WRUW should turn up the volume in favor of students

“Harsh static” controversy sets stage for new direction

The Observer

Every once in a while, a student group must revel in controversy, and this time the dissonance is originating from Case Western Reserve University’s radio station, WRUW FM 91.1.

“Medium D,” a community member who hosted a longtime radio show on WRUW, was given repeat directives by WRUW General Manager Bethany Kaufman and Program Director Laura Childers this semester to stop playing the “harsh static” subgenre of the music genre known as “noise wall.” He refused and has since resigned and inspired a critical campaign of the radio station that he accuses of censoring him.

Like its name implies, “harsh static” is music that sounds like the white noise accompanying weak radio and television signals. Kaufman and Childers, who spoke for the entire executive board of WRUW, requested the removal of such cacophony because it could sound like the station was off the air to listeners with untrained ears. The management instructed that if the required changes were not made, the DJ would have to forfeit his time slot: 1 to 3 p.m. on Thursday afternoons.

The position of WRUW’s management team is understandable; the musical qualities of “harsh static” could not be ascertained by most members of The Observer’s editorial board. But, the DJ’s argument that he has the right to program the content of his own show—so long as it adheres to Federal Communication Commission guidelines—makes sense. It also aligns with the goals and objectives of WRUW, which state “each programmer is free to choose the content of their own weekly radio show.”

However, what Medium D calls censorship, we call responsible editing. These days “censorship” is a much sexier term to use; in fact, it helped to attract numerous comments on Facebook posts made by Medium D that display Kaufman and Childers’ emails verbatim.  Additionally, fliers proclaiming “WRUW censors noise” have appeared and Scene Magazine is preparing its own coverage of the controversy.

This debacle represents a blown-out-of-proportion disagreement that could have been avoided if both sides exhibited better communication. But, there is a silver lining in that the situation could help WRUW define what kind of a radio station it wants to be. This debate draws attention to role of the student audience in campus media and whether WRUW should continue being more selective in its programming.

After all, like many other college media outlets, such as The Observer, WRUW operates under a subsidized model. The radio station receives approximately 51 percent of its operating budget from community member donations, which the station collects from fundraisers, namely its annual telethon. The remaining 49 percent of its budget is allocated from the University Media Board (UMB); these funds derive from the Student Activities Fee that all undergraduate students pay through their general tuition. The exact proportion of these two funding sources fluctuates slightly from year-to-year.

WRUW serves two masters: the undergraduate student body that have to pay for it and its loyal community members who chose to pay for it. So, who should they listen to: the taxpayers or the lobbyists?

Because their support of WRUW is voluntary, the station’s leadership has routinely given more weight to the opinion of its community members than to the weight of its student listenership. But, the editorial board of The Observer isn’t convinced it even has one of those.

After all, WRUW is rarely heard in Fribley and Leutner Commons, as well as Thwing Center. And during the day, you most likely will be hard pressed to find a student who is unaffiliated with the radio station tuning in.

By exercising editorial judgement over Medium D, the station’s leadership indirectly took a step towards a new kind of WRUW: one that epitomizes the needs of the audience over the wants of the programmer. This isn’t to say that the station should discontinue its non-mainstream format of “more music, fewer hits.” The last thing we need is another top 40 radio station in Cleveland, and alternative, college radio enables young audiences to find new music to enjoy.

The next question for WRUW’s leadership should not be how to recover from this controversy, but rather how they can re-emphasize the importance and preferences of their paying, undergraduate student audience.

—The Observer