Thursday, October 28, 2010

Save WTJU, Keep It Weird!

By Brandon Collins

Those who don't listen to WTJU 91.1 fm should tune in more often. So should I. I say "should" the same way I say "I should practice Yoga more often," or "I should read more Tolstoy." For 53 years, WTJU has been bringing Charlottesville eclectic Classical, Jazz, Folk, Rock, Kid's, and Current Events programming in a way that is healthy for our minds. It is healthy because the all volunteer staff has complete freedom to select their programming, and have very specific individual shows to broadcast educational and artistic music.

All of this came under assault recently. Under the banner of increasing revenue, listenership, and student involvement; the new station director, Burr Beard, sold UVA's Office of Public Affairs on the idea that WTJU should overhaul how the station is programmed in order to become "more competitive in a commercial market." These changes, we found out rather hastily, would include switching to a mostly "Americana" format, the inclusion of playlists, the elimination of classical music programming, and the elimination of individual shows in favor of generic "block" programming.

The changes originally were slated to take place in a matter of days. News leaked out, and some announcers hit the press. The sudden attention granted the station a "temporary stay of execution," with management claiming they would open up the process to the announcers and the public. Through more leaked information, it became clear that management was not listening to input, and was planning to implement programming changes with the appearance of inclusion to quell dissent.

Simultaneously, some announcers looked for help. One announcer, and former Wobbly, contacted IWW in Richmond, which then contacted the Socialist Party of Central Virginia. We quickly set to work trying to get the announcers to organize in some fashion. There was no time for a formal organization to be formed, so an organizing committee had to suffice. That took some doing. The announcers were emotionally frazzled, overworked, and freaked out, and they had a lot to discuss. An organizing committee finally formed and began keeping all announcer discussions and meetings outside the ears of management. They decided to stand in solidarity to protect the different genres and unique nature of the station, rather than defend their individual turf. Points of unity were discussed and a plan of action formed. The announcers came up with their own proposal to make changes to increase revenue, listenership, and student involvement without destroying what is best about WTJU- that it is eclectic, diverse, and grants announcers the freedom to decide what to play. Added to the list of goals was protecting the station's mission statement, which quite specifically states that the station is to be run free from the restraints of commercial competition.

It was determined early on that a highly visible and vocal pressure campaign from the community was needed as well. The idea was to make the issue visible everywhere; and to put pressure not only on management, but on their bosses at UVA. It was thought that creating any kind of hassle for UVA administrators could be very effective. Bringing negative attention to UVA's assault on the arts and academic freedom would also gain us some ground. A solid show of unity could convince the bosses that we were prepared to continue the campaign at all costs.

We did this through e-mail "bombs" and rallying any community members we could find. We had musicians address their audiences at every turn. One recently resigned DJ addressed the large crowd gathered at Fridays After Five, a weekly concert series at the Charlottesville Pavilion. Handbills and fliers went out everywhere. We got around 250 people to attend a community input session with management. It was an inspiring meeting. The community was unanimous in its support of the announcers. Community speakers were not organizers in this effort, just regular folks who see the importance of retaining one of the last bastions of true art dissemination in the country. After hearing from very prolific and moving speakers, management not only succumbed to the announcers' demands but are now genuinely prepared to be advocates for the unique nature of the station and strong supporters of art for the benefit of all, rather than as a commodity in a commercial market. WTJU will remain freaky and in the hands of a capable volunteer staff!

The whole campaign came at us fast and furious. As is all too often the case, problems arose that needed a workers'/volunteers' union to confront. No such organization existed, though at some point in the past the idea had been raised. From the standpoint of a socialist, being able to assist workers organizing on their own behalf is a victory in itself. The volunteers have managed to remain organized and are actively engaging in promoting their station as is. Even more interesting is that the community understood the need for solidarity, and that the concept of market driven art and education is completely abhorrent to the majority of the people! This too is a victory. I truly believe that if the Socialist Party of Central Virginia had not been known and available, the station I love would have been destroyed. We have made many contacts since our founding, some of those being IWW members in Richmond. We greatly appreciate the advice we were given and look forward to working with them in the future (see "Joint Statement"). Again, another victory, but none of this tastes as sweet, or sounds as beautiful, as an activist win for something meaningful and vital to our community- that is weird, educational, and inspiring art from WTJU 91.1 fm.

SP-CVA Secretary, Brandon Collins, discussing the WTJU campaign:

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