Fifty years of broadcasting makes WHPK, the University of Chicago’s radio station, the second oldest RSO on campus. It is a University-owned, non-profit station that employs both student and nonstudent DJs and operates under the guidance of the Center for Leadership and Involvement (CLI). Last week, about 150 people took part in a phone campaign aimed at restoring 24-hour programming, which had been an integral part of the station’s identity until this September, when the University imposed policy changes and air time restrictions. This week, as the campaign continues, the administration ought to heed the voices on the other end of the line.
The past few months have been a time of great change for WHPK. During spring quarter, the University began requiring all DJs unaffiliated with the University to undergo criminal background checks. After bed bugs were allegedly spotted in the studio in August, the University shut the station down to conduct inspections of every DJ’s home. Finally allowed back on air in late September, the station found itself beholden to a new set of rules created by the CLI and a representative from the WHPK administration that many staffers felt had been “made behind doors, with little consideration of DJ input.” The most significant change is that WHPK will only be allowed to broadcast from Reynolds Club during normal building hours, instead of all day, every day. The station is also now required to keep more detailed logs regarding day-to-day operations.
The University technically owns WHPK, so it has the right to impose policy changes and restrictions on programming. The question, though, is the extent to which it should. WHPK provides a unique service to the University and South Side communities, and its RSO status should not prevent it from operating or pushing boundaries as if it were completely independent. WHPK benefits from the University with studio space and a portion of its funding, but the University also benefits from WHPK. Not only is the station a platform for students interested in broadcasting, music, and media, but it also has a distinguished reputation on the South Side. WHPK is an alternative to mainstream, commercial radio that offers a diverse and eclectic music selection. It was the first station to play hip-hop in Chicago in the mid-1980s—around the time 24/7 broadcasting began—and was also one of the first stations to play rap before it was a popular genre.
The University is interfering with this legacy by stripping WHPK of its signature 24-hour programming and, more broadly, by tightening its grip on the station’s operations. The administration would be wise to recognize that giving student organizations like WHPK more operational leeway allows them the freedom to produce more interesting content and ultimately contribute to the community in a more robust way. While there are logical arguments for background checks and building hour restrictions, the way the University has gone about changing WHPK policy over the past few months encroaches on the station’s long-enjoyed autonomy and sets a potentially problematic precedent for similar student-run organizations that rely on the University for funding but produce content independent from it.
In response to anger from student DJs, nonstudent DJs, community members, and students about the changes, the University has proposed “remote broadcasting” as a solution. This would allow DJs to maintain WHPK’s 24/7 broadcasting tradition by spinning from home, but it seems infeasible because it requires each individual DJ to have the requisite equipment, music, and technology to do so. Instead, out of respect for WHPK’s history, the University should answer the call for 24-hour in-studio programming and work with the station to create an advisory board made up of both student and nonstudent DJs to negotiate future policy changes with the administration before they take effect.
—The Maroon Editorial Board