“Strategic Options” was the title of a document I was given by my predecessor shortly after being elected general manager of 95.5 WBRU-FM in 2015, the fall of my sophomore year. The document laid out a narrative of the station’s steady decline, a few possibilities for moving forward and the strong suggestion that it was time to sell our license to broadcast on the frequency 95.5. I joined WBRU the previous spring as a struggling first-year looking for a place to carve out as my own on a campus that had been both overwhelming and unwelcoming. I hadn’t been at the station long enough to have fully earned the position to which I’d been elected. At the beginning of my term, I didn’t understand how dire our situation was or why station members who had been around longer than I had refused to take a leadership position. Student leaders spent the entirety of 2016 working to maintain WBRU on radio and seeking out strategic options that could change our circumstances, but by the end of the year, we confronted the impending reality that we would have to sell.
Initially, I had no interest in selling, no matter how many people in the years above me — who had similarly sacrificed their lives and their sanity to the station — told me they’d seen the organization deteriorate every year. I inherited a Board of Directors — comprised of station alums and industry professionals who continue to volunteer their energy and expertise to keeping the organization running — fixed in a hostile stalemate. I couldn’t imagine selling because I didn’t want to lose the opportunities that WBRU allowed. Motivated students with little-to-no industry experience had the chance to interview local and national bands, go to music festivals with press passes, throw concerts in Providence attended by thousands of people and, most importantly, interact daily with devoted listeners within the radius of a signal that spanned Rhode Island and parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts. We were taken seriously while doing work that mattered to us and interacting with local communities in ways that were as close to peer-driven and mutually beneficial as the University can hope to get in Providence.
As general manager in 2016, I led a staff of six professionals and nine student managers. I oversaw recruitment efforts, long-term business strategies and projects for a student-run radio station and 501(c)(3) educational not-for-profit with an operating budget of $1 million. For someone with no business expertise and little inclination in that direction, it was a bizarre and wonderful learning experience. Working in tandem with student and alumni volunteers who have given so much of themselves to these projects, we turned over every possible rock that might hold a path to financial viability. We ran a fundraising campaign, cut costs by changing our phone lines, continued talks with Rhode Island Public Radio, pursued a joint sales agreement with another local independent station (of which there are increasingly few as they remain unable to compete in a market that favors corporate clusters, who have efficiencies independent stations do not), discussed changing our format, put a professional on the morning show “BRU Breakfast” for ratings, hired a consultant and, after reviews, cut down our salaried professional staff.
As a 20-year-old running a nonprofit that couldn’t turn a profit, I was in the position of informing a salesperson twice my age (who had more experience in the industry and who had spent more time at this particular organization) that we had no intention of renewing their contract. We fired one professional and moved one to part time. The resulting animosity between professional and student staff was palpable in every meeting; each blamed the other for our circumstances. I was confused, and a little scared, when the GM before me said that she felt like a completely different person at the end of her term — but now I think I know what she meant. WBRU, it seems, has always been a sink-or-swim learning environment. Rising to the occasion is the only option — there are no alternatives.
My cohort of student leadership was the latest in a series of executive boards to continue to operate a failing business that had peaked in the 1990s and early 2000s. It was as if simply keeping the lights on was the only way to preserve a kind of college radio that no longer exists. But we couldn’t keep the lights on anymore. We struggled to maintain daily operations when our staff dwindled. We were too consumed by crisis management to explore our own creativity or cultivate experiences relevant to a media industry that is largely leaving radio behind.
The recent sale of WBRU’s FM license is what it looks like when a declining business acknowledges a downward trend and takes decisive action to prevent becoming just another casualty of modernity. Still, station members have been accused of being defeatists by people who oppose the sale. The process of entirely restructuring our organization, rewriting our constitution and transitioning to a digital platform is not for people who are afraid of a challenge. A sale is not an easy way out. The responsibility we feel to Providence communities, the University and our alums guides each discussion in this transitional period. Our scale has changed, but we’re still working to offer meaningful opportunities and tell important stories in Providence.
My time at Brown has been defined by WBRU — anyone who knows me even tangentially can confirm. I am grateful to this unusual, unmatched institution, and to every student who has stumbled into 88 Benevolent St. and shown their willingness to make sacrifices for the good of an organization that means the world to us and to thousands of our listeners. Whenever an alum told me that their degree might be from Brown but they actually studied at the University of WBRU, I scoffed. But I’m getting older and more sentimental, and I find myself inclined to say the same.
Hannah Maier-Katkin ’18 is the former General Manager of WBRU and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.