Deal to sell Rice's KTRU to KUHF announced
Monday evening, news broke of a deal between Rice and the University of Houston to sell KTRU to KUHF, a deal which was confirmed by President David Leebron Tuesday morning in an e-mail to the university. Rice University had the broadcast license, FM frequency and transmission tower of KTRU, the on-campus student radio station, appraised last summer and checked the market for potential buyers - but found no takers. However, this spring they were approached by UH, and in March Rice's Board of Trustees approved discussions of a possible sale. Pending Federal Communications Comission approval, the license, frequency and tower will be handed over for $9.5 million, six three-year internships for Rice students at the new station, valued at $432,000 and the opportunity for the chief station engineer at KTRU to apply for employment at the new station.
The funds to pay for the new station will come from UH's existing radio station, KUHF, which broadcasts NPR news programming and classical music. When 91.7, KTRU's current frequency, is acquired by KUHF, KUHF's current frequency, 88.7, will begin broadcasting only news programming while retaining the KUHF call sign, and 91.7 will be renamed KUHC and will broadcast only classical and arts programming.
The news of the sale came suddenly to the approximately 150 disc jockeys who work for KTRU, about two-thirds of whom are Rice students, KTRU Station Manager Kelsey Yule said. The remainder of the DJs come from the Houston community.
Yule, a Hanszen College junior, said she and the other DJs first heard of the deal around 9 p.m. Monday, after it had already been approved by Rice's Board of Trustees and only awaited approval by UH's Board of Regents and the FCC, the former of which came Tuesday morning with a 5-3 vote in favor.
Leebron said that the university has tried to adopt processes by which students are consulted, but the degree of secrecy present in this deal was necessary. Both parties involved had to sign a confidentiality agreement.
"Occasionally we have to consider the needs of confidentiality to realize the maximum possible value for [an] asset," Leebron said. Senior Director of News and Media
Relations B.J. Almond said that Leebron will be meeting with KTRU student leadership within the next week.
Since 1991, KTRU has been transmitted by a 50,000 watt tower in Humble, which is in north Houston. Between 1980 and 1991, it was transmitted from the top of Sid Richardson College at 650 watts.
"The issue [of selling KTRU] has come up over the years, in part with the recognition that this is an asset that might decline in value and that KTRU was not making use of 50,000 watts," Leebron said. "We have a responsibility to the university for making the best use of our resources."
Leebron said that the endowment has performed well so far this year and that the decision to sell the station came due to the implications of the recent economic downturn and the underemployment of the power of the transmission tower.
"All universities are finding themselves in a position where expectations for future [endowment] performance are lower," Leebron said.
This means that the university will have to be more considerate when it comes to determining how best to use and invest its assets, he said.
KTRU Program Director Joey Yang said that he thinks the university acted against the interests of its students.
"We trusted the university to hold our license - and they're selling it," Yang, a Lovett College junior, said. "That's a betrayal of trust and that's something every student should be concerned about."
Leebron said that the university has full ownership of the broadcasting rights.
Yang organized a press conference Tuesday night at which he stated that despite the deal reached by the administration, he believed that Rice would have to preserve KTRU on campus.
"KTRU does not anticipate to be sold to UH for any sum of money," Yang said.
KPFT 90.1 FM Host Ray Hill, who attended the meeting Tuesday night, said that KTRU's transmission tower could be raised and made more powerful, and that it is as such not being sold for its full potential.
"This asset is being liquidated at a loss to Rice University, not a gain," Hill said.
Vice President for Administration Kevin Kirby said the assets being sold to KUHF were valued in the $10 million range by both Rice and the University of Houston. A value of $12 million was stated at the UH Board of Regents meeting Tuesday.
$4 million of the proceeds of the sale will go toward the construction of the new East Servery, which was put on hold due to the economic downturn until the possibility of using the radio proceeds arose, Almond said. He said the total cost of the new servery is projected to be $12 million, the rest of which will be covered by gifts, debt and operational reserves. Leebron said in an e-mail to the university Tuesday morning that the remainder of the proceeds will be used according to the recommendations of a committee which will include students.
Yule said that changing to a web-only format will limit KTRU in terms of reaching new listeners in Houston as well as meaning that KTRU will no longer be on distribution lists for the labels and distributors on whom KTRU has historically relied for music submissions.
"The administration put us up on the market without even notifying us about it a year ago - now we're going to be strictly online which is really a tragedy for many of our listeners," Yule said. "To be solely web-based, I worry that it takes away a lot of our relevance."
KTRU was selected by the Houston Press as Houston's best radio station in 2000 and 2006.
Yule said it is unknown exactly how many listeners KTRU has, though she said that Arbitron's minimum reporting standard of 24,000-25,000 weekly listeners on average over a given month was most recently met in December of 2009, and that it was met for 2009 as a whole. Yule said that the amount by which the minimum reporting standard was exceeded is unknown to the station, and that she does not know how many Internet listeners the station has. According to the KUHF website, KUHF has over 350,000 listeners each week.
"It's hard to drum up much enthusiasm about Internet radio," Yule said. "For a lot of DJs there's something thing really special and unique about knowing that your voice is going out over the airwaves."
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Postdoctoral Research Associate Jeff Smith (Brown '97) said that part of the importance of radio is in the prevalence of a driving culture, especially in Houston.
"Radio has persisted as long as it has precisely because when people drive, their ears are free," Smith, who was a KTRU DJ and music director during his time at Rice as an undergraduate, said.
KTRU DJ and board member Joelle Zigman, who is in charge of Shepherd concert broadcasts through KTRU, said that she is concerned that this sets a precedent for taking away from the arts at Rice.
"Are we going to support fine arts or are we going to let the University of Houston steal our thunder?" Zigman, a Brown College junior, asked.
Leebron said that part of the attractiveness of the deal was that it will benefit the Houston arts community at large.
"KUHF had an opportunity to expand, and although our primary obligation is to Rice and its students, and though we are dedicated to KTRU, this is going to make new opportunities," Leebron said.
Baseball and women's basketball, which have been broadcast on KTRU since 2000, will continue to be broadcast on KTRU online, Leebron said.
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