Monday, May 11, 2009

SIU-E officials silent as rumors fly
about possible changes at WSIE

A story published in last Friday's Belleville News Democrat says that Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville is contemplating what could be major changes in the operation of WSIE (88.7 FM), the St. Louis area's only all-jazz radio station. However, SIU-E officials so far have refused to disclose any details about the review process or the committee studying the issue.

From the story by BND staff writer Elizabeth Donald:
"University officials confirmed that recently a committee was formed tore-examine the station's format and structure. "So far the university has declined to release any details about the committee or its deliberations, and rumors are spreading."..."There has been a committee set up to look at the radio station, but at this point there is no plan to pull the plug," (University spokeswoman Bethany) Forsythe said. "They're looking at ways to attract more listeners and make it more attractive to people, but there has been no decision made at this point."

Rumors have ranged from changing the all-jazz station to an all-sports format or selling it to a private company. Station director Frank Akers declined comment on the station's future until the committee's decision is announced.

Forsythe confirmed that the committee had made a recommendation to Chancellor Vaughn Vandegrift, but "there will be more discussion before we can say anything." Vandegrift could not be reached for comment."
In another story published Friday by the St. Louis Beacon, the chair of the committee is identified as John Danley, acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The Beacon story, written by Beacon staffer Dale Singer, says Danley also "declined to elaborate on what it may have recommended or to speculate on what decision may be made about the station."

Both articles also make reference to a Facebook group called "Save 88.7 The Jazz Station," which, as of late Monday night, has 25 comments posted and a total of 556 members.

Unfortunately, the "Save 88.7" page contains some factual errors. Chancellor Vandegrift is not "new," having been in his current job since 2004. Also, as far as can be determined, he has not said "he wants to turn 88.7 into an all sports and rock radio station to reach a “younger” audience." Looking at speeches, news reports and other publicly available statements, Vandegrift appears to have said nothing at all about WSIE for public consumption in the five years he's been at SIU-E. .

The "Save 88.7" page also says that WSIE "is also the only way to hear about many live, jazz performances in the St. Louis area," which suggests that there are no other sources of information about live jazz in St. Louis. With this Web site as Exhibit A, yr. humble StLJN editor obviously would beg to differ with that assertion, and I'm guessing a few other folks involved in local radio and/or newspapers might, too.

Still, as a jazz fan, I certainly do agree with the page's underlying sentiment that a change in format at WSIE would be a major loss to the local jazz community and to the St. Louis metropolitan area in general.

Certainly, University officials have not just the right, but the obligation, to make wise use of the institution's resources, and there's nothing inherently wrong with forming a committee to study an issue.However, the University's lack of transparency to date about the process is, at the very least, troubling.

As a publicly funded institution, SIU-E has many stakeholders, from Illinois taxpayers to its faculty, staff and students. Those stakeholders deserve to know what's going on, as do WSIE's listeners, and to have input into the station's eventual fate. Right now, there are too many answered questions: Who are the other members of the committee? What specifically was their charge? What sources of data did they use? Who did they interview? What other information did they obtain, and from where? What criteria were used to evaluate the information they discovered, and to reach a decision? If SIU-E wants its constiuencies and the larger community to accept changes at WSIE, they need to answer these questions quickly, candidly and completely.

Consider also that any format change likely would put WSIE into direct competition with several better-established and better-funded competitors. In particular, the St. Louis radio market would appear to already have a surfeit of both rock music and sports talk stations, but other formats such as country, hip-hop/urban, and news/talk all have established leaders, too. Moreover, given the current economic downturn, the depressed market for advertising time, and the fact that big radio chains like Clear Channel are cutting staff and, in some cases, selling off stations they bought just a few years ago, it also would seem to be an inopportune time to try to sell the station.

Perhaps the best thing the University could do with WSIE is to give it more resources. From what I can tell, the station seems to operate with a very small staff and limited budget. Perhaps they could hire a full-time development director, and use some of the time-honored fundraising methods employed by other public broadcasters, such as membership drives and corporate sponsorships. The money raised could be used to upgrade the station's signal, to do more promotion, and to decrease the reliance on syndicated programming by employing more local on-air talent, both student and professional.

People in St. Louis have shown over the years that they will support public broadcasting with their hard-earned dollars, and WSIE already has a unique and significant role in the community. With more financial support and a bit of TLC, "The Jazz Station" could grow, prosper and continue to serve SIU-E and St. Louis for many years to come.

No comments: