It seems a little thing, just another shuffling of letters and numbers — and yet to thousands of Middle Tennesseans, the news was received like a death in the family. On Tuesday afternoon, June 7, WRVU-91.1 FM — the Vanderbilt college station known for decades as 91 Rock — ceased more than five decades of broadcasting over the public airwaves.
It wasn't from neglect. For the past six months, 91's volunteer DJs, alumni supporters and dedicated listeners waged a battle through social media, email campaigns and fundraisers with the station's license holder, Vanderbilt Student Communications, to keep WRVU on the air. Those hopes were dashed last week when the station announced its $3.35 million sale to Nashville Public Radio, the nonprofit parent company of NPR affiliate WPLN-90.3 FM.
At a time when radio is nowhere near the potent cultural and economic force it once was, there are reasons to believe 91's fate — becoming Nashville's newest classical station, WFCL Classical 91 One — is the best of the pragmatic outcomes it faced. The time is right for Nashville to get the classical station its emerging world-class symphony and accomplished chamber ensembles demand.
Listeners of 91.1 will not hear their beloved station playing canned Top 40 pap or the blandest of contemporary Christian, as many had feared. Not only that, but some form of 91 Rock will continue online, as well as on a high-definition radio channel available only with a special receiver. Public supporters of the sale — mostly, members of the VSC board and paid full-time VSC employees — say this will address the reach of new technologies and changes in the ways students listen to music.
Symbolically, though, something is lost. The 91 Rock that galvanized the city's nascent rock and club scene in the 1980s, hosted local rappers ahead of the curve in the '90s and boasted everything from gay dance shows to bluegrass and Persian music needed no special receivers or dashboard jacks. All you needed to get its signal was a radio. More than any other station in the city, its programming crossed boundaries of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, language, politics and interest.
Maybe its terrestrial signal was a relic, as VSC representatives have suggested — especially at a time when college stations from San Francisco to Yale have either sold their signals or shifted exclusively online. It definitely embodied a time when radio was a companion, not a sonic backdrop — a voice in the night that seemed to sense you were out there, listening.
But the station offset Vanderbilt's chilly reputation as a secretive, elitist monolith that regards itself as a gated community walled off from the city beyond. Critics of the long-rumored sale — who accuse VSC and its student media adviser Chris Carroll of everything from contemptuous silence to outright lies — say last week's all-thumbs handling of the switchover announcement has left hard feelings that may result in karmic payback when the time comes for VU alumni donations or WPLN pledge drives.
But there's an important difference between a community radio station — like Radio Free Nashville, the low-power FM station that may stand to gain the most from 91's diminished presence — and a radio station that somehow reaches a community. That difference is ownership. WRVU belonged to no one but VSC. Soon it won't even belong to them.
In this week's cover, as the online future of WRVU and the identities of WFCL and WPLN remain in flux, we commemorate 91 Rock as the city knew it — Nashville's beacon of new sounds, frequent flubs, happy accidents and constant surprises, a cultural connector that made listeners and staffers alike feel a little less isolated. We also examine the sale and what the future holds for the parties involved — and the parties opposed. And until the Vanderbilt student station makes its online return this fall, we look for whatever might fill that empty slot that just opened up on our car radios.