Generally, Where We Live focuses on cherished venues and stellar record stores, stories of jaw-dropping acoustics and incredible past shows, the independent mom and pop shop remaining loyal to vinyl, impressive in-store performances, and the like. We paint pictures of the places that have shaped us, the places where we’ve had epiphanies and paradigm shifts and truly felt alive. Living in Nashville, the options are endless. We’re spoiled, Music City, being able to frequent the Ryman Auditorium, Exit/In, and Mercy Lounge as well as Grimey’s and Third Man. This week, though, the focus is on a different type of establishment – a radio station. Vanderbilt University’s WRVU 91.1FM, to be exact.
With the development of internet radio, its ease and accessibility of use, the role of terrestrial radio stations has been subject to debate in the past few years. College radio, the age-old home of alternative and underground music especially, in these unstable economic times, has seen more than its fair share of the budget chopping block. Luckily, Nashville still has WRVU. You’ll find it nonchalantly tucked away in the corner of the basement Sarratt Student Center, with its soundboards and microphones. The robin’s egg blue walls, dim lights, and old show posters and newspaper clippings adorning the hallway walls feel like home. You’ll find it on the resumes and on the minds and tongues of the 50 years’ worth of student and community DJs, who claim their time with WRVU to be some of their favorite memories. Most importantly, though, you’ll find it preset on the FM dial at 91.1, broadcasting at 10,000 watts, sharing music from all walks of life with middle Tennessee.
Vanderbilt radio was brought to life as a pirate station in 1951 by undergrad Ken Berryhill, who wired Cole Hall to broadcast his Big Band favorites and danceable country. Legitimized and chartered two years later, students ran all aspects of the station, then located at 600 AM. With compelling, original programming, concerts, and the fervor of its members, the station established itself as an essential member of the community. WRVU presented an alternative to the mundane, an outlet for creativity outside the lines of convention. The following decades saw a lot of growth and change, eventually including an FM license, but the ceaseless dedication to music and Nashville remained constant.
Today, WRVU is still that breath of fresh air on Nashville airwaves – a break from the monotony of Top 40, country, and Christian stations that occupy literally almost every other strong frequency. The station’s executive staff are still students, and the DJs are still passionate members of both the Vanderbilt and greater Nashville community. Enthused listeners call in all day long to request songs and share WRVU stories, ranging from random people driving through town and accidentally landing on 91.1FM to detailed accounts of religious WRVU listening and attempts to better listening experiences in poor weather through aluminum foiled walls in the attic. One day of listening to WRVU takes you on a ride from the expected indie to the best of Motown, from nu-metal to old blues, from international tunes to Americana to punk. The variety is unparalleled, and a mere hour of WRVU is bound to play a song you’ve never heard, followed by one you haven’t heard in 15 years.
In September of this year, Vanderbilt Student Communications, Inc., the autonomous organization that owns WRVU and was established to avoid liability issues for the school, suddenly announced the potential sale of WRVU’s broadcasting license, moving it to a solely online entity. This would mean not only losing the terrestrial presence of the station, but the deeply-rooted connection and relationship with the community. Half a century of concerts, on-air performances, exposure to new music, DJ banter, and public service announcements would be traded for, essentially, podcasting.
Another Nashville institution, Hatch Show Prints, has donated ‘Save WRVU’ posters for local businesses to display, petitions have circulated, a resistance movement has gained momentum online, and letters from alumni, community members, and donors flooded the mailboxes of the Chancellor of the school as well as all of VSC’s board members, all outraged at the potential loss of something so infinitely valuable. Arbitron ratings and financial analyses cannot gauge the worth of WRVU; that shallow glance completely undermines a community now more tightly knit than ever. The huge public response resulted in VSC postponing the deliberating until January 12th, the first day of second semester classes.
So, in a world of Pandora and smart-phones, does terrestrial radio still have a role to play? The listeners, staff members, and DJs whose lives are touched daily by 91.1FM argue an emphatic yes. Next time you swing through Nashville, tune in and hear for yourself.