Dead Waves and Deaf Ears

Written by Garrett Christensen

The Community’s Response to KEOL

The 2020-2021 fiscal year has been rife with changes and challenges that have rocked day-to-day life at EOU. In particular, student activities and clubs have been hit hard. Lower enrollment rates and an ever-shrinking reserve of funds forced the hands of both the Student Fee Committee (SFC) and many unit representatives. Belts have been tightened, budgets have been cut and everybody is hanging on as best they can. For one group however, 2021 is not just a year of hardship, it is the end of an era. EOU’s student radio station, 91.7 FM KEOL, is officially being defunded for the 2021-22 academic year and possibly shut down at the end of spring term, a sad and anticlimactic conclusion to an iconic piece of EOU student culture. 

While discussion about KEOL remains relatively quiet at EOU outside of the SFC and internal deliberation, discussion and support from off campus briefly spiked. The Observer picked up on the imminent defunding back in March, publishing a mixture of articles which include interviews with members of the SFC and letters to the editor from community supporters of the station. The content of the articles varies, but a combination of nostalgic reflection by former DJ’s, anger from community members over the SFC’s decision, and general commentary over the nature of the defunding and future of KEOL showcases at least some lingering interest in the station by parts of the local community.  

In a published letter from March 11, aptly titled “Long Live KEOL,” Rory Noble wrote, “Even if 2,500 words were allowed here, I wouldn’t have enough to cover what KEOL has meant to so many over the past 40-plus years. Long live KEOL!”

Photo: Garrett Christensen

However, a response by newly Elected ASEOU president Alexa Jamison to an EOU staff member paints this community response in a futile light. This anonymous staff member submitted an amalgamation of The Observer articles to President Jamison with the hopes of showcasing KEOL’s significance to the community.  For clarification, Jamison is not involved with the SFC nor had any influence in their final decision to defund KEOL. The staff member received the following response on April 31.

“Thank you for the letters and articles that you emailed me. While I appreciate knowing how the community feels about the defunding of KEOL, it will be my job to represent the students, not the community. If the students feel that KEOL needs to receive funding again, then I will find a way to make that work.”

To be clear, Jamsion’s comment about representing the students rather than the community is both admirable and understandable. The tragedy comes less from KEOL actually being defunded, though it is greatly disappointing, and more from the disconnect between KEOL and the EOU student body. SFC member Anna Kestie on February 5, as recorded in the SFC public minutes, “doesn’t like the idea of defunding anyone, but as a personal experience, she has not listened to the radio station and she doesn’t know people who do.” Current ASEOU president Keegan Sanches was a bit more harsh in his assessment, also noting on February 5, “it speaks volume[s] that the Theater and Choir went to an outside radio station instead of our own.” 

Even The Observer picked up on this lack of student involvement, noting in the March 30 article by Dick Mason titled “KEOL Alumni Reflect on Value of College Radio,” that, “Lack of student participation was another factor in the Student Fee Committee’s decision to defund the station, which EOU’s student senate supported on March 5. The station has about four student disc jockeys, plus two paid student staff members. This is a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s when KEOL had enough disc jockeys to fill almost every three-hour time slot almost around the clock.”

Of course, all good things must come to an end. The shutting down of a floundering and relatively unused unit is expected, especially given the current limitation on funds. As a prior examination of the SFC minutes shows, student involvement and student benefits are a priority for funded units, things KEOL simply is not currently accomplishing. But, as someone who has been involved with KEOL since my freshman year at EOU, in an effort to cross off a few bucket list items while at EOU, the situation and mindset surrounding its defunding are disheartening to say the least. 

Beyond having to accept the general disinterest by the student body in campus radio, the final days of KEOL have been something of an oddity. Coming from my own experience, internal communication between the volunteer DJ’s and the remaining paid staff effectively broke down after former station manager Joel Chin stepped down prior to the start of fall term. Software has been locked, equipment disconnected, a general atmosphere of defeat perpetuated, and all without any form of communication to the DJ’s as to what the fate of the station actually is. It has effectively been complete “radio silence” since fall. DJ’s were not informed of the death of longtime unit advisor, Michael Williams. In addition, those in charge chose not to mount an appeal after being notified the station would be defunded, and KEOL has been haphazardly drifting toward its demise without any sign of life from those supposedly still in control of the station. Having spent Friday night after Friday night in the studio for the better part of three years, it saddens me greatly to see it go out with a whimper. 

Though the struggle of KEOL and the questionable current value to the greater student body are concerning, the mentality toward KEOL by the SFC is, in some regards, questionable. This isn’t to say the SFC’s emphasis on broad student involvement isn’t understandable, especially given current funding issues, but the narrative that the platform of radio is wholly unsalvageable and incapable of being beneficial to students is somewhat short-sighted and ignores the station’s greater impact. 

In an article for The Observer from March 6, titled “Dead Air — Eastern Oregon University’s KEOL May Go Silent,” Dick Mason wrote on SFC Chairman Zach Cahill’s thoughts, “It thus does not make sense for KEOL to continue operating because the students working there would not be developing skills that would help them as they pursue careers after college.” Mason further noted that Cahill hoped to see the station converted into a class or club in order to teach DJ-related skills. In a preserved 2013 article from The Observer titled “DJs Reminisce at KEOL Fest,” former KEOL DJ and faculty advisor Jack Kemp, in complete contrast to Cahill’s current statements, wrote “KEOL was an education… I think we got our real education at the little college radio station.” This isn’t to say the SFC should burn money on a unit which they say only a few people seem to enjoy, but to say that KEOL cannot provide valuable education to the students is simply inaccurate. Unreplicatable experiences and lifelong memories outweigh supposedly low student involvement and theoretical campus reach.      

There is one more thing to say about the KEOL situation in regards to how it reflects on EOU. The EOU mission reads “EOU guides student inquiry through integrated, high-quality liberal arts and professional programs that lead to responsible and reflective action in a diverse and interconnected world. As an educational, cultural and scholarly center, EOU connects the rural regions of Oregon to a wider world. Our beautiful setting and small size enhance the personal attention our students receive, while partnerships with colleges, universities, agencies and communities add to the educational possibilities of our region and state.” 

This mission will mean something different to everyone, but the promise of high quality liberal arts and professional programs seems, to this writer at least, to be betrayed by the sentiment directed at KEOL and other student activities. The SFC minutes from February 5 state the following “At the end of the day, it is about contributing to the students and bringing students here and KEOL isn’t doing that anymore.” The current failure of the station to appeal to a majority of students can’t be denied, but I have to ask, is simply acting as a beacon for new admissions truly all that should matter at the end of the day? It would seem so, with it being noted that trapshooting in the January 14 minutes that the group, “will hopefully bring in more students to EOU since they are a new, hot group,” along with the the untouchable juggernaut that is athletics already receiving 41.6 percent of the SFC budget as of February 22. If students really do enjoy those units en masse, then more power to them. But why should their joy get total priority and nearly half the money from student fees?  

For some, EOU is Oregon’s rural university, a haven for the high art nestled in the middle of a small agricultural community. KEOL has been an extension of EOU’s mission for decades, an opportunity to branch out and achieve a unique artistic and educational experience in rural Oregon. If shifting trends and waning interest no longer permit such experiences, then it is reasonable for EOU to consider cutting its losses to put its resources into more popular activities. Frustrating though it may be to some, it is not up to the community, no matter their passion, to dictate functions on campus. But the SFC’s perception of KEOL’s decades of unique experiences as just an unpopular branch of a dying industry, with the only consolation being hollow murmurs of a possible future class to take their place, is not only a tragedy for all those invested in the station, but disrespectful to the mission of this university. 

EOU Mission: https://www.eou.edu/about/mission/

SFC Minutes: https://drive.google.com/drive/u/1/folders/1tVGeuuN-Aq1nzZegNlhi19fE52GFXMAO

Dead air — Eastern Oregon University’s KEOL may go silent: https://www.lagrandeobserver.com/news/local/dead-air-eastern-oregon-universitys-keol-may-go-silent/article_49d4f024-7dd5-11eb-aa91-e333c4dc0383.html

DJs reminisce at KEOL Fest: https://www.lagrandeobserver.com/archive/djs-reminisce-at-keol-fest/article_d67e7688-5729-533e-bad0-c59273b1f684.html

KEOL alumni reflect on value of college radio: https://www.lagrandeobserver.com/news/local/keol-alumni-reflect-on-value-of-college-radio/article_56c533f6-90a5-11eb-82ef-ebd15e29878f.html

Letter: Long live KEOL!: https://www.lagrandeobserver.com/opinion/letters/letter-long-live-keol/article_4d74d1f4-8177-11eb-8922-2bfd619a9550.html

Letter: EOU funding: KEOL vs. athletics: https://www.lagrandeobserver.com/opinion/letters/lettter-eou-funding-keol-vs-athletics/article_896fc270-82dc-11eb-9911-ef98246af92b.html

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