BEA 2009: Ethical Dilemmas in Student Media

I just got back from the 2009 convention of the Broadcast Education Association, where I made two presentations. The first presentation was entitled “Ethic Dilemmas in Student Media: When Money Talks, Ethics Walk.” In this presentation, I tell the story of KWJC, a radio station I used to advise at William Jewell College. This paper was well received, and I got some great feedback, so I may polish it up and submit it for publication somewhere (probably in Feedback, a BEA journal where this sort of piece is most appropriate). But for what it’s worth, here is the script of my presentation as given at BEA 2009…

Ethical Dilemmas in Student Media:
When Money Talks, Ethics Walk

Today I’d like to tell you a story. A true story. A cautionary tale of money trumping ethics. If the story sounds a bit personal, well, it is. You see, I was a part of this story, or at least part of its history.

It begins long before I became part of it. About 40 years ago, the late Dr. Georgia Bowman, head of the speech department at William Jewell College, decided to start a student-operated radio station. It launched with a humble 10 watts of power, just enough to cover the Kansas City suburb of Liberty, Missouri.

In 1984, I was hired as a new faculty member at William Jewell. Among my duties was the role of faculty advisor to this station. And during the next decade, we made a number of improvements to the station. But perhaps most importantly, this station, KWJC, provided a solid foundation for a broadcast curriculum that educated hundreds, maybe even thousands of students over the decades.

I left William Jewell in 1997 to start another adventure in my life, and another student radio station, at West Chester University. But I left with fond memories, and high hopes for KWJC. I was confident that I had left a finely-tuned student radio station. It was, after all, the inspiration for one of my most widely cited articles on student radio, the “Enhancing the Electronic Sandbox” piece in Feedback.

So it was with great pride that I heard this station I left behind was honored by the Princeton Review in 2004 as one of this nation’s top student radio stations. The faculty advisors and students who followed me continued to build and polish KWJC, and I was glad their hard work was being recognized.

But in February 2006, the storyline for KWJC took an abrupt twist. The faculty advisor at that time, a young broadcasting professor named Todd Wirth, got an e-mail from the dean requesting a meeting to discuss the radio station. Not knowing what to think, but hoping for the best, Todd went. It was a meeting that would change his life.

For it quickly became clear that the meeting was not about discussion at all, but to inform Todd that KWJC would soon cease to be a student radio station. You see, the college had decided to accept a lucrative offer. In return for a sum of money, my sources tell me it was $90,000, William Jewell College would suspend student operation of KWJC. After nearly 40 years of excellence in student radio, there would be no more at William Jewell. In fact, there would be no more curriculum in broadcasting. And by the way, Todd’s contract would not be renewed.

I still remember speaking with Todd here in Las Vegas at BEA 2006. I found it shocking what he shared with me about what happened. I felt bad for him, of course. And I felt a personal sense of loss. But even more, I felt bad for all the alumni of the station, all those students whose lives had been touched by KWJC. Some of whom I’ve seen here on the NAB show floors.

Yes, I felt bad. But soon, I felt mad, as I’ve learned more about this situation. The organization that convinced William Jewell to get out of student radio is called the Educational Media Foundation. The EMF has precious little to do with education. EMF is the legal name of the operators of two powerful national religious broadcasting networks known as K-Love and Air-One. And I’ve since learned that this was not the first time EMF convinced a college to essentially hold a license for their benefit.

Western Baptist College in Salem, Oregon wanted to start a student radio station back in the 90s. Because of financial problems, they almost didn’t get KWBX off the ground. But then the EMF brought their checkbook. Today, the college, now called Corban University, holds a broadcast license. But like KWJC, KWBX is hardly a student radio station. It’s just there to give the Air-1 network a signal in Salem.

And in Kansas City, Air-1’s signal blankets the metro area quite nicely. For shortly after EMF took over KWJC’s airwaves, the station was awarded a construction permit to increase its power to 7,000 watts. Yes, Air-1 has a dandy signal in KC, and it doesn’t even have to bother with all the responsibilities of holding a license. For the license is still held by William Jewell. In fact, it was the college’s status that helped give it the nod in a competitive FCC hearing for its construction permit. And who was William Jewell competing against on behalf of the EMF? Why, it was Community Broadcasting, which is the legal name for Bott Broadcasting, another powerful religious broadcaster.

Indeed, if you look at the organizations that have dominated applications for noncommercial educational FM radio stations in the last few years, you’ll notice that they’re not really noncommercial, and they’re not really educational. They are religious broadcasters, mostly protestant, evangelical, and fundamentalist.

Last week I did a licensee search in the FCC’s CDBS database. Bott’s Community Broadcasting group has 165 facility IDs in that database. Way-FM has 204. Bible Broadcasting 237. Family Stations 454. The American Family Association has 555. But no one comes close to the Educational Media Foundation. With 1,516 facility IDs, the EMF is clearly the Clear Channel of noncommercial education radio. No organization has been more active in aggressively building not one but two nationwide religious radio networks.

Now some might say this is just good business. Stations turn over all the time. Broadcasting in America is, if nothing else, a business. And money talks, it’s hard to deny that. But when money talks, should ethics walk? Especially in that special class of broadcasting called noncommercial educational? And even more especially in that very special class of noncommercial educational known as student radio? So before I conclude my remarks, let me suggest just a few ethical questions raised by the story I’ve shared with you today.

First, is it ethical for the EMF to pay a college to hold a license for a station that they program? KWJC’s license is still held by William Jewell College, even though they have very little to do with the station’s operation. I’m no lawyer, so it may be technically legal, I suppose, but is this really ethical?

Second, is it ethical for the EMF to essentially use this college and its broadcast license to gain an advantage over their competition in an FCC hearing? Yes, the EMF probably wouldn’t be interested in KWJC if they weren’t in a position to increase their power. But is it ethical to cut a deal with the college to help ensure that power increase, especially when it benefits the EMF far more than it benefits the college?

Third, is it ethical for a college to accept money in return for closing the doors on something that was a part of campus life for nearly four decades? Why would a college shut down an award-winning student radio station, one that was attracting students to the college? Why would you suddenly drop a broadcasting curriculum, forcing many students to leave the college to finish their degrees elsewhere? Why would you end the contract of a promising professor, one who has published in BEA journals…all for some money? Is that really ethical?

And finally, is it ethical for the FCC to routinely grant noncommercial educational licenses to a small number of highly profitable businesses? Consider the Educational Media Foundation. This is a business that took in almost a third of a billion dollars last year in revenue. And this is not unusual. Religious broadcasters make a lot of money selling airtime.

If you think it’s illegal for a noncommercial educational station to sell airtime, think again. It’s technically not illegal for these stations to sell airtime, it’s just illegal to sell airtime to for-profit companies. And there’s the loophole that religious broadcasters have used to bring in the bucks. They sell plenty of airtime to ministries, many of which are also highly profitable businesses. As long as they only sell to organizations that can legally claim non-profit status, noncommercial educational stations can sell 60 minutes out of every hour if they want to. It’s legal, but is it ethical? And is it ethical for the FCC to continue to grant noncommercial educational licenses to organizations they know will sell air time in this way?

For some, these may be difficult ethical questions. But not for me. It really wasn’t ethical what happened to KWJC. And it really isn’t ethical what’s been going on in the noncommercial band. No, it’s not ethical. But it is about money. And when money talks, ethics walk.

Let me end with another true story, and I promise to keep it short. A few years ago, Lake Charles, Louisiana, earned the distinction of being the largest city in the US that couldn’t receive a signal from National Public Radio. That’s because the two translator stations that had been supplying the city for many years with NPR programming were forced off the air in favor of full-power FM stations operated by a religious broadcaster, American Family Radio.

That was a wake-up call for public radio, and part of the inspiration for Public Radio Capital, an organization to help pubcasters fight for signals in the crowded FM band. So far, PRC has helped many stations preserve and expand their signals in the face of growing competition, primarily from religious broadcasters.

But what about student radio stations? Who’s going to fight for them? For my colleagues in student media, I hope the answer is you. I’m not sure if we can be successful. But I am sure we need to try. We need to be asking whether what is happening to the noncommercial educational FM band is ethical. And we need to keep asking…while we still have the chance.