Editorial: UMass asserts its command over radio station’s future

Laste modified: Wednesday, December 23, 2015
A tumultuous 2015 for a University of Massachusetts radio station appears likely to spill over into the new year. An announcement last week that university officials plan a major restructuring at WMUA — one that will shift control to students and away from community members — has produced more rancor.

Despite both sides saying they value each other and want to work together, their actions suggest that’s not going to be easy.

First, the university. In an orchestrated press conference about which community members were given little notice, officials said they intended to act on recommendations of internal and external reviews before a final report was completed.

The changes include restricting nonstudent programming to 24 hours a week starting this spring — down from 32 to 35 hours this winter — and stripping voting privileges on station matters from community members.

The report remains unfinished. Without it, are we the only ones wondering whether the university is cherry-picking recommendations that best fit its desired course? If the recommendations are solid enough for press conference proclamations, officials should show how they were reached by releasing the report — even in preliminary form.

University officials have also been less than forthcoming about details surrounding the dismissal of Max Shea, a community member and program host, and former advisor Glenn Siegel, who was assigned to other duties at UMass. The two moves set the restructuring in motion in April.

Community members have made missteps as well. Some have acted like they own the station. They don’t. Nor are they on the hook for the financial commitment it takes to keep the station running.

They have demanded meetings with the chancellor while internal and external reviews were in process, hosts have quit their shows and others have encouraged withholding donations until the conflict was resolved to their liking. They have demanded mediation, but it’s not clear what they’re willing to give up.

In its own press conference a day after the university’s, the WMUA Community Members Task Force said the restructuring will reduce educational opportunities for students and diminish the cultural life of the Valley.

Student opportunities may actually grow, but as the station’s relationship with the community changes, so will the nature and value of that work. They are probably right, though, that an erosion in community involvement will take away from programming that illuminates life beyond the campus.

Community members also called on Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and UMass President Marty Meehan to conduct a review of UMass Amherst’s decision. These requests are not likely to change what’s happening.

The changes coming may improve student education in the radio business and help the university meet its educational mission. And they may put WMUA in step with national standards for college radio stations in the 21st century. It’s also reasonable for the university to reaffirm WMUA as a student-run radio station.

Yet UMass officials must acknowledge that the shifts change WMUA’s relationship with its audience. Hopefully, they care that someone is out there listening.

The 91.1 FM signal reaches well beyond the campus and over time has attracted a wide array of audiences, thanks to popular polka and other shows. Student leaders must work to assure the community hosts who remain that they are valued. Station leaders must consult with their community counterparts, and not move them to undesirable time slots — as happened this year.

Community members, meanwhile, still have 24 hours of programming a week to call their own. That’s not an insignificant share of the station’s airtime. They need to remember that the primary mission of the station is to educate budding radio professionals. Some hosts, but not all, appear to have forgotten that goal.

Finally, let’s hope the university can find a proven full-time advisor to help shepherd the serious fence-mending that’s in order on both sides.

They need each other to succeed. It’s time to start acting like it.