Feature

The Debate Over RIPR's Expansion

Tuning into both sides of Rhode Island Public Radio's pending acquisition of UMass Dartmouth's campus station

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Earlier this year, Rhode Island Public Radio went public with a proposed plan to acquire UMass Dartmouth’s 45-year-old college radio station, 89.3 WUMD. Rhode Island Public Radio, still a relatively young station currently renting small public access frequencies to air both locally produced news features as well as NPR programming such as All Things Considered and Fresh Air, wants a permanent home and for them WUMD fits the bill. It’s a powerful signal from which they could grow locally produced journalism on a solid, owned foundation that would be moved just over state lines to Tiverton; covering Rhode Island, all of the South Coast to Cape Cod and even some parts of eastern Connecticut. All the deal needs is FCC approval, but standing in the way is the community and student staff at WUMD.

WUMD has developed a dedicated local following by providing a wide range of musically and culturally diverse programming to a region featuring radio stations that lack just that. UMass Dartmouth made the deal to sell the campus station without the input of the station’s volunteer staff. As a result, the station’s staff and community of fans have rallied to appeal to the FCC, arguing that WUMD has a unique role in the community by airing programming not available on any other station, giving voice to marginalized groups and fringe ideas, as well as offering students a place to publicly broadcast and share music that is not played on any other station. In the deal, WUMD would move to an all-online format that they argue will render them lost in a sea of online content, whereas on the FM airwaves, they are open to the browsing passersby in rush hour traffic.

What needs to be understood is that this acquisition is not a clear case of David versus Goliath. While the numbers may be big and the stakes may be high, at the end of the day, these two stations are enjoyed by overlapping members of the same audience. It is the radio of the people versus the radio paid for by the people, and both sides have valid reasons for wanting to broadcast over the airwaves. What remains to be sorted through are the points of view.

Expanding Local Coverage
I met Rhode Island Public Radio General Manager Torey Malatia at the Coffee Exchange in Providence. Malatia is the former CEO of WBEZ in Chicago, known to regular NPR listeners as the station responsible for two weekend favorites: This American Life and Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! He was wearing a fedora low over his eyes, looking very clandestine which gave me a kind of cool, getting-to-the-bottom of it journalist feeling. I approached the meeting with the feeling that RIPR was buying out WUMD, giving the college radio guys the shaft. But, what became apparent is that Malatia and his team are passionate about the mission. I left the meeting with an understanding that they are looking to do something in the Ocean State while the station is still young and idealistic enough to go for it.

Rhode Island Public Radio might come off as the corporate giant in this story, but it is important to realize how fresh on the FM dial the station is. RIPR came into being as a satellite of WBUR (Boston Public Radio) for reporting regional stories. In 2008, it formed a board and became Rhode Island’s public radio station. Malatia took over as General Manager in September 2015 after a friend recommended he check out what RIPR was doing. He was inspired. Malatia keep noting the “pending” FCC decision as he spoke of how RIPR came to acquire WUMD. As of press, they don’t own 89.3.

Malatia is in the business of journalism and the mission of Rhode Island Public Radio is to expand its reach to more people, “physically be present” in the region and to offer valuable, local journalism. “We are not local enough. The board and staff would back me up,” Malatia says. RIPR is looking to produce content centered on starting discussions right here in our own backyard that hold universal relevance. Local, in the RIPR sense, does not mean small topical stories about what happened last week in Chepachet, but rather, a good story, based here, that opens up a discussion beyond people living in this area.

Malatia and his team hope to continue to grow and produce content that, as Malatia puts it, “Gets everyone together to see if people have been given understanding about a different point of view.” You can have understanding and put off agreement, what is important is the discussion, the exploration, the uncovering that well-produced, locally based journalism can bring to the broader region.

With the acquisition of WUMD, Rhode Island Public Radio would expand their listener base in the East Bay and South Coast Massachusetts, and as part of their FCC obligation to serve all people in the coverage area, local would begin to take on a broader locale. RIPR is working with UMass Dartmouth to offer project learning for students and they are hoping to work with faculty at the school on incubator projects to get people involved and be responsive to their local journalism. “If we are active [with news media] we can make things better,” Malatia says. “We are hoping we can find a way to forge a relationship that yields a good partnership.”

Losing Community Voices
WUMD plays the diverse kinds of programs only a volunteer college station could get away with. Show tunes, Pacifica programming like Democracy Now! and local public affairs programming have made WUMD public airwaves friendly to diverse voices and listeners, offering a variety that cannot be found on a commercial station.

While Malatia and the RIPR team have some big ideas and idealist dreams for our local public radio affiliate, the team over at WUMD is seeing big changes come to their station without having a seat at the discussion table. Adam Lawrence and Toni Pennacchia are both WUMD DJs and they have started the Facebook group Save WUMD complete with the take action hashtag #savewumd.

UMass Dartmouth alum Lawrence is the host and co-producer of State of the Queer Nation and Broadband Noise. Pennacchia has been an active station member since 1996; she is volunteer World Music Director and host and co-producer of Spoiler Alert Radio (behind the scenes in film interviews aired via Pacifica) and Flexsphere at WUMD.

WUMD, like most college stations, only employs a general manager and all programming is composed of the ideas and tastes of volunteer students and community members who want to contribute. Despite having been a fixture in the community for 45 years, WUMD’s volunteer staff was left in the dark about the acquisition between RIPR and UMass Dartmouth. Pennacchia says, “The decision came as a complete surprise – we had no advanced notice that this sale was in progress until the paperwork had already been finalized and signed.”

The kind of programs Lawrence and Pennacchia bring to the airwaves give a glimpse into what a college radio station has to offer. “Currently, WUMD produces more programming than RIPR does and [it’s] primarily music and features that are not otherwise available locally in the area,” Pennacchia says. “We bring a genuinely local angle to our programming as opposed to the national and international focus of the vast majority of RIPR's programming.”

It is this variety of programming that gives airtime to diverse voices, musical tastes and languages, such as the South Coast’s large Portuguese population. Pennacchia points out that WUMD is “the only station in the area with regular rock, reggae, world, folk, blues, jazz, each of which has a devoted following from the 45 years we have been on the dial.” That coupling of niche programming and longevity has led to WUMD having programs with dedicated followings.

“We produce a public affairs program called State of the Queer Nation, which, in addition to our airing of This Way Out, makes us the only station on the Eastern seaboard to have two LGBTQ affairs programs,” Lawrence adds.

If the acquisition gets approved by the FCC, WUMD will move to an all-online, digital format which, Malatia notes, is much more vibrant now than in the past and a strong online presence can lead to a “bigger than local presence” for the college station. However, Lawrence and Pennacchia point out that “most of our listeners discovered us by scrolling through the available radio frequencies. Online, we become a needle in the proverbial haystack.”

For now, the prospect of Rhode Island Public Radio acquiring 89.3 FM and continuing their mission of high impact, local journalism lies in the hands of the FCC. Meanwhile, Lawrence and Pennacchia over at Save WUMD are trying to rally people to sign petitions and contact local representatives to save the station. For those of us caught in the middle, we might just have to choose between two things we love and decide what belongs on the public airwaves, what belongs in our community and what needs to be heard.