WTJU Format Debate Spills into Public View

WTJU’s internal debate over its future has gone public, Dave McNair writes for The Hook. Long-time station manager Chuck Taylor recently retired, and brand-new manager Burr Beard has been told by UVA that he’s got to make WTJU relevant, or it may simply be shut down. (With 7,500 weekly listeners, the station is perhaps better loved than actually listened to.) Long-time DJs—all volunteers—are none too thrilled by Beard’s plans, which are to move to a format closer to commercial radio and to scale back on the eclectica. Though many seem to be OK with change in concept, having this new guy stroll in and immediately start making changes without volunteer buy-in isn’t being received well. One twenty-year veteran has resigned rather than wait to be booted. DJ Tyler Magill has started a blog documenting and objecting to the proposed changes. But if Beard really has the dire mission that’s been described, he may basically have license to do as he likes.

UVA has agreed to postpone any changes until fall, Brian McNeill writes in the Progress, and WTJU is about to launch a blog on their website, in an apparent effort to move the online discussion from Magill’s website to their own.

In the mid-nineties, I had a bi-weekly rock show on WTJU (with an inherited, classically useless WTJU title: “The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging”), and for some years I co-hosted Rock and Folk Marathon shows dedicated to Dave Matthews Band, R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Liz Phair, and others. Fifteen years later, I still have WTJU preset on my car radio, but it’s increasingly a sympathy button. Easily a third of the time that I flip to it, I’m greeted by silence, either because they broadcast at such a low level (sure, yeah, it provides greater fidelity, but it’s too quiet to be heard) or because a long, awkward pause is underway. No more than one time in twenty is anything that I want to listen to being broadcast. The schedule is impossible for any normal person to remember, and even when read, doesn’t seem wholly logical. (Jazz at 9 AM? No thank you.) The show titles are of no help to understanding what you’re going to hear, and the descriptions often don’t help much, either. All of which is to say that WTJU certainly has its problems, which even a long-time fan like me can see, and I can’t see that anybody would argue otherwise. It remains to be seen whether the cure will be worse than the disease.

14 thoughts on “WTJU Format Debate Spills into Public View”

  1. Once again, you provide an objective, non-sensationalized story that acknowledges both arguments in a debate while presenting your views in a reasonable manner. I commend you for your writing and for this blog – I’ve commented before that the comments sections on here are constructive, lively debate, as opposed to the highly negative comment sections on a certain local news blog…

    Another reason that I would like to commend you is that I share very similar views with you. I am a student DJ “sub” in the rock department – basically, the choice was DJ from 1-3 AM on a weeknight or be a sub. Well, I’ve got a job and a masters degree to work on, so DJing from 1-3 AM is out of the picture, at least for now. I still would like to see the station change for the better. My biggest problems with the proposed changes are:
    1. The decrease in hours for rock programming and shifting of rock programming to late-nights only (how does that attract students? how does that compete with NRN and the Corner, which are Mr. Beard’s stated goals?).
    2. The poor communication between Mr. Beard and the station volunteers, which has been a stressing point for many.

    I can certainly understand why a long-time DJ would be more than unhappy with these proposed changes. However, I am in agreement with much of your last paragraph. Perhaps my taste isn’t as eclectic or open as some, but there are many times when I turn on the station and have no idea what’s going on. You definitely hit the mark with “no more than one time in twenty is anything that I want to listen to being broadcast.” Things DO need to be changed – and I believe certain DJs need to be held to a higher standard. I also strongly believe that a much bigger undergraduate student presence is needed for the station. It just remains to be seen whether the proposed changes will do this.

    FYI, jazz is proposed to move to weeknights (5-10ish?) with rock following jazz. The full proposed schedule will be released tonight I believe.

  2. When WTJU first existed it was all classical, and gradually things like some folk programming got added.
    Sounds like they do need some improvements but don’t think trying to be more like commercial radio, with mandated playlists and the like is the way to go. Thats okay if you are a Top 40 type station.
    I DJed in the folk department for awhile in the late 80s and have noted the decline in the amount of folk programming in the station.
    For my part I’d love to see the station become all folk and folk-related music, or folk and classical.
    There are plenty of rock and pop stations, but very little for those of us who prefer to hear Joan Baez instead of Lady Gaga.

  3. Once again the UVA administration makes an unpopular decision while students are gone.

    Think less of me if you must, but I was a member of the VA Pep Band. It was right before graduation that the administration decided to disband the band. (We we at beach week when we found out). Then a few years later, over break, students return to discover the locks had been changed on the instrument closet. Since my personal instrument was stored there, I was pretty pissed.

    It is just their way to make unpopular changes with little protest. Didn’t I see that there will also be a “town hall” meeting on July 12? That really helps anyone who isn’t here for the summer to have their input. But come fall, they can tell everyone that they had thier chance to speak out and WTJU didn’t get enough support.

  4. I still have WTJU preset on my car radio, but it’s increasingly a sympathy button.

    I think this is the case for many of us.

    My boyfriend does the Grateful Dead & Phriends show on WNRN. We root for TJU (especially the Sunshine Daydream show, which comes on after his show and plays the same genre). We want them to do well. But there are times when it can be difficult to listen for the reasons Waldo mentioned above.

    Anthony may be on to something with the comment about getting more undergraduates involved. I listened to and loved my less-than-professional college radio station because I knew the people running it. It wasn’t perfect, but it had diverse, consistent scheduling.

  5. Driving back into town from Montréal right now, I turned on WTJU when I reached Madison. Silence. Out of curiosity, I’ve left it on ever since. It’s been 23 minutes. I’m nearly to Charlottesville. Still silent.

    I don’t get it. There’s no trigger to play something after X minutes of dead air? No pager buzzes on the hip of an engineer? I haven’t worked in radio since 1996, in my days at WCHV/WWWV, but we had that technology back then. Now it seems trivial.

  6. The University has done a great job of misrepresenting the issue. It’s their station; they can do anything they want to it. Nobody disputes that.

    The question is how many volunteers will stay under a dictatorial and manulative management. We’ve happily donated our time and money as valued junior partners and are loathe to accept a demotion to unpaid employees.

    Waldo has cited one example of manipulativeness. Tyler’s blog was immediated countered with a management website. What you are not told is that comments on that website critical of management are quickly removed. (Mine lasted less than two hours and was no more extreme than this.) Another was the hijacking of a meeting of interested volunteers. A third was the veiled threat to close the station.

    Pete Marshall has resigned. Nick Page has resigned. I’m leaving right after my final show this Saturday. How many more will leave is an open question, but we won’t be leaving because of program changes, but because we are being treated like dirt after years of service.

    btw, Waldo, don’t be so quick to condemn WTJU for an act of God. A major storm has downed trees all over the area, and it’ll take some time to get the mess cleaned up and service restored.

  7. btw, Waldo, don’t be so quick to condemn WTJU for an act of God.

    I didn’t know a thing about that at the time—I hadn’t gotten back to town yet. Although, that said, every other C’ville radio station was on the air, but I don’t know what the situation is these days with TJU’s transmitter.

  8. The dead air thing is true. Many is the time I have turned on TJU and heard dead silence. If they had the neat, weird stuff that is on in the middle of the night happening during the day then I’d probably listen more.

    The rock marathon is always good and I listen to it as much as possible every year. Then it is immediately followed by a classical marathon that gets me out of the habit of listening that I developed during the rock marathon.

    If they had the rock marathon continue all year then I would keep listening. That would be a really neat format.

  9. You make one point that I think is an excellent one, that I’ve never seen anybody else make. The station is too quiet. The solution to this is to compress the audio more (which, counter-intuitively, makes it sound louder). That’s probably a $1K fix that will significantly boost listenership, particularly among people in the car or whose radio is on “scan.”

    Please email the station’s management with this suggestion. I’ve always liked the fact that TJU resisted excessive audio compression, but in light of the other changes being proposed I am *SO* prepared to compromise on that point!

  10. WTJU is currently off-air because of lack of electricity and physical damage to the building during the storm. Apparently the building’s power has been re-directed to the UVA Hospital (a priority which I’m sure even the most devoted WTJU fans can agree with.)

    Unfortunately, all of the University’s websites and mailing lists are ALSO down, so nobody knows that this is the case. I was supposed to do a show at noon today, and was only able to find out about the situation from my fellow DJs (although, obviously, the fact that there’s no signal coming through at 91.1 was a big hint).

  11. point of clarity: chuck taylor RETIRED, he didn’t resign. he announced his retirement on september 15, 2009, effective january 1, 2010. after that point, he was kept on in a consulting role (i.e., not a full-time employee of the university) until a replacement could be found and brought up to speed. chuck’s final time at WTJU was in late april.

    it’s a small thing, but in context it makes it seem like chuck left before he was willing or ready to, which is simply not the case – he was with the station for 31 years.

  12. The retired/resigned distinction is an important one. I’d meant to use an unfreighted word, but you’re right that the one I chose does not accomplish that. I have replaced “resigned” with “retired” to avoid confusion.

  13. Liz’s comment makes me wonder: are current UVa students primarily or significantly the audience for WTJU? My gut impression is “no,” but I have no data to back that up. The reason I’m wondering is that she implies that the timing of this change is deliberate, so as to avoid a student uprising or whatever over changes to dear ol’ WTJU. My impression, again, is that current UVa students are not even aware of WTJU (I base this impression partly on my interactions with the first-year students I teach, who seem to know nothing about TJU at all). So I’m initially skeptical that the U would be concerned at all about student resistance to these changes, because I’m betting most students couldn’t care less.

    Then again, I also suspected that most UVa students cared very little for the Pep Band, except for students IN the Pep Band and their best friends.

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