Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Offered without comment


Monday, August 23, 2010

A Few Thoughts on KTRU

A week ago, news of the pending sale of KTRU to the University of Houston was leaked to the news media. I heard about it first from The Houston Press blog. The Chronicle had apparently known about it for quite a while, but in exchange for some exclusive information embargoed the story until Tuesday. The point is that this was a done deal before any students, faculty, staff, or alumni heard about it.

The timing was quite perfect, too. Classes start today (August 23), so when the sale was announced, the only serious on-campus student presence were freshmen here for O-week. So no pesky students were about to be stirred from their apathy and say, hey, wait a minute! KTRU is a student organization!

Tuesday afternoon (August 17), President Leebron finally issued a statement to students and alumni. He barely even tried to justify the sale of KTRU's broadcasting license and tower. He basically simply dismissed KTRU as marginal, said times were tough, and said that he was doing this in everyone's best interests. The must stunning bit of hypocrisy in the letter is this paragraph:
I also know that some may wonder why they were not included in the decision.  As much as I prefer to consult widely and involve all stakeholders in important decisions, this sale required months of complicated and, by necessity, confidential negotiations.  My management team and I approached those discussions always with the best interests of our students, faculty and alumni and the future of our university as our highest priorities.
The negotiations were necessarily confidential because if he had conducted this in the open, many students and alumni would have raised holy hell. Not to mention the fact that there might have been efforts to make counter-offers. (WFMU was a university-associated station that became an independent non-profit station, so there would have been a precedent.) Leebron had to do it in secret because if he hadn't, it might not have been done.

The sale price was $9.8 million, which is significant. I am going to assume that in the course of pricing this deal, Leebron factored in the loss of income from disgusted alum withholding contributions and bequests. How much would that loss be? This would be interesting to estimate (sorry, the finance guy in my always comes out). Let's assume that every former DJ gives an average amount of money to Rice over his or her lifetime. Now at any given time, some of the DJs are already alumni, so we count them out. Some are not students, so let's exclude them. So let's say that at any given time, 75% of the DJs are students. Let's also assume that KTRU DJs are DJs for 3 years as students. A DJ shift is 3 hours. That makes 42 student DJs per year. The station has been going for 40 years. Let's knock off the last three years (since those DJs are, on average, not yet alumni), and we have 37 years, which means 518 alumni DJs. (I hope KTRU has a better idea of how many alumni DJs--and who they are--than I do.) Now some of these DJs have died since KTRU was founded and aren't going to give any more money. Let's say 15% are dead. So we have a total of 440 living alumni DJs. For their post-graduation contributions to equal what Leebron is getting, the present value of their contributions starting now has to be $22,273 per person. That's quite a lot, and I am sure Leebron is assuming he will not lose that much money from disgruntled ex-DJs (not to mention other alumni KTRU fans, like me).

But he will lose some. Since this was all about the money, he must have calculated a loss of future income from withheld donations and bequests. On the other hand, he might have just dismissed that. After all, it will be some future president who has to deal with most of that lost income--Leebron will be gone before then. Even if the NPV of the deal is less than zero (the worst case scenario), the negative effects are well into the future, when DJs from the past 20-odd years start writing their wills.

(Which makes me wonder--how did Leebron present the financial cost when he presented this deal to the Rice trustees. Was there any potential downside presented. How about it trustees? What was the NPV of the sale when it was presented to you? If it was $9.8 million, then you didn't get the whole picture.Did he give you detailed financial projections, including a reduction in donations from alumni? If so, did you have these projections independently analyzed? Were you suckered? Think about it.)

There was a protest yesterday at Willie's statue (which is where I took all these photos). A Chronicle reporter and photographer were on the scene (I lent the photographer some sunscreen). The speakers were passionate. Some spoke of how they chose to come from Rice because they had been lonely nerdy high-schoolers out in the suburbs and found KTRU while searching the radio dial for something, anything that spoke to them. They made good arguments for keeping KTRU a student-run terrestrial station.

One of the best speakers, however, was a faculty member, Steve Cox.

He's a computer science professor and the Master of Brown College (which for all you non-Rice people, being Master of a College is a big deal and a possible prerequisite for becoming a Dean). He spoke of how Rice was selling off and outsourcing its uniqueness. He spoke of selling the campus bookstore to Barnes & Noble--at which point it stopped being a bookstore and instead became a place to sell Rice-branded tchotchkes and clothes--as well as the required textbooks for each semester. That really spoke to me. He gave other examples as well. I really admired his bravery, because he was bucking the philosophy of the administration--and possibly hurting his chances to move into the administration (I have no idea if he has even entertained such a move). But I think there are many faculty who think Leebron has taken a wrong turn.

Leebron insulted students and alumni and apparently even faculty when he pulled this deal off in total secrecy. He is an empire builder--always has been. And I have been supportive of many of his moves--more undergrads? Great! More research in new branches of chemistry and physics and biology and engineering? Absolutely! Greater collaboration with the Medical Center? For sure! I even initially supported the merger with BCM until the financial picture clouded it. But empire builders become arrogant. Leebron is out of control--secretive, paranoid, paternalistic. I assume by this point in his career as President, he is surrounded by loyal yes-men who tell him what he wants to hear.

Leebron needs to go.

Or, let me put it this way:

Leebron must go!

It's a choice between Rice as a distinct, unique institution and Leebron. Easy choice for me, an alumnus who donates money to the university every year, to make. Rice won't get anything from me until Leebron is gone.

Update:  Here's another good post about the KTRU deal that looks at the finances of the deal in a somewhat different way than I did.

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

John Nova Lomax's Guide to Houston Dive Bars

Long time, no see, Wha'Happen readers (all three of you). Most of my writerly energy has migrated over to The Great God Pan is Dead, where I write about art (mostly art in Houston). If there is something that doesn't fit at Pan that I want to make note of, I usually link to it on Facebook and/or Twitter. So Wha'Happen has become a ghost blog.

But sometimes you have something that just won't fit into a Twitter post.

John Nova Lomax

John Nova Lomax is a writer for The Houston Press, and really is the best writer in Houston working in the Sig Byrd tradition. He is a reporter whose beat is the streets of Houston (literally--some of his most entertaining pieces are travelogues involving marathon walks down key Houston avenues). Houston's Best Dive Bars, published by Ig Publishing, purports to be a guide book, but really it's a continuation of Lomax's street-level reporting. (Just an aside, I was looking at the covers of the other "Best Dive Bar Books", and I have been to the bars on the covers of the Seattle edition and the Los Angeles edition--but not the Lone Star Saloon, that graces the cover of Lomax's book.)

He writes about visits to the bars, and people he's seen there. While it says "best" on the cover, he actually doesn't recommend all of them. Of Jackie's Tavern in notorious Bacliff, he writes, "You couldn't pay me to come back here." But generally he's pretty positive about the joints he describes. He judges them on their clientele, their drinks, their jukeboxes, whether or not they have pool tables, etc. Most of the bars in this book are not very cool. They aren't the place where young single people go. The exception to the cool rule are some of the bars in Montrose and downtown, which he calls "art bars." They have a highly selective kind of cool about them, but they are for cool people who don't want to hang out with frat boys, yuppies, and general douchebags. Bohemia opts out of being middle class, and chooses its bars accordingly. But most of the bars Lomax describes here are full of people who are members of the working class because they don't really have any choice in the matter.

So as a guide, it's not bad. I definitely plan to explore a few of these dives. I've been to 19 of the 93 bars described here (I'm not exactly a bar fly). But the thing is that like all guidebooks, it is almost instantly out of date. And there's nothing wrong with that. A great guidebook is not merely a resource with a short shelf-life--it's a literary portrait of a certain place at a certain time. Lomax has written a portrait of a substratum of Houston life circa 2010. This is just what Sig Byrd did in "The Stroller" throughout the 40s and 50s. He writes with real style, creating brief pungent portraits of Houston's demimonde and the places they congregate.

I'm sure some local shops have copies. If you live in Houston, pick one up at one of our few remaining independent booksellers or record stores. Even if you never go out to bars, this book is a must read for anyone interested in Houston writing.

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