KTRU sale regrettable but necessary
This week's announcement of the agreement to sell Rice's FM broadcast license and tower to the University of Houston has been, not unexpectedly, not well-received by some students and alumni who are or have been KTRU volunteers or listeners. I can understand their disappointment that KTRU's programs will no longer be broadcast over the air, but it is important to remember that KTRU will continue to be there for those students, volunteers and listeners online at www.ktru.org. Simply put, KTRU is not going away.
Think about it: Is KTRU about unique, student-run programming, or a tower located miles away from the Rice campus? The tower and 50,000 watts are in fact much more than needed to reach the small, albeit loyal, KTRU audience, many who already regularly access KTRU programming through the Internet. Yes, there will be a few people in cars who will not be able to tune in, but the ability to use mobile devices to access the Internet in cars is increasing steadily. And a 50,000-watt signal has geographic limits, while the Internet is global. At the same time, the sale frees up valuable resources we can use in many other ways to enhance the student experience on campus, even as KTRU fans continue to enjoy the station's programs.
In fact, Rice leaders have a responsibility to ensure that we manage and deploy our resources to the greatest benefit possible within our academic mission. Sometimes difficult decisions can be postponed, as when endowments were increasing by double-digit percentages over several years. But the last two years of economic downturn and ongoing turmoil have made it essential to make some tough decisions. And selling the license and tower was one of them.
The question was not whether the opportunity provided to a small number of students by KTRU was worth about $10 million. The Internet station will continue to provide those opportunities. Rather, the question was whether the use of a 50,000-watt radio license was worth those resources - especially since those watts reach so few ears. There was also a question of fairness in tying up millions of dollars for one student activity - KTRU - when those resources could be used for a diversity of purposes that serve many more students -- without taking KTRU away.
Let me state this again: The sale does not affect the opportunity KTRU offers to our students. Interested students will continue to design programming, play music and manage the station. The student experience and student opportunities will expand as we explore ways to provide more media opportunities to our students, and we will solicit their ideas on how to deploy the sale proceeds. In discussions with students over the past several months, other ideas have emerged often, such as lighting more of our recreational fields and funding scholarships.
I know some of the concern about the sale focuses on process and timing. Throughout President Leebron's leadership at Rice, he has been committed to consultation and open communication - starting with his open-office hours for students. That also included extensive conversations about the expansion of the student body and Rice's possible merger with Baylor College of Medicine. Occasionally, though, there are issues that demand higher levels of confidentiality, and one of those was the process for marketing and negotiating the sale of the radio license. Once we entered into serious discussions with the University of Houston, we signed a confidentiality agreement. Discomfort over the inability to consult more broadly was eased somewhat by the fact that the discussions were not about shutting down KTRU, but rather about selling the radio frequency. Fortunately, occasions when such confidentiality is required and justified are extremely rare, and the administration remains committed to using broad-based engagement and consultation processes when major decisions are at stake.
Ultimately, the Rice Board of Trustees and the administration are obligated to undertake the stewardship of university resources in ways that maximize the benefit not only to today's students, but to future students as well. And that is what this comes down to: trying to look carefully to the future in making this decision. By almost all accounts, broadcast radio licenses are a declining asset. Internet-based radio and satellite radio are growing technologies. We are capturing top value for a declining technology that we can invest in emerging technologies and in opportunities for more students.
As one alumnus who helped found KTRU nearly 40 years ago observed, it is sad to see the tower go, but technology marches on. Our students can be part of the exciting possibilities ahead - in fact, they can make KTRU one of the best online stations in the country if they put their wonderful minds to it.
Linda Thrane is the vice president for public affairs.
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