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Sarah Pitre: It felt like a punch to the gut. And I remember, I went to the station and I saw the door. I just had this like very emotional reaction. It just felt like this place, this community, had just been completely taken from us.
Voiceover: That’s Sarah Pitre. In 2000, she was the DJ Director for the Rice University student-run radio station, KTRU, when the station suddenly went off the air.
Sarah Pitre: I just remember hearing from someone that the station had been taken off the air and the locks had been changed until further notice.
Voiceover: Within a university distinguished by neatly trimmed hedges and future professionals, KTRU is an oasis of anarchy. Even today, the DJ booth is shrouded in old records and practically every surface is covered by the station’s iconic black and yellow KTRU bumper stickers.
KTRU started in the basement of Hanszen college. It was weird, it was eclectic, and it didn’t mix well with authority. Then, a donor came along and KTRU students suddenly found themselves with a 50,000 watt transmitter and a signal that reached halfway to Austin. All of a sudden KTRU was big.
Richard Johnson: There was a real sense of foreboding at that time amongst the student leadership, myself included, that suddenly KTRU had become this really big thing and other people beyond the students would want to get their hands on it.
Richard Johnson is an employee of Rice University and has volunteered as a community DJ for KTRU for 18 years now . He got involved with the station as a Rice undergrad in the early 90’s.
Students felt that they owned KTRU, a station they’d single handedly built. But legally, the University owned KTRU’s FCC license. To the school, KTRU looked like an asset. And so it decided to use it. To broadcast athletic events as a service to the university.
John Hutchinson: I think it was intended to be a quid pro quo.
Voiceover: This is John Hutchinson. He’s currently the Dean of Undergraduates, but at the time he had just been made assistant vice president for student affairs. The new programming demands the university was placing on KTRU? Those were his to help see into effect.
John Hutchinson: We will put money into your radio station if we can get value back out of the radio station. I think it was as simple as that.
Richard Johnson: You have this suddenly huge, desirable transmitter - 50,000 watts - you have a loss of student support and student listenership and then this increasing pressure to carry more athletics broadcasting. Something was bound to happen. That’s what brings us to November of 2000.
Johnny So: It was just another day at the radio station.
Voiceover: That’s Johnny So. He was the station manager of KTRU at the time.
Johnny So: You had a punk rock specialty show on at the time. That show’s programming was overridden that show’s programing was overridden by a women’s basketball game. And the DJs that were working at that time did not approve of the way in which the programming was, in their opinion, thrust upon the radio station. What they without anybody really knowing, actually without anyone knowing period, was they played certain music over the women’s basketball game so that they were actually playing concurrently. And a lot of the music they were playing had a sort of political message from the standpoint of the radio dispute. So they played songs, I believe like “We own the airwaves,” that’s a song by the Ramones.
Voiceover: Those DJs were Vicki Keener and Patrick Glauthier, and their statement was heard. Now Johnny and the rest of the student leadership team had to decide whether or not to fire the DJs for violating the university’s mandate.
Johnny: My decision was, well, I can’t punish them because I’m in agreement with their sentiment behind why they are doing it. And I did not think that sent a good message to the rest of the student staff if those individuals were fired, right? I also took the position that the student station managers role is to represent the students that work at the station. That the only individual that the student station manager is beholden to are the students that compose KTRU.
Voiceover: Richard Johnson, the long-time KTRU DJ, thinks that was the big mistake.
Richard Johnson: The KTRU Student Manager was defiant. He refused to discipline the DJs who had disrupted the athletics broadcast.
And he was unwilling to apologize on behalf of the station to athletics and to the administration for what had happened. If that had happened. A simple in the moment I’m sorry I’m going to take steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again, we never would’ve remembered this happened at all. It would’ve gone away
Voiceover: But it didn’t go away and no one at KTRU was forgetting it either. Two days later, Vice President for Student Affairs Zenaido Camacho and Assistant VPSA John Hutchinson went up to the KTRU office, interrupted a Miles Davis jazz song and asked the student DJ on shift to leave. They removed years of bumper sticker art from KTRU’s door, and changed the lock. The students no longer had a station of their own.
Johnny So: I actually didn’t find out about it until one of my colleagues called me and she was crying and she said that the radio station has been shut down. Because I didn’t know about it, I was like ‘what are you talking about’. Well the administration came in, they locked the doors, they took all the bumpers stickers off the doors and they’ve locked the students out so that no one can access the radio station.
Voiceover: In hindsight, John Hutchinson says this was a mistake.
John Hutchinson: I had the stickers taken off of the door. We were going to put a sign up that said don’t enter. And I wanted to make sure people saw that sign. So I said “take all that stuff down so people can see the sign”. And that was an unbelievable mistake, Terrible, horrible mistake.
When the decision was made, and I was not the one who made the decision, to lock out the students from the KTRU studio. (You were not the one?) I did not make that decision. (Who made that decision) The vice president [Camacho], in conjunction with the president [Malcom Gillis]made that decision. And I was going to say, my second mistake was not fighting harder to not have that decision made. I should’ve pushed harder but I was too new at my job.
Richard Johnson: The shutdown happened. I remember there being this session in Sewell hall where a bunch of DJs and supporters of KTRU got together for this sort of air your grievances sessions with Camacho and Hutch. And poor Hutch he was coming from something else on the west side of town. He was late because of traffic on the west loop. He was very apologetic. But you know some people thought Hutch was avoiding them. But he wasn’t. Hutch is an honest person.
Voiceover: But intentions didn’t seem to matter anymore, and an outraged student body rallied around KTRU.
Sarah: Seeing students walking around with KTRU bumper stickers over their mouths was really incredible because it showed that even if a student didn’t really care about the music they played, they cared about our ability to play that music and they cared about our right as a community.
Voiceover: With the station off the air and the clock ticking, students scrambled to find a solution. Sarah Pitre, along with her co DJ Director, Ben Horne, took the lead in the negotiations, with Camacho and Hutchinson representing the university.
Sarah: one of the challenges was that this was right before finals. I just remember being really really stressed out because all i wanted to do was focus on getting KTRU back on the air. I missed so much class like right before finals because I was in that office for hours at a time. And so I think, in those discussions, it was basically from the administrations point of view it was you guys aren’t holding yourselves accountable for following rules and policies and we need assurance that you will hold yourselves accountable.
Voiceover: After eight tense days of negotiations, protests, and no KTRU, a settlement was reached.
Richard Johnson: Part of the resolution was the a creation of an oversight committee for KTRU.This was part of the negotiated peace. It was called the KTRU Friendly Committee. This was meant to be a committee that would sit between the administration and KTRU and help to prevent situations again and it was to be staffed by a combination of administrators, KTRU student leadership, and then some alumni representatives.
Voiceover: The KTRU friendly committee wasn’t perfect. But it got the station back on the air with greater student control over programming.
The 50,000 watt transmitter would later be sold to the University of Houston in 2010. Today, KTRU broadcasts on 96.1 FM with a 41 watt transmitter - a sliver of what it once was.
Holly Hinson: The signal reached not only like metro Houston, West U, and like the area around campus, but really the huge metro area and reach to communities that didn’t necessarily - if was just a campus radio station would never pick it up. And there was just so many kids that grew up hearing KTRU that would encounter weird music, for lack of a better descriptor. It was an access thing and it really enabled students that didn't have a lot of means or maybe were in more marginalized places to access something that was really rare and specific and usual. It was something that the university didn’t really value but it was something that we really valued. This ability to connect with community and to make community within Houston that was centered around eclectic and sometimes really difficult to answer music.