The End of an Era: The Dismantling of WRTI

An angry handbill was passed out at Temple University, following the administration's decision to add classical music, advertising a student rally being organized by communications students that would be held at the Bell Tower on October 3, 1997 to protest the all jazz format change and the hiring of professional classical deejays. There were four stated points that served as the rationale for protesting. On the handbill the letters were all capitalized and in bold.:

1.) The destruction of a cultural institution in the interest of money and marketing, and the desire to continue the university's "Strategic Initiatives" to negate its image as an urban institution. For 30 years, WRTI has been a rare, world renown, award winning 24 hour jazz station.
2.) The violation of contracts with students and the members of the radio station. W-RTI stands for Radio Training Institute and was founded 45 years ago under the principles of preserving and presenting jazz as well as granting students the highest degree of training. Individual contributors did not donate their money for either classical music or this hybrid.
3.) The elimination of opportunities for students to receive professional, hands on experience in all areas of broadcasting. Now only one student is on-air between 6AM and 12 midnight yet four professionals are paid as professionals, many times greater-upwards of $70,000. Even the award-winning news department is squeezed out, with Temple Journal-a 30 minute infomercial for the university.
4.) Your university administration, not radio professionals, made all the major decisions in this change without research or analysis, plus the professional staff and students of the station were not involved in this decision.
It concluded that,
The administration does not care about student organizations or the students involved in them. If they see they cannot make a profit from you, you will be dropped or disbanded...You must stop them from walking all over the students and staff!!! Take a stand!!!

Approximately 50 students showed up at the rally, as did I to pass out an advertisement for a musician's protest march which would be held the following Wednesday on Broad Street. Temple University had its campus police on high visibility for the students that day, some men in dark suits with black phones, and maintenance men with loud street cleaning equipment who just had to clean the area around the Bell Tower during the rally making it difficult for people to gather to hear the speakers.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's classical music reporter Peter Dobrin was at the student rally to cover it as was jazz and pop music reporter Al Hunter from The Philadelphia Daily News. Both promised to attend the musician's rally the next week. Only Al Hunter came. I spoke with Dobrin over the phone the day after the musician's protest, a rally that had gathered together approximately 60 internationally, nationally and locally well known jazz musicians who played and marched for two hours in front of Temple, to ask why he hadn't covered the event and he replied that he "didn't think it was newsworthy." Dobrin's comment summed up the kind of benign neglect coverage of The Philadelphia Inquirer when the story of the sudden format change broke. The paper did more stories and editorials on the poor plight of the classical listeners and the professional classical deejays and didn't bother to investigate, in depth, the story behind the Temple administration's decision to arrogantly break its promise to its loyal jazz contributors/listeners and student deejays. Classical music needed a Center City home immediately so not many editorials questioned Temple's ethics, except for Tom Moon who wrote,

It remains to be seen whether jazz vitality will remain in a station that serves two fundamentally different audiences. Although the people who brokered this marriage at best may envision some sort of synergy between the jazz and classical worlds, listeners will probably hear dissonance. They'll be right to reject the bureaucratic merger-speak and see this awkward smushing together as the sacrifice of one cultural lifeboat just to keep another partially afloat.

One "we-feel-your-pain" story by Inquirer classical music critic Lesley Valdes lamented the demise of Jazz-FM and acknowledged that it was a shame to have happened in the hometown of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman (totally ignorant of the fact that Coleman has nothing to do with Philadelphia and everything to do with Texas!) exhibiting to every jazz fan in the city that the Philadelphia Inquirer didn't respect the music genre or the jazz community enough to assign the story to a knowledgeable person, not to mention the conflict of interest issues.

The immediate catalyst for the format change from all jazz to a classical/jazz mix was the demise of WFLN, a longtime commercial classical station, which had been bought and sold numerous times during the previous 18 months. Greater Media, Inc. assumed ownership of the station in April of 1997 for $41.8 million and company execs felt that classical WFLN with a tiny 2.8% share of the audience was the wrong format to justify the hefty purchase price of the station, so general manager Dennis Begley said a new pop/rock format catering to 18-49 year old adults would be implemented to reach a wider audience. It is important to note when discussing the diversity of voices on the airwaves, that Greater Media is one of only four communications megagroups that control over 70% of the Philadelphia listenership measured by Arbitron, a radio ratings measurement outfit that determines which stations are getting the most listeners which, in turn, translates into more advertising dollars a station can charge for airtime.

Along with the announcement of the musical merger in September 1997, Tom Maxey's "diversity" spin was all over the local papers and he said that the addition of classical music would "boost Temple's image" and help bring more money to the station through underwriting.

WRTI's potential goes beyond just being a jazz station. We want to be a Temple station that reflects diversity. We think that a hybrid of jazz and classical music will reach a larger audience, and will have more of an appeal in and out of the university...I think you're always concerned about how various constituencies, including, quote, the community, unquote, feels about it. We started with the premise that Temple owns the radio station [author's italics], and Temple is a very diverse number of cultures...

The above statement that Temple "owned" the station was a public relations about-face in that after twenty years of telling Temple's listeners that it was "their Jazz-FM" during countless begathons, Temple drastically changed the rules for its own benefit, exuding a venom of unfairness that surprised even Temple's worst critics. Maxey also stated that the University had been talking to Greater Media, Inc. since July 1997 about taking on classical music; however the administration didn't inform faculty representatives (or anyone else) about the impending change in format until September 2nd when it was dropped nonchalantly at a banquet Liacouras attended. What Tom Maxey didn't say was that Temple University had established ties with Greater Media, Inc. at least since 1989, not only because a director involved with the company was a trustee, but because H. Patrick Swygert ( then an executive vice president of Temple ) and former Greater Media executive Larry Wexler had formed a company together called Waldron Broadcasting whose sole mission was to try and buy up radio stations around the country. The San Antonio Business Journal, in an article about Waldron Broadcasting buying local station KFAN, quoted Wexler as saying,

We're committed to buying the station. It's just a question of getting the financing in line...We're involved in buying stations in six markets at the same time and getting everything together is like trying to get all the plates to spin at once.

Spinning plates indeed. The article also noted that Waldron Broadcasting was also trying to purchase radio stations in three Michigan cities, in Las Vegas, Nev; Mobile, Alabama; Kansas City, MO; Salt Lake City, UT; and three other cities Wexler declined to name. According to Crain Communications Inc., in 1989, Waldron Broadcasting had already received FCC approval for the purchase of stations in Moss Point, Mississippi (WKKY-1,300 watts) for $1.5 million, Bainbridge, GA (WMGR-5,000 watts and WJAD-100,000 watts) for $3 million and Edinburg, Texas (KBFM-100,000 watts) for $6.8 million dollars. At this time, Swygert was listed as,

"an officer, director, and sole voting shareholder of Waldron Broadcasting Co., was the executive vice president of Temple University of the commonwealth system of higher education, licensee of non-commercial educational WRTI-FM, Philadelphia and permittee of non-commercial educational WUCP-FM, Summerdale, PA."

Larry Wexler, in an interview, informed me that these sales never went through because bank financing had "dried up." He also said he didn't know who brokered the deal between Greater Media and Temple University to bring classical to WRTI, but felt that a lot of planning must have gone into the arrangement because of well known fears that Greater Media had about eliciting negative opinion among the elite organizations in town once the classical format was changed. According to Wexler, the numerous other companies who had previously owned WFLN "didn't have the balls to change the format."

The close personal relationship between Liacouras and Swygert, (who according to Mark Humphrey, a former WRTI staff engineer and assistant general manager, were both understandably excited about the idea of repeater stations in the late 1980s for the promotion of Temple and student enrollment), the well placed classical connections of trustees like Milton L. Rock, and the intense interest in acquiring radio frequencies and the necessary monitoring of the communications market that goes along with that activity, all give some credence to a suspicion that the Temple administration's immediate excuse for changing the all jazz format, the (surprise!) gift of 3,000 classical CDS from Greater Media, wasn't on the level.

A great many observers felt Temple was clinching a deal made many months before July 1997, possibly even before the Spring fundraiser when monies were collected from loyal jazz fans to "keep jazz alive." What better way could the elite organizations in Philadelphia make sure that classical was kept safe (it was already known for 18 months that the format at WFLN would eventually be changed) and help Temple University dump their urban jazz image at the same time? A quid pro quo was thought to have been reached politely among Philly's beautiful people. A gentlemen's agreement had been hammered out. Why else the utter silence from the people at the top of Philadelphia's society, both black and white?

It might be puzzling to some people why Larry Wexler and H. Patrick Swygert were so interested in purchasing so many radio frequencies in the early 1990s, but a series of remarks made by FCC commissioner Susan Ness in February 1996 may clear up the confusion. As part of the Public Policy Forum Series at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, she gave an address on the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and said that after "years of wrangling by a host of interested parties, legislation was crafted that won overwhelming bipartisan support in both Houses of Congress." She addressed the broadcast industry's deregulation:

...the new law offers increased ownership freedom. TV broadcast groups will be allowed to own stations reaching 35% of the national audience, up from 25%. Radio operators may now purchase an unlimited number of outlets nationally, and greater numbers of radio stations in a single market [author's italics]....At the Commission, we have already seen an increase in mergers and acquisitions in the broadcast industry, in anticipation of passage of the law [author's italics], and we expect to see many more.

Waldron Broadcasting, possibly, was trying to position itself to reap the windfall of mega-profits that would be forthcoming when the telecommunications legislation went into effect. Wexler said, "Radio stations became much more valuable" and added cryptically, "deregulation hasn't done a thing for the consumer." Waldron didn't get to cash in, but others did. Marc Fisher, a writer for the Washington Post, noted in his story about the demise of Washington DC's only full time jazz station WDCU [at the same time WRTI was being secretly dismantled], wrote that "The sale-a-thon in the radio business continues unabated: More than 2,100 of the nation's 10,300 commercial stations have changed hands since the new Telecommunications Act became law last year, lifting most restrictions on ownership." What is notable here is that WDCU, a small community college station, a station that might have sold pre-1996 for a few million dollars, was being bought for a whopping $13 million dollars! Since deregulation, financially squeezed college stations have jumped at the money, and jazz formats, primarily run by college outlets, have been the victims of the buyouts.

A 1995 article in Downbeat by John Corbett already decried the loss of serious cultural programming on "public" radio:

We're living through an age of seriously inclement weather for jazz radio. With the National Endowment for the Arts under intense pressure to cut funding for public broadcasting, the near future of non-commercial jazz broadcasting in the United States is in jeopardy. Indeed, the ongoing political swing to the right has been so thoroughgoing that arguments now pit cultural programming against welfare subsidies, raising the unbelievable either/or proposition: Which would you cut, public arts or public aid? It makes you wonder whether we could possibly be living in the most highly developed economic system in the world when one of the nation's most important contributions to 20th century culture--jazz--is treated like the fat to be trimmed from a gluttonous support system. [More]
Next: Diversity: Who's zoomin' who?
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