By Jesse Goodwin, Staff Writer
UMass Dartmouth has proposed a $1.5 million sale of its WUMD 89.3 FM radio station to Rhode Island Public Radio (RIPR) as part of an agreement announced via press release on January 4. The agreement is subject to FCC approval; the approval process is expected to be complete in early April.
University officials said that if the agreement is approved, funds will be used to endow need-based student financial aid, a micro-grant program to help students stay in school and graduate on time, grants that support community engagement initiatives, and to modernize WUMD studio facilities.
Although the station transmitter will be moved from Dartmouth to Tiverton, R.I., WUMD will continue to deliver its programming online at 893WUMD.org. The agreement requires no changes to station programming, which currently includes both music and public affairs programs. RIPR has agreed to assist WUMD in the development of its online station.
The proposed sale has upset many DJs, station employees, volunteers, and listeners. Efforts to save the station have resulted in a #SaveWUMD social media campaign with dedicated pages on Facebook and GoFundMe. Toni Pennacchia, a longtime station DJ who created the #SaveWUMD Facebook page, has encouraged the public to petition against the sale by contacting FCC chairman Ajit Pai or writing a petition to deny. The deadline for public petitioning is Feb. 3.
#SaveWUMD supporters argue that moving the station online will deprive FM listeners of locally-produced content. “As a community-centered station which makes an effort to support local musicians, local news/sports, etc., and which benefits greatly from being easily accessible to community members on the radio—for example, in the car, when internet access is more difficult—much of our programming will suffer from a drop in local listeners,” said Carina Hennessy, a work-study employee.
Because RIPR only carries nationally-syndicated content, #SaveWUMD supporters are particularly concerned over the loss of WUMD’s FM audience. “Unlike RIPR’s approach of rebroadcasting national content and having a skeleton crew to operate locally, WUMD has actively engaged in student and community outreach in its forty-five years of existence,” said Pennacchia in a press release from station management. “The station currently allows community members to participate in programming, providing unique educational and volunteer opportunities that a small outlet of a national organization like NPR [National Public Radio] cannot match.”
Moreover, negotiations between UMassD and RIPR were not disclosed to the public until the Jan. 4 press release. Some allege that it was deliberately timed for winter break, when nearly the entire student body is away. “If I’m being honest, the university has seemed to make almost every public comment about this deal unclear,” said Hennessy. “That’s one of my biggest concerns, not just as someone who cares about WUMD, but as a UMassD community member who feels like the way this deal was conducted does not fall under the ‘transparency’ that interim Chancellor [Peyton] Helm wanted to promote within the community this year.”
John Hoey, the university’s Assistant Chancellor for Strategic Communication, Media Relations and Special Projects, hopes that DJs will remain with the station as it moves online. “The shows are excellent and the DJs are outstanding, and we’re hoping they stick with us online,” he said. “The DJs are very good at what they do. They have kept WUMD alive for decades through talent and passion. So, this decision was not in any way a reflection of the quality of programming on the station.”
In response to criticism of the timing of the announcement, Hoey claimed that the university could not have disclosed details of the agreement to the public earlier than Jan. 4. “We wanted to make it public in December before students made it home for winter break,” he said. “We wish we were able to sooner.”
Hoey also affirmed the university’s commitment to the public interest. “We sought and received a lot of feedback from different individuals, including faculty and students,” he said. “Most of it was positive. The whole idea of this partnership is to offer more local benefit.”