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December 17, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

December 17 , 2006

Losing The Only Radio Station

WRPI is being destroyed by bad management with a misguided agenda

Update: Part of this article has been excised at the request of the person interviewed.

As far as I’m concerned, WRPI FM 91.5 is the only radio station worth listening to regularly. Except in passing, like when I’m tooling around town in my truck and twiddling with radio knobs at traffic lights, I rarely listen to any other station.

If not for WRPI, I would have turned off the radio years ago, the same way I gave up on television. I greatly enjoy and admire the delicately balanced format of the station, which is unique in the Capital District, rare if not impossible to find anywhere else in this country. The combination of progressive music and open commentary is both informative and entertaining at all times of day and well into the night.

Kitchen Counter.  Note Coffee Maker Behind Cat Butt
Kitchen Counter. Note Coffee Maker Behind Cat Butt. Radio Is Nearby

Now, when my daily routines are disturbed I get really upset, especially in the morning. For instance, I like to start the coffee maker while listening to the morning programs on WRPI, and finish with Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman, the only place Amy can be heard in the Capital District.

But lately the students in charge of the station have been filling the schedule with corporate cock rock. And now I’ve heard that Democracy Now! may be censored off the station. I am very not happy about any of this. Especially if I can't hear Amy Goodman any more.

Like the old song says, “something beautiful is dying.” Operating under a protective academic umbrella, WRPI has been a successful model for a true community radio station, unbeholden to sponsors, ratings, or corporate directives.

Unfortunately, this winning formula of programming at WRPI is becoming unraveled by a small group of students with an agenda. This apparently planned destruction of the station will be an irreparable loss to both the community and to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

It’s About The People

WRPI’s delicate balance of talk and music is possible because, first of all, the station uses live human beings who broadcast live from the WRPI studio. These local, not pre-recorded humans bring the real world with them every time they sit down in front of the microphones. You can actually phone or IM the DJs during their shows and get a response. The connection with the community is real and immediate.

There are three kinds of human beings who DJ at WRPI: students, faculty, and persons drawn from the surrounding communities. The students get first priority in the program schedule, faculty is next, and the community members are supposed to fill in the empty spaces. This way, theoretically, the station stays on the air without gaps in the schedule.

Rule number one for DJs at WRPI is that You Have To Show Up On Time Or Get Someone To Cover For You. As the semester rolls on, either because of laziness or increasing work load, more and more students who started as DJs drop out or simply don’t show up at air time. When gaps appear in the schedule the community members more than willingly fill in, and they do so reliably.

During summer vacation and winter break, most of the students leave the RPI campus. To keep the station running, the community members and faculty nearly take over the station. As a comparable contrast, the SUNY Albany station WCDB FM, which broadcasts almost next door on the dial at 90.9, has almost no community DJs. Thus WCDB (“Capital District’s Best”) shuts down for both short and extended periods. This discourages regular listeners.

WCDB is also limited by having an all-music format. This is not to say that their music is bad. Sometimes I tune in to them when WRPI’s music sucks. But an all music format is ultimately boring, even if much of the music is new and varied. I want to hear and learn when I listen to the radio. I don’t need noise to fill the empty spaces in my life, thank you very much. Talk to me. Tell me something I don’t know. Or give me quiet.

Becoming Hard To Tell Apart?

I’ve been talking with a fair number of the DJs at WRPI, mostly community members. As far as I can gather, a small clique of students with power is trying to harass the community DJs off the air, particularly the DJs who do more than play music. Apparently the goal is to impose an all-music format, one that will make WRPI sound exactly like WCDB.

The Scary Station Manager

Did I say harass? More like terrorize. As one DJ wrote to me,

Frankly, for many of the last 9 months it’s felt more like an ordeal I had to get through. There was a point where I actually felt sick every time I passed [by] the transmitter, even when I wasn't going to the station... Many of the community members, I'd venture to say most of them, report the same loss of pleasure.

This DJ would not talk to me without an assurance of anonymity. Every DJ I talked to, without exception, made it clear that if the station manager found out that they were talking, they would be summarily kicked off the air. These people are being terrorized into silence.

The station manager is a student, Gino D’Addario. I’ve heard quite a few stories about Mr. D’Addario’s management style. Screaming into people’s faces, throwing purple-faced tantrums, issuing ridiculous and contradictory directives, barring people from broadcasting for minor offenses, and showing obvious favoritism for his friends and for himself. Some of these stories may be exagerated, but many of them definitely are not.

Such behavior by station managers is not unique to Mr. D’Addario. A fellow I know who hosted a show on WRPI some ten to fifteen years ago confirmed this. “Oh yeah, it happens every fall,” he told me. “The new station manager is always some kid exercising power for the first time in his life. He gets to pick on adults and make them feel miserable. Everybody puts up with him because they’re afraid of being kicked off the air.”

That would explain the stories about Mr. D’Addario’s style. But currently we appear to have more happening here than a station manager with an immature personality flexing his unfettered ego for the first time. There is talk that the origin of the clampdown on community members originates deep within the university itself. As one DJ put it in an email:

The litany of unpleasant episodes at WRPI over the past year, and the administration's unwillingness to deal with them, confirms suspicions that "communiversity" is nothing but a slogan. Not only has the Student Union ignored repeated reports of problems at the station, I have just learned that for months they have been working with the RPI administration on a course of action that includes censorship, secret meetings, banning faculty members, eliminating news and public affairs programming, and implementing personnel policies for longtime community volunteers that allow arbitrary dismissal without standards for evaluation, due process or appeal.

The Voice Of The School

Ham handed immature management style aside, does the end justify the means for the station manager, his allies, and for whoever is behind them? I’ve been told that Mr. D’Addario believes that the RPI students want more music and less talk, that the station exists to serve primarily the students of Rensellaer Polytechnic Institute. He is merely carrying out the will of the students.

Actually, no one knows what the majority of RPI students want from the radio station. But if what Mr. Addario claims is true, then what’s wrong with changing the station into an all-music clone of the SUNY station, WCDB? A tired, beleaguered and terrorized DJ explained in writing why that’s a poor idea:

Reorienting a 10,000 watt radio station with devoted supporters in three states toward on-campus students who are statistically least likely to listen doesn't make much sense. Neither does abandoning a community service mission that has served the Capital Region so well over the years.

As a popular promo for the station proclaims, WRPI is heard “From Bennington to Broadalbin.” (Beyond Northville, actually.) This is a massive broadcasting area. By contrast, WCDB is barely listenable in Albany’s South End where I live. Any way you look at it, the students on the RPI campus are merely a fraction of the listening audience of WRPI.

And the greater community does listen. Several years ago, longtime community member Rezsin Adams announced on her show that she would not DJ the following week because she had to go to New York City and could not find a bus that would get her back to Troy on time to broadcast. Immediately, a listener from Hudson called and offered to fetch her down in New York so that she wouldn’t miss a show! Rezsin accepted the offer, and she arrived at the station in a snowstorm in time to broadcast.

There’s another limitation argument floating about. Since the radio station is technically a club like any other on-campus activity, some say that it should be subject to the same rules. For example, there is an RPI rule that all campus activities should only allow no more than five percent non-students as members. Applied to WRPI, this means that all the community members and most of the faculty will have to quit. WRPI will become like WCDB and shut down periodically because of neglect.

But this is a radio station, not the chess club. The station broadcasts to the community, therefore it is a community station. If WRPI were limited to the campus like the Sienna College radio station WVCR then perhaps this would be a moot point. With WRPI a wide swath of community is involved, so federal regulations protecting openness in broadcasting should necessarily trump insular campus rules.

Of course, as a practical matter, the university can do whatever it wants. If they intend to silence free speech on their station, they will find a way to do so. But Rensselaer Polytechnic considers itself to be a world-class institution. Such a policy of limiting the community and regulating speech would not reflect well on the RPI administration. And suppression is not a characteristic of a strong and confident institution.

A Positive Ending

A free and positive spirit has flourished at WRPI under the protective umbrella of the university. Many people are afraid that spirit will be scattered and extinguished if the station’s management closes itself off from the community.

But if the community members are eventually evicted from WRPI, then perhaps a new home for the new media can be found. And if a new home can’t be found, then perhaps a new radio station can be created, one that recreates the principles and delicate balance of WRPI. Sure, it wouldn’t be easy, but perhaps this needs to be done.

Why? Well, here is what one community DJ wrote to me about the opportunity to broadcast on WRPI:

The best way for me to think about the pulse of WRPI is with a dash of concern and a spoonful of faith. I want to be a part of WRPI because we are there to make radio. As much as I understand the frustration and bitter sadness of the current politics and personalities, I understand that all these things are the expected and proper responses to changes beyond control.

Making good radio can be a constant while we are in the middle of uncontrollable change. My role as a WRPI community member is to be a good example of how to live peacefully, in a real world inside and outside of the university that equates peace with disorder, respect with power, and compassion with weakness.

Now, that’s an amazing attitude. We can’t afford to lose that.

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