On June 13, Roy Leon, aka DJ 5'8, took control of the boards at 91.5-FM KUNV to air his Word Up hip-hop show, like he has every Friday since 2000. Little did he know it would be his last broadcast. Five days later, UNLV’s radio station announced a format shift that would expunge many of its community programs from the station’s weekly schedule. “We didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to our audience,” Leon says. “We’ve been on the air for 30 years. That’s like Seinfeld not getting a final episode.”
KUNV is now referring to itself as “Jazz and More,” an allusion to the usual adult contemporary fare now sharing the playlist with smooth jazz (some examples: Toto’s “Africa,” Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” and Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car”). And while KUNV has kept eclectic institutions like Reggae Happenin’s with Stan Rankin T, the folk-centric Patchwork with Joe Kahl and George Lyons’ genre-thwarting Lyons Den, it has cut all of the indie rock, hip-hop and electronic music more likely to appeal to students. (For an update on this, see below.) General Manager Frank Mueller tells the Weekly that future programming changes will include more student input, though it will be less free-form and “more in line with professional experience.”
This isn’t KUNV’s first dismissal of traditional college-radio programming; it axed the award-winning Rock Avenue show in 1998, which inspired a community protest concert and the halt of student government funds for the station. (In 2016, Consolidated Students of the University of Nevada gave KUNV $50,000 to help stave off a managerial takeover by Nevada Public Radio.)
According to Kevin Stoker, the director of the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies, the commercial format creates the potential for more listenership, sponsorship dollars and student involvement—albeit one which must work within the new format. “The idea was to create continuity in sound,” he says.
Market research led to that idea—as did the volunteer consulting services of Randy Fitzsimmons, a pop and Christian radio program director in his previous home state of Ohio and the husband of KUNV’s director of underwriting and corporate sponsorships, Leslie Fitzsimmons. (The station’s modest budget means relying on volunteers to round out its staff of professionals and students.) The “ivory tower decisions,” as one Facebook post put it, are drawing the ire of KUNV alumni on social media, especially given their homogenizing effect on a public university radio station.
It is Fitzsimmons who Leon blames for the demise of Word Up, not station management (which answers to the School of Journalism). He’s likely to reject Mueller’s offer to preserve the show on either KUNV’s online station, the Rebel HD2, or a station-run podcast—a medium Stoker wants to widely incorporate into a larger university media group—because Leon can run his own podcast. His frustration lies with UNLV politics and what he says is the influence of outsiders with little regard for the community or the history of the station. “They just changed [KUNV], and now it sounds like four other stations on the dial.”
Update: On July 25, a day after the print version of this story went to press, KUNV General Manager Frank Mueller told the Weekly that after a few post-format-change discussions, it was decided that student programming would not only return to the evening hours, but that it would reflect more relevant and cutting-edge hip-hop, rock and electronic music that still possesses some overlap with the general jazz format (think acts like Thundercat and Robert Glasper). “It’ll be a very interesting sound that will be pleasing in the sense that it won’t sound like a totally different station, but it’ll be more uniquely controlled by students and have a hipper vibe,” he says. This does not mean, however, that the recently canceled, non-student programs will return. Mueller also revealed that he’s leaving the station in mid-August, and that his transition is unrelated to the Jazz and More format change.