We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Two weeks ago, as the University of Maryland’s student-run radio station WMUC-FM faced its worst funding crisis in recent memory, it had a peculiar this-is-real moment: a tweet from Weezer, surely one of North America’s least serious bands. “[It’s] wrong,” advised the four-piece to its nearly 400,000 followers. “read, help.”
WMUC, founded in 1937, is resolutely free-form, which in recent decades has made it an unlikely incubator of good music and good taste in D.C.’s indie-rock scene, as well as home to a strong tradition of sports journalism. Each year, the station goes to the university’s student government for funding, and typically receives about $20,000. It needs at least $17,000 to keep its terrestrial and online stations running.
What it got this year wasn’t even close: a mere $6,966, effectively a death knell.
From there, the station’s staffers went into existential-rescue-mission mode, launching a fundraising campaign last month, mostly via Twitter and Facebook, that eventually brought in around $7,000—not bad, but short of the necessary operating budget. Moral support came from successful alums, including Comcast SportsNet Executive Producer Andy Siegel, who got the news broadcast to the sports world.
Then WMUC got a little lucky. The student government found an additional $5,810, which—with the initial appropriation and the money raised—means that the station is safe, at least for one more year.
WMUC could have been a lot more screwed. But the episode underscored the tenuousness of the station’s existence. Unlike many other stations at large universities, its financial health is tied entirely to the whims of a student government vote. Meanwhile, college radio now competes with the limitless Internet yet it was once, for alt-minded listeners, an essential arbiter of taste; the university’s budget hawks probably see WMUC as a lot more dispensable than their counterparts a generation ago. Meanwhile, WMUC’s costs have only risen as it’s expanded into online broadcasting.
Things won’t get easier for WMUC. If the station wants to survive—and, as one of the last free-form, student-run radio stations out there, it deserves to—it’ll need to get crafty, and it’ll need to do it on its own.
WMUC has never had to worry much about paying to stay on the air. Between its student-government funding, small fees for DJing events, and some underwriting from local businesses, there’s never been the need to regularly run a donation drive.
Sometimes, WMUC makes money as a recording studio. “We usually don’t do much fundraising because we’ve been able to secure funding with the services we offer to different groups, some of the money we earn through the studio,” says Mario Pareja-Lecaros, the station manager and a student. “Sometimes we do something small, at the station, if we want to buy something that isn’t in the budget, like furniture.”
Scott Maxwell, an alumnus who had Pareja-Lecaros’ job two years ago, thinks WMUC should rely less on university funding. WMUC’s degree of reliance on the school is unusual, he says.
Budgetary freedom is a nice notion, Pareja-Lecaros says, but he thinks it’ll be some time before the station can cut its apron strings. “Being independent from the [Student Government Association] would be good, but I don’t think we’ll be able to do that soon because sometimes our costs are so high,” he says.
Those include equipment (much of which is pretty dilapidated), maintaining a ’70s-era suite of offices, fees to the Federal Communications Commission and record labels, and phone and Internet costs.
In the realm of student-activites funding, those costs are considerable. And building a fundraising apparatus takes time, as Pareja-Lecaros suggests.
WMUC initially received its reduced $6,966 appropriation from the student government’s finance committee—not because of, say, economic woes, but simply because more student groups requested funding this year, according to student government officials. Then, the station was one of a number of groups that appealed for a chunk of $50,000 from the student government’s budget. At that meeting before the entire student legislature, which stretched into the early morning of April 21, WMUC’s leaders learned exactly how much more their peers valued them at: $0.
(Instead, most of the $50,000 went to pay the salaries of non-student staffers of MaryPIRG, an environmental interest group that been given budgetary carte blanche a year earlier by a vaguely worded student referendum.)
If it’s easy to write off student-radio types as cantankerous music and sports nerds—and as a former WMUC DJ, I know that to be the case—then at least the stereotype paid off this time in accumulated goodwill: Alumni and other supporters (including Weezer, who were interviewed on the station once) didn’t provide enough funds for the station to fully operate, but they made a noticeable dent.
It’s no wonder word of WMUC’s dire situation had such a wide reach. In the early ’90s, the station was the stomping ground of a host of influential groups—including Black Tambourine and its sister band Velocity Girl—which flourished alongside D.C. labels like Slumberland and Dischord. The station’s legacy as a hub of the area’s indie rock has continued: The weekly Third Rail Radio has hosted emerging and buzzy indie-rock acts; the station frequently produces active members of the area’s scene, like the founders of Fan Death Records, which has become well-respected among fans of outsider genres nationwide; Dave Nada, the now-L.A.-based DJ who invented the microgenre Moombahton; and The Washington Post music writer David Malitz.
And indie rock isn’t the sum total of what the station offers. The range of music played between the FM-broadcast and Internet-streaming WMUC1 and Internet-only WMUC2 is nearly unchartable, ranging from bluegrass to hip-hop to electronic. WMUC Sports, its own Internet stream, is a robust operation that covers games—lacrosse, baseball, field hockey—that might not get air time otherwise. The university’s Merrill College of Journalism produces a news show called Terp Weekly Edition, broadcast on WMUC1.
Unsurprisingly, large numbers of alumni offered moral support on Twitter. The student government noticed, and in a final act, it eschewed upgrades to computers in the university’s student union and awarded WMUC an additional $5,810.
So how can WMUC avoid schizophrenic budget battles in the future?
Faculty advisers Steve Gnadt and Sue Kopen Katcef say a task force, comprised of station alumni and university faculty, is needed to stabilize WMUC, whose leadership turns over yearly. “I think the station has always had a challenge with its identity on campus.” says Katcef, a journalism professor. “There’s years when it’s better, and years when it’s worse. WMUC is a non-commercial station and it’s completely student-run, and you have your ups and downs, and maybe it’s time to change that, maybe it’s time for consistency,” She suggests the addition of a permanent, non-student station manager—a notion proponents of independent, student-run radio would surely bristle at.
Pareja-Lecaros says that since WMUC’s financial woes began last month, more businesses have shown interest in underwriting the station—that is, paying for blocks of programming in exchange for having their names read, à la National Public Radio’s sponsorship model. The station recently upgraded its sound equipment, and Pareja-Lecaros hopes that will translate into more DJing gigs on and around the University of Maryland campus; currently, WMUC DJs a handful of events each semester, and earns around $200 a pop. Immediately following news of the budget cuts, a DJ of one of the station’s hip-hop programs organized an off-campus show that generated approximately $600.
There’s something to be said for the fact that WMUC exists within the University System of Maryland’s flagship campus. With 25,000 undergraduates and 10,000 graduate students, there are a lot of current and former affiliates of the station. Hypothetically, were each University of Maryland undergrad to donate $10 to WMUC each year, the station would be financially stable.
Barring that—since college students are difficult to pin down for cash—there’s still a slew of alumni to be tapped not just in a panic, but with regularity. And some of those alums are heavy-hitting names, like news anchor Connie Chung, Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, and CBS sportscaster Bonnie Bernstein. The station should be hitting up its alumni, musical and otherwise, to appear at benefit events. It should seek out in-kind donations, or look into establishing an endowment. Because of FCC rules governing non-commercial radio stations, it can’t sell ads, but it should take the simple step of holding a regular fundraising drive.
Conversations with WMUC’s former DJs illuminate that the reverence for college radio and what it encompasses—friendships, broadcasting experience, maybe just listening to really good music—is very much alive. If it can continue to foster that nostalgia while hammering home its critical status as an incubator and training ground, WMUC might live to see another century.
“If WMUC were to go away—I love that they got their money back, but I don’t think that it ends at fundraising. I think that people really need to go, ‘Why isn’t WMUC a viable radio station?’” says Sean Gray of Fan Death Records. “Radio is maybe a dead format, sure, but the idea of WMUC isn’t a dead format and I think there’s still a lot of life left in it. It could still carry on for generations if it’s taken care of the way it should be.”
Photo by Archie Moore. Illustration by Brooke Hatfield.