, alt-rock is not a tastemaker anymore. The industry groups alt-rock with some folk music and alt-country under the broader category of alternative.
Beyond changing their music tastes, WBRU is introducing a series of new shows and scheduling changes. Only three shows are being retained: “BRUBreakfast,” which runs from 6–10 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; “Retro Lunch,” which plays Monday through Saturday from 12–1 p.m; and “Taking Back Saturday,” from 7–8 p.m. on Saturday.
“We have so much room to do cool new stuff now, we want to make sure it’s actually cool before we promise anything,” Mesa says. Without confirming the details, over the next few weeks, Mesa expects “an interactive, nostalgia-based” talk-show to launch.
Three podcasts are also in development. “Soundwave,” which focuses on Rhode Island music history, and the “401 Report,” a news podcast, have released pilot episodes and are expected to come out weekly next semester. The last podcast, “The Amplifier,” will premiere next semester and devote a six- or seven-episode season to highlighting minority communities and social activism in Providence.
Without the 50 kilo-watt FM broadcast, WBRU has to get technologically creative. A beta WBRU app was launched two weeks ago for iPhone and Android. The station is also partnering with Brown Student Radio (BSR) to build a low-power FM station (101.1 FM) in hopes of getting 360, a program that primarily played rap and R&B once a week, back on the air. On Sundays, 360 has a special program, “The Gentle Touch,” which reads inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) letters from their families. Haththotuwegama and Maier-Katkin both underscored that whether the low-power signal can breach the concrete walls of the seven-building ACI complex won’t be known until it’s up and running in 2018.
Haththotuwegama emphasizes that WBRU is boosting student recruitment, with a number of departments (News, 360, Exposure, Local, Media) doubling and tripling in size this semester. In past semesters, there was such a shortage of air-cleared DJs that some of the most prestigious slots in the middle of the day were “voice-tracked,” or pre-recorded, by Mesa (who goes by “Chilbo” on air), Maier-Katkin (“Nico”), and other DJs (“Shley,” “AV,” “K-Lo”).
The ultimate impact of WBRU’s sale of its FM license remains unknown until these new investments begin to pay off. Yet, WBRU has historically had a personal impact on members of its community. Some of WBRU’s first members on the FM signal from the 1960s remain on its board of directors; one long-time listener, a general manager from a half-decade ago, told Haththotuwegama that he began crying on the streets of New York when the station played LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrslf Clean.”
“I’m grateful for the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had [but] now I have to pay it forward,” Maier-Katkin said, “We’re working hard to keep that tradition alive and to create something meaningful to a new generation of students.”