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Dartmouth College selling FM radio station

  • As summer general manager, Dartmouth College student Kathryn MacNaughton runs the WFRD radio station on the Hanover, N.H., campus in Robinson Hall on Aug. 5, 2013. (Dartmouth College - Eli Burakian) Dartmouth College — Eli Burakian

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 6/26/2021 9:37:02 PM
Modified: 6/30/2021 2:15:10 PM

HANOVER — In a clear signal how traditional media is irrevocably shifting to digital, Dartmouth College will sell its commercial radio station, WFRD-FM, ending an era that had been a training ground for students who went on to careers — some illustrious — in broadcasting and formally drawing to a close what was once considered one of the best college radio stations in the country.

The decision to sell the station is a financial one, according to the college.

“For many years, (WFRD-FM) has not met revenue expectations and has been operating ‘in the red,’ ” college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said via email. The college has been covering the deficit, she said, but determined it is not “fiscally prudent or sustainable to continue to operate the station.”

Dartmouth said the sale would mean “the loss of one staff person,” the station’s sole remaining employee. The station, which goes by the moniker 99Rock, has been listed with a media broker, and the sale could take six months to a year to complete, depending on whether a buyer emerges.

The 6 kW station at 99.3 on the FM dial broadcasts a rock format from studios on the third floor of Robinson Hall. Like most radio stations, WFRD-FM today carries mostly syndicated programming, with the exception being a 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. show hosted by Chris (Garrett) Fazio, who doubles as the news reader while also juggling ad sales. The last student-hosted show ended in the spring.

WFRD-FM’s roots extend back nearly a century to the 1920s, when some tech-minded students at the college obtained a non-commercial AM radio license — and wired the dorms to “broadcast” Dartmouth football games. The station went on the air as WDCR-AM — “Dartmouth College radio” — when it was granted a commercial license by the Federal Communications Commission in 1958.

As the FM band grew in popularity, Dartmouth applied for — overcoming challenges from other local broadcasters — and received a license to operate WFRD-FM, which soon surpassed WDCR-AM as the dominant of the two student-run stations. By 2008, long overtaken by its FM sister station and the rise of the internet, WDCR-AM ceased broadcasting over the air and converted to an online station.

The arc of Dartmouth’s radio stations runs parallel to the rise and fall of broadcasting during the 20th and early 21st centuries during which the once-dominant medium, like other traditional communication outlets such as newspapers and magazines, became eclipsed by digital media.

For many decades, Dartmouth Broadcasting — as the umbrella of the two radio stations was called — was a powerful news organization run entirely by students that played a pivotal role in covering not only the Upper Valley but also the New Hampshire presidential primary as students fanned out across the state to file reports, said Tim Brooks, a 1964 alumnus of Dartmouth and media consultant who wrote a history of the college radio stations, College Radio Days: 70 Years of Student Broadcasting at Dartmouth College.

“Back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, it was arguably the most popular extracurricular activity on campus and was flooded with students wanting to get on staff,” Brooks said in an interview. “That’s why the FM station went on the air in ’76: to accommodate all the students and expand their air time.”

But given the media landscape today, where smartphones have replaced radio, television and newspapers as the source of information, many Dartmouth students “don’t even know they have a radio station,” Brooks lamented.

Alumni of Dartmouth Broadcasting who have gone on to achieve high perches in the media world include CNN anchor Todd Piro, former ABC News correspondent John Donvan, former NBC News correspondent Bob Hager, BBC presenter Paul Gambaccini, Voice of America and former Univision executive John Lippman (no relation to this reporter), Wall Street Journal foreign editor John Bussey, Great Eastern radio owner Jeff Shapiro, late radio talk show star John A. Gambling and late WABC-TV news anchor Bill Beutel.

Hager, who grew up in Woodstock, where he is now retired after 35 years as a correspondent on NBC Nightly News, credits his Dartmouth radio experience as critical in launching his career.

“I learned to write and to write fast under deadline,” Hager recalled last week. He did a nightly newscast and sports report at the college radio station and remembers the thrill of traveling to New York City, where he got to broadcast live from Madison Square Garden to cover Dartmouth’s basketball team playing in the Ivy League championship.

“I just loved it,” Hager recalled. “It shaped my career.”

Dartmouth said that any proceeds from the sale of WFRD-FM will go toward supporting the students’ online station, where they can still learn hands-on the technical side of audio production. The studios will remain on the third floor of Robinson Hall, the college said.

“We are committed to ensuring that students continue to have the opportunity to participate in and lead the vibrant online station,” Eric Ramsey, associate dean of student life, said on the Dartmouth News website.

Dick Kozacko, president of Raleigh, N.C., media brokerage firm Kozacko Media Services, said WFRD-FM could interest another broadcaster in the region that wants to extend its reach into the Upper Valley.

But he noted that two obvious buyers, West Lebanon-based Great Eastern Radio and Latham, N.Y.-based Pamal Broadcasting — both of which own radio stations with signals that cover the Upper Valley — are unlikely candidates because they already own the full complement of stations allowed in the region under FCC rules.

He said that although radio is “not a growth industry,” FM radio licenses are still valuable assets, especially if they can be paired with other stations to reduce costs. Still, Kozacko acknowledged the market for small-town radio stations is not what it was in a prior era.

“I have three grandsons, and none of them listen to the radio,” he said.

WFRD-FM is listed for sale at $350,000, although because the buyer would likely only want the FCC license and the transmitter equipment at Crafts Hill in Lebanon, it may sell for considerably less.

Brooks said the news that Dartmouth would sell WFRD-FM should not surprise anyone who has followed the broadcasting industry in the past 20 years.

“It was inevitable, just a matter of time. It was painfully obvious the station was going downhill for 20 years,” Brooks said. “It was fighting the tide, really.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

Correction

Dartmouth College alumnus Paul Gambaccini hosts radio show Pick of the Pops on BBC Radio 2. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported his employment status.




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