You can add the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s low-power FM radio license to the list of casualties due to state budget cuts.
University officials surrendered the license earlier this month to the Federal Communications Commission, which granted it last year. UW-L officials said they couldn’t justify the expense at a time when 45 positions at the university are on the chopping block and departments are being asked to curtail expenses by $750,000.
“We’re in a very challenging financial environment,” Bob Hetzel, UW-L’s vice chancellor for administration and finance, said. “It’s just not the right time. As an institution, we decided to surrender the license.”
RAQ, the university’s student-run internet radio station, won’t be affected, Hetzel said, and the university also partners with Wisconsin Public Radio station WLSU. But for students and faculty involved with the years-long push for the license, it feels like a missed opportunity.
“I’m disappointed the low-power FM radio did not go through,” RAQ co-adviser and WPR reporter Maureen McCollum said. “It was an amazing opportunity for the university and the community at large.”
Low-power FM radio stations are designed to give public organizations an affordable way to reach their communities. Stations are limited to 100 watts — less than 0.1 percent the power of a commercial station in our area — with a range of about three miles. Because of the limited range, a low-power station can squeeze into more frequencies and is much less expensive to start and operate than commercial stations.
Licenses were first made available in 2000, but after an initial round of licensing, the FCC didn’t open another application window until 2013. In less than a month, the agency received more than 3,000 applications for new stations — including one from UW-L.
McCollum is a UW-L graduate, and as a student helped start RAQ. She has also been an advocate for a low-power FM radio station on campus since 2006, and things seemed to have been sailing along until last year.
Fundraising efforts by RAQ seemed to have university support with UW-L Chancellor Joe Gow playing guitar at an RAQ event in December 2012. A university news release about the fundraiser mentioned the station’s plans “to raise enough funds to have a low FM signal.”
Patricia Turner, a professor in the communications studies department and the other co-adviser for RAQ, learned in February 2014 that UW-L had been granted a license by the FCC to broadcast at 89.9 FM and a construction permit. The permit gave the university until this month to raise the funds and buy equipment for the station before it expired.
In emails the Tribune received as part of a public records request, McCollum and Turner were ecstatic about receiving the license. Within days of the notification, they were moving forward with plans to get the station running.
McCollum reached out to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to see if the campus could provide advice about running a radio station. Turner, McCollum and RAQ members also started planning on more fundraising events, including T-shirt sales, a raffle and reaching out to alumni for support.
But when UW-L administrators found out about the license, they were surprised. They sent an email to the department, telling them they would need to present a formal proposal for the low-power FM station before it would be considered by university administration.
Things seem to have fallen apart after that and it is unclear if a formal proposal was ever made. In June 2014, Ruthann Benson, the former dean of UW-L’s liberal studies college, said it had been months since she last heard from Turner. Despite repeated attempts, Turner did not respond to any emails and voice messages left for her.
Kalon Bell, a UW-L student and general manager for RAQ, was heavily involved in last year’s fundraiser work for the low-power radio station. By the fall 2014 semester, he said students in the club had assumed the low-power radio campaign was dead, but did not hear anything official from the university at that time.
The low-power radio station would have been a good investment for the university, he said, and just the potential for one drove a lot of excitement and interest in RAQ and community broadcasting. The station could have been a recruiting tool for the university, and a good learning experience for students interested in the field.
Morale is still good at RAQ, Bell said, and the group continues to raise funds to support the internet station. Interest continues to grow, with RAQ adding time slots each semester for students wanting to host programming.
But the university missed the window of opportunity, he said, and it is disappointing that UW-L decided to give up on the license. Because past application windows have been so far apart, it unknown when UW-L might have an opportunity to apply for another low-power license.
“I feel like the students who are part of our organization wished the university would have invested (in it),” Bell said. “We had an opportunity to give students a first-rate experience in the broadcast field. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. We literally had that in our hands, but it fell through.”