Finding a Place for Campus Radio

By:
10/17/2002

Whether on not you have ever listened to Georgetown University’s Student Radio Station WGTB, it is undeniable that at one point in its history it had a strong presence not only on Georgetown’s campus, but on the entire D.C. area. During a time in the ‘70s the station broadcasted as far as Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia and had over 100,000 listeners. While the station is now far past it’s prime, in the past six years there has been a movement to revive on-campus radio at Georgetown. But does anyone care?

It’s 12:25 p.m. last Wednesday in New South Cafeteria and WGTB’s General Manager Adam Engberg (SFS ‘03), Music Director Kathy Dolan (NUR ‘03) and three representatives from Nokia hustle through the doors 25 minutes late. The businesslike Engberg furiously plugs in wires and speakers and blows on the microphone to test it. A small crowd begins to form around him.

It’s a big day for the radio station. Due to a donation from a WGTB alum who works at Nokia, the station was giving away two all-expense paid tickets to one of college football’s premier events, the Nokia-sponsored Sugar Bowl.

“As far as I’m concerned that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me at this station,” says Dolan. “On the whole I think it was probably the best thing that has come upon us.”

History

In 1960, Georgetown University received the broadcast license for FM frequency 90.1; it was one of the first on the FM signal granted by the Federal Communications Commission in the D.C. area. Throughout the ‘60s, from the basement of Copley Hall, the station broadcasted on a five-mile radius and played regular religious programs and top-40 music. By 1970 however, the focus of the station had radically shifted to left-wing politics and music, blasting the Nixon administration instead of broadcasting Masses and pumping Frank Zappa instead of Tony Bennett. This alteration in programming gained a large following in the D.C. area especially in the Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle areas. But the staff’s rampant drug use and indecent on-air language caused considerable tension between the administration and the station. The rift grew larger in 1974 when the station hired out space on American University’s radio tower, increasing its wattage to 6,000 and widening it’s broadcasting radius to 50 miles, all without toning down the content. Although the station was temporarily shut down twice in the ‘70s, it was not put out of commission until 1979 when then-University President Timothy Healy, S.J. washed his hands of the station and donated Georgetown’s tower and broadcasting license to the newly established University of the District of Columbia for $1. UDC eventually sold that license in 1997 to C-SPAN Radio for $13 million.

During the ‘80s and early ‘90s Georgetown radio barely survived, broadcasting only on campus as an AM station. In 1996, there was a drive to restart WGTB; the current studios in the Leavey Center were built and the station began broadcasting on a “leaky cable” system, which is intended to allow students in specially wired dorms to pick up WGTB on their radios at 92.3 FM.

According to Director of Student Organizations Martha Swanson, the system is active in every dorm on campus except for Village A, Village B and Henle. The apartment complexes are too difficult to wire.

According to Engberg, the radio amplifier in Harbin was damaged during renovations in the summer of 2000 and was never fixed. There are no plans to wire the new Southwest Quadrangle when it opens next year.

“Nobody ever got back to me from the media board about wiring the Southwest Quad, so I assume it is not being wired,” said Swanson.

In 1998, the station began campaigning to acquire a low-power FM license from the FCC, allowing it to broadcast within a three- to five-mile radius. But according to Engberg, despite Georgetown administrative support, that campaign failed.

“In 1998, the FCC came out and said, ‘We’ll allow for educational stations to come out and petition for an LPFM license,’” he said. “There were thousands of petitions for D.C. and no openings. So that basically shot down all hopes of any type of low power FM signal for Georgetown University.”

With the performance of the leaky cable system, which is leaky at best, and with no chance for an LPFM license, there are still other means by which WGTB can broadcast. According to Engberg, there are plans for a WGTB channel on Hoyanet cable to play the radio station 24 hours a day. Currently, GUTV plays the station between programs on its cable channel. Also, there are plans for station to play over the sound system in Hoya Court, as it did at times last year.

While these plans may seem minor, WGTB still has one major form of broadcasting power remaining: webcasting. WGTB began webcasting in 2001 and can be heard all around the world from the station’s website at www.wgtb923.com. According to Engberg, the webcast is the most viable way for WGTB to be heard.

“We’re basically an Internet radio station, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

Swanson agrees.

“Webcasting is the best way for the station to get heard and we’re focusing on that right now,” she said.

Now, however, the future of WGTB’s webcasting is in doubt.

Webcasting

Internet radio has become a huge deal over the past five years, involving everyone from major companies such as Yahoo and American Online to small college radio stations. According to an Oct. 11 press release from MeasureCast, Inc., a company that monitors Internet radio, more than 12 million people worldwide listened to the 2,000 web radio stations measured by the company during the month of September alone. And the popularity of webcasts has not gone unnoticed by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Under pressure from the RIAA and other industry groups, Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998. Among other things, the act required Internet radio stations to pay royalty fees for the music they play, and also required that they keep detailed records of the songs they select. While the specifics of these fees have yet to be worked out, it looks as if traditional FM and AM broadcasters will be completely exempted these requirements. Once the fees are set in place, WGTB will probably have to pay fees retroactive to 2001, the year the station began webcasting.

The effects that this will have on WGTB are uncertain; changes are almost sure to occur before the station will have to begin paying fees.

However, the record-keeping that the station would have to abide by is “in the final stages of being determined,” according to Will Robedee, the vice chairman of College Broadcasters, Inc., a group that represents students involved in radio, television, webcasting and other related media ventures. According to Robedee, the interim regulations that will be announced by the Copyright Office in the near future will require Internet radio stations to keep records of the song title, artist, album, record label and number of listeners whenever they play music. The final regulations will probably require even more data.

Furthermore, the restrictions that the bill places on the songs that the station could play are also likely to come into effect soon. These restrictions would frustrate many fans who are accustomed to hearing full albums or impromptu “best of” artist sessions streamed over the web because they limit the number from a particular artist or album that can be played in a certain time period.

As for the royalty fees, the House of Representatives approved a bill last Monday that would reduce the royalty rate for small webcasters; the bill is currently being discussed in the Senate. According to Robedee, if that bill becomes law “the WGTB fee would drop from 0.07 cents per song to per listener to 0.02 cents per listener.”

At the reported rate of listenership, Robedee estimated that WGTB would owe approximately $1,500 a year in royalty fees, but said that there are ways to reduce that figure under the current rules. He added that there were two cases currently in court that could push the due dates for the payments back.

Engberg is more optimistic and believes that the royalty payments could be as low as $500 a year.

“Two things aren’t clear,” he said. “First of all, we’re an educational radio station. We’ve always received special exemptions in the past. There still may be some concessions yet to be had.”

One concession, for example, is that many recording labels send the station albums and waive the royalty fees that would be associated with playing the songs.

Still, webcasting is fraught with many difficulties.

“With the royalty fees, there is a disincentive to improve listenership because the fees would be ever increasing,” said WGTB DJ John Huyette (CAS ‘05). “Even if the fees aren’t that much we will have to keep such a detailed track listing for every song that we play. There is currently no software on the market that does that. It’s quite a lot to overcome.”

But the station would face its biggest difficulty if the administration decides not to pay the royalty fees.

“I think that if [the royalty fees come into existence]the University should do whatever’s necessary to pay to broadcast music,” said WGTB DJ Matthew Barge (CAS ‘04). “I think that in order for WGTB to be successful they need to have a diverse and broad sort of programming that they don’t necessarily have now … I think that the University could demonstrate a certain level of commitment that could help that along.”

The administration seems unwilling to make a commitment.

“Based on what’s come out, I don’t think we’d be able to afford it,” said Swanson. “If it’s only $500, I think that we could probably handle that, but I’m not sure if it’s going to be that low.”

The removal of the webcast in its entirety would most probably be the death of WGTB.

“There’s no way Georgetown radio station will ever become what it was,” said Engberg. “We basically hinge on our ability to webcast and if this is taken away from us, then I would see no reason to stay with the station. And I would see no reason why Georgetown University would continue to funnel money into a radio station that can’t be heard by anyone else other than students who really don’t listen to the station anyway.”

  • * *

While Dolan and Engberg set up the equipment for the giveaway, a Marriott employee walks up to them and tells them that they cannot have a contest in the dining hall. Without looking up, Engberg replies that he has gotten the proper clearance from Swanson and someone from Marriott, but does not have the paperwork with him. The Marriott employee pulls out his cell phone and begins dialing while the Nokia representatives stand by looking bored.

“There’s always a problem,” says Dolan. “The equipment won’t work; the phone line won’t work. There are usually some struggles between the students and ourselves and the administration and ourselves.”

Administration

WGTB’s problems with Georgetown’s administration are not new; they have existed since the early ‘70s when the station first played unedited versions of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” which includes anti-American rhetoric and profanity. While the station no longer complains of administrative censorship, it does criticize the lack of support.

“Our relation with the University, I almost can’t describe it,” said Engberg. “I just don’t feel that the administration really cares about us, and if the administration did care I think we could have a really great radio station.”

Barge and fellow WGTB DJ Adam Jones (CAS ‘04) host a political commentary show, Advise and Consent, that is one of the station’s more popular programs.

The administration “doesn’t see the radio station as a viable presence,” said Jones.

Swanson feels that the station, which receives $5,300 from the University in addition to almost $2,000 in revenue, is adequately supported.

“We gave them pretty much everything they asked for and more,” she said. “There were some DJ services and equipment that they were going to handle themselves and we said that they didn’t have to do that.”

What needs to be determined is how much involvement the University should show in an organization that is not necessarily popular.

“I think [the administration]supports the station as much as it should for the level of involvement that students show with it right now,” said Barge. “If it were to be allocated more money, WGTB would have to demonstrate a real commitment to increasing the quality of programming on a consistent basis. There are some times when it’s just dead air. It would need to become a radio station that people tune into and listen to for long periods of time and be assured a high quality of programming.”

Swanson believes has the potential to serve the campus with news, programs and music, but she is also unsure how it will attract more listeners.

  • * *

The crowd around the microphone grows as the Marriott employee flips his cell phone down and walks dejectedly back into his office.

It’s 12:35 and finally the station is done setting up everything.

“Attention New South!” says Engberg. “We’re giving away two free tickets to the Sugar Bowl, so everyone come on over.”

Approximately 40 people create a semi-circle around the microphone area.

Students

It can be assumed, due to the problems with the leaky cable system, that most of WGTB’s listeners are those who hear it on the webcast.

“In terms of people saying that if we only had a signal they would listen, I think that’s completely wrong,” said WGTB DJ Mike Lezaja (CAS ‘05). “People still don’t listen to the radio. If people don’t want to listen to WGTB, they’re not going to turn it on their radio either. They just don’t want to listen. It’s a bad excuse.”

According to Engberg, WGTB averages 10-15 listeners on the webcast at any given time. Two or three shows attract upwards of 35 listeners; Barge and Jones estimate their listenership to be 30. The webcast peaked at 55 listeners earlier this year during the broadcast of a football game.

Aggregate results from the webcast have been encouraging. For the 30-day period ending this past Monday, WGTB ranked 287 out of 755 webcasts on the Shoutcast.com streaming audio system. The station had 6,300 total hours listened and 18,777 individual tune-ins, 3,597 of which were for five minutes or longer. These figures compute to more than 600 tune-ins per day and more than 200 total hours listened per day.

Still, general student response to the radio station is best described as apathetic. This description was even true during the Sugar Bowl ticket give-away:

“I’ve never heard of the radio station before,” said Josh Green (CAS ‘06). “It sounds like a good idea, but I don’t know anyone on it. Who listens to the radio online?”

“I didn’t even know that we have one or how to listen to it,” said Tyler Morris (CAS ‘06).

“I have honestly never listened to it,” said Spencer Scheffy (MSB ‘03). “The only reason I’m here is for the tickets.”

“The only time people listen to radio is in their cars,” said Jeremy Wise (MSB ‘06). “No one really listens to it in dorms.”

“It’s a pain in the ass to listen on the web,” said Jerome Lowe (MSB ‘03). “They should expand into Burleith.”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know too much about the radio station,” said Wick Stanwick (MSB ‘03), who won the Sugar Bowl tickets. “I have never listened to it before.”

The lack of student support manifests itself in other ways. The station placed a bid to emcee this Friday’s Midnight Madness basketball event, but the student panel in charge voted down WGTB’s proposal in favor of a commercial radio station.

Part of the reason that interest in WGTB may be lacking amongst the student body is that the music it plays is not what the average Georgetown student listens to; the majority of the station’s staff is adamantly anti-top-40. But there are differing views on how this affects listenership.

“There are a very select few Georgetown-type pre-professional students that know anything about music,” said Engberg. “And it’s the select few that are running our music department. It saddens and disheartens them that Georgetown students aren’t more open to listening to these types of new music.”

Dolan places the blame on the type of institution that Georgetown is.

“I don’t think this school typically likes the stuff that we play. I don’t think that the school is really interested in music. We’re not a communications school. We’re a government school; we’re a business school,” she said. “We’ve tried very hard to publicize ourselves on campus and we’re getting very little results … That’s very discouraging. You get really tired; you get really frustrated.”

For Lezaja, it’s all about being part of a community whose members enjoy listening to music, find out out what the new bands are, going to shows and meeting people who do the same. But he wonders if that small community is enough to sustain the station.

Barge has tried to reach out to alienated listeners but has had mixed results.

“We actually program our show a bit differently,” said Barge. “I think that some of the music that [WGTB] plays does alienate a certain proportion of the college who might not be in tune … I try to play things that are still not top-40 and what you could get on any other radio station, but something that is more accessible.”

  • * *

The way to win the Sugar Bowl tickets is a “Name-That-Ringtone” competition, explains one of the Nokia representatives. Students will have to identify the ringtone and then call a number with the correct song title and artist. The crowd of students all pull out their cell phones and wait.

Future?

The future of WGTB primarily depends on two things: the success of it’s new, unique advertising campaign and whether the University will pay the royalty fees for the webcast, whatever they wind up costing.

According to Engberg, over the next week the station will make 5,000 flyers detailing the station’s schedule and how to listen. But the focus of this advertising campaign will not be the campus. Instead, WGTB will be mostly flyering the Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle sections of the city.

“The reason we want to go to places like Adams Morgan and Dupont is that there is a music scene; there’s a very strong music scene in this city,” said Dolan. “Back in the ‘70s most of the people who worked at the station didn’t go to school here. So we look to that as maybe there’s something about the type of person who goes to this school is not the same type of person who do things like radio and go to shows.”

Focusing on Adams Morgan and Dupont because of the strong music scene would seem to be contingent on the station continuing to webcast its music after the royalty fees take effect. If the University decides not to pay the fees, then the station would have to change its perspective: Think more Advise and Consent, and less indie rock.

Currently, the station is the only service on campus that provides webcasting. It broadcasts all football games and, according to Engberg would like to work with the Lecture Fund to begin broadcasting speeches. Advise and Consent is bringing U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) to campus in November. Dolan has connections to bands that play at the 9:30 Club, and it is possible that she will be able to stream interviews with them on the website. Eventually, according to Engberg, the station would even like to cover men’s basketball games, but that privilege currently belongs to a commercial radio station.

“I think four other people could do exactly what we do on a daily basis and there still wouldn’t even be enough time to hash out all the issues that are effecting this campus, D.C. as a whole, the nation,” said Barge of his show. “There are endless numbers of things.”

If the University shuts down the webcast all together, there are still those who feel that the station will not die.

“I joined the radio when there wasn’t even a reliable webcast,” said Dolan. “As far as I’m concerned I don’t care how many listeners there are and I don’t care how many people on this campus listen to the station, I am in it for the music. As long as I tell how the music industry how many DJs are playing what CDs, we’ll always get new music.”

  • * *

After two practice rounds, the Nokia representative places the ringtone machine closer to the microphone.

“This is it for the Sugar Bowl!” he announces.

The ringtone begins playing “Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode. The crowd looks around inquisitively. Forty seconds pass. It’s clear that no one knows the song.

“Don’t you guys know what song that is?” Dolan asks incredulously.

Feedback erupts from the microphone.

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