Shaw University announced plans this week to sell the frequencies for its historic radio station WSHA. The proceeds, according to university leaders, will go to revitalize its department of mass communications and transform its curriculum and training facilities into a 21st-century learning laboratory for students.
Predictably, folks with fond memories of and closed pockets to the radio station are rejecting the potential sale. And a recent editorial about the sale in the Raleigh News & Observer sums up the reality behind Shaw’s savvy business move, and the same old sad love songs people have for HBCUs which do what they must to survive and compete.
But Joseph M. Sansom, a former deputy state treasurer and a member of WSHA’s advisory board, said the station is popular, but listeners are not sufficiently supportive. “They want to listen and enjoy, but they don’t want to give anything,” he said.
If that’s the case, listeners should pay up. WSHA is worth keeping. Through the station, people listen to Shaw and Shaw listens to Raleigh. Along with music, WSHA offers public affairs shows featuring state and local officials and activists. It lives up to its motto, “Serving the community like no other.” Computers playing contemporary Christian music programmed elsewhere won’t replace that.
Many HBCUs face this exact same challenge of high fondness and low finance to support the operational missions of television and radio stations, printing presses and other auxiliary extensions of the academic enterprise. A little more than a year ago, Howard University flirted with selling the broadcast spectrum of its campus-based television station WHUT. Had it received anything close to the $460 million it was projected to receive ina federal auction, it would’ve been gone.
It didn’t. The station still stands. There’s still no clear direction on how the station can or should become a profitable part of the HU School of Communication’s student training infrastructure, but stakeholders are happy. For now.
Shaw doesn’t have nearly the community pushback, or potential for investment in its jazz station as Washington D.C. had for Howard’s television station. A petition calling for the school to keep the station earned 1900 signatures. Howard potentially selling its TV station earned a story in the New York Times, and a treatment on the dissonance between a major part of the school’s identity versus its need to secure resources in support of its existence.
And so goes the reality for HBCU administrations who wrestle with culture versus cost. No one can stand the irreparable damage our culture will take when we lose a school like Cheyney, like Stillman, like Bennett, or any other HBCU; not one of these campuses has announced receipt of a multi-million dollar gift from alumni or a major benefactor, and throngs of new students aren’t rushing the doors.
And what’s worse; we think that the harrowing fate of closure is limited to “those little HBCUs” which few rarely think about in the landscape of HBCU culture. Check back with Fisk, Grambling, Southern, Johnson C. Smith, Saint Augustine’s, Lincoln (Mo.), and Mississippi Valley State in a few years and see how many millions each school has earned in giving or tuition revenue in comparison to their operational costs and debt servicing.
Shaw is making a savvy business move not to pay down debt or to make payroll; it is reinvesting in student success. That’s a fundraising target for which Shaw alumni have demonstrated their continuing commitment.
Until the support for WSHA matches that, alumni, listeners and anyone else who wants to have a say in the future of the station ought to be willing to buy it – because Shaw students and their families are putting hundreds of thousands of dollars and faith into a degree that deserves to give them return on investment beyond nostalgia over a struggling jazz station.