Changes at WERS leave some student staff disappointed and displaced

by Jackie Tempera / Beacon Staff • September 19, 2013

In an attempt to become financially independent, WERS, Emerson’s student-run public radio station, made unprecedented changes to the 68-year-old organization, said Jack Casey, the general manager. Channel representatives hired a new professional host and cancelled two popular late-night urban music programs.

Students have since expressed their disappointment with the station’s focus on monetary goals instead of student growth. 

The station held focus groups with listeners in April and, overall, the participants said they wanted more consistency on-air. The listeners asked for the same disc jockeys and on-air hosts daily, and the same type of music throughout the day, Casey said.

The meetings came after the college urged the station — which operates with a $1 million annual budget, over half of which  is provided by Emerson — to become more financially stable, according to Casey.

In an initial interview, Casey said the college asked the station to begin working on raising all of its funds in light of the school’s upcoming projects. He also said this was the reason behind the recent changes at WERS. But in a follow up interview, Casey said that the college never specifically asked the station to stop using Emerson’s money. 

“It’s a conversation we’ve been having for years,” said Casey. “Nobody has told us we have to do this now.”

The college has not yet cut any money from the station’s budget, said Casey. Representatives from the college’s financial department could not be reached for comment. 

To satisfy the financial request, Casey said WERS needed to adjust. With more consistent programming will come more donations, higher ratings, and more advertising opportunities, he said. In short — more money. 

Kelshe Woodard, a junior who said she used to be a DJ for 889@Night, one of the two shows cancelled during the station’s transition, said student employees felt the station’s faculty was too consumed by WERS’ finances. 

“This is supposed to be a radio station for Emerson College students; students are supposed to be the main priority,” the visual and media arts major said. “Yes, we do want to be professional and strive to be that station that is real and professional. In a real professional radio station and environment that choice was legit, but not here on college radio.”

Casey said the adjustments will only help the station continue to grow.

“Everything Emerson impacts needs to be excellent,” he said. 

Before the recent changes, students on staff would rotate hosting the morning drive shift, which ran from 6 to 10 a.m. on weekdays.

Now, news director Victoria Bedford hosts the only morning talk-show, “George & Tori,” with George Knight, WERS’s first full-time, non-student on-air host. Hired over the summer, Knight previously worked at WBOS-FM, a Boston-area station. Students previously on the morning shift were reassigned, said Casey.

At the onset of the search for a professional on-air host, Casey said the new hire would serve as a mentor to the students and help them improve in talk radio. But as of now, Bedford, a junior journalism major, said she is the only student Knight works with. Casey, however, said Knight works with a few students who help with the morning shifts. Knight said he mostly works with Bedford, but occasionally answers questions from other students on the shift.

In an interview with the Beacon in March, Casey said the host would not replace any student on-air. Bedford said this is not necessarily the case because she had to relocate students previously on morning shifts to later ones, making getting an anchor position more competitive.

Knight’s pay comes from the same college-subsidized budget the station hopes to diminish, said Casey. 

Casey declined to provide details about Knight’s salary.

“He’s not costing us that much,” he said. 

Knight declined to comment. 

Another part of the transition geared toward increasing the station’s revenue was ending Rockers and 889@Night, which played reggae and hip-hop, respectively, and had each been running for 35 years.

“[Listeners] have told us, ‘Gee, we wish we could listen beyond seven in the evening to [daytime music],’ so now we’ve made it available,” said Casey. 

Former Urban Department student staffers voiced many complaints about the changes, and especially about how the announcement was made. 

The Rockers and 889@Night staff was invited to a meeting at the station Aug. 19, said Woodard, when many staff members were away for summer break, including Woodard.

The cancellation was announced at this meeting and was effective immediately, said Woodard, who said she spoke to attendees at the meeting. Attendees could not be reached for comment.

Later that day, all former Rockers and 889@Night student workers received an email from Bond Collard, the station’s student program director, just two hours before the shows were scheduled to air.

“We’ve made some major changes to our station’s programming,” read the email. “WERS needs to keep being a viable, vibrant part of the community, which means we need to pay attention to listener feedback and ratings.”

Ashley Bailey, a senior marketing communication major who said she formerly hosted Rockers,  said she was scheduled for a shift the next day and received no notice other than the email. 

Casey said having a student send the email, and not a staff manager, was the way the station prefers to do things.

According to Casey, Rockers and 889@Night staffers were given a few days notice, not a few hours. He said the cancellation was talked about among higher-ranking student staffers at the station. 

When the shows were cancelled, about 10 student staffers were forced to move to different departments, where they weren’t granted their previous management positions, Bailey said. With their positions on Rockers and 889@Night gone, limited spaces on the Secret Spot, the R&B show to replace the two urban music shows, and already occupied daytime slots, the students don’t know how to continue with the station, she said. 

“I was so surprised,” she said. “But there was nothing I could do about it. I don’t understand why it was cancelled in that manner.”