A nonprofit collaboration between the University of Memphis, Crosstown Concourse and The Daily Memphian will bring a fresh, new format to the campus radio station WUMR 91.7 FM.
“I am delighted that this new partnership and its expanded programming will create further opportunities for our students and the wider Memphis community to engage with the station,” said Dr. Anne Hogan, dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts. “As we make this exciting new transition, I’d like to thank Malvin Massey and the entire WUMR team, including community volunteers and students, who have all made terrific contributions to the station over the years.”
WUMR FM 91.7, which began broadcasting in 1974 as “The Jazz Lover,” will move from the basement of the Department of Communication and Film on campus to its new location in the central atrium of Crosstown Concourse, with the radio tower remaining on the UofM campus. The revamped WUMR promises a uniquely Memphis take on music, arts and news programming broadcast straight from the city’s newest cultural epicenter of Crosstown Concourse, a 1.5 million-square-foot, mixed-use vertical urban village reimagined in what was once a Sears, Roebuck & Co. distribution center. In addition to a massive music library of thousands of albums donated to Crosstown Arts over the years, the station will host news and talk radio content from The Daily Memphian.
“Through this partnership, we now have access to so many more ways of reaching the community at large,” said Hogan. “I am very grateful to President (M. David) Rudd for his willingness to explore potential modes of transformation that would allow the University and our students to continue to participate in nonprofit radio broadcasting on 91.7 FM.”
The partnership between the University, The Daily Memphian and Crosstown Concourse which Rudd described as “Good for Memphis. Good for the UofM. Good for our students. Good for journalism,” was approved by the UofM Board of Trustees at a meeting held on Dec. 4. Todd Richardson, president of Crosstown Redevelopment Cooperative and former associate professor of art history at the University of Memphis, credits Rudd for recognizing the asset that WUMR was and creating a new vision for its future as a community resource.
“I think the key to making something like this happen has been these three community organizations coming together in a partnership,” Richardson said. “You have the radio station itself, which has become well known locally and built a following of thousands and thousands of people over the years, then you have The Daily Memphian willing to provide recurring local news spots, surrounded with the arts and culture associated with Crosstown Concourse. You put the three of those things together and that’s where the magic is.”
The new station aims to provide a boon of new opportunities to the city, with an approach to college radio that promises to be student-centered, financially stable and broadly representative of the voice of the University of Memphis.
“At the same time, it’s very important to note that this is a community radio station, not solely the voice of these three entities,” said Richardson. “It’s more that these three entities have come together to create a platform for much broader representation of the Memphis community.”
According to Richardson, WUMR’s relaunch presents a new way of thinking about radio with a decidedly old-school personal touch to the programming.
“Music is so digitized these days, what you listen to is often controlled by a computer algorithm or a record label that dictates what music is suggested to you,” said Richardson. “I love the idea of going back and including the human element in the mix, where people can walk by and be reminded of radio and see these DJs curating special lineups for folks to listen to.”
A proposed format of music, news and talk radio will be broadcast by volunteer DJs with an underlying goal to represent all demographics of Memphis. In addition, the UofM will hire an instructor-coordinator to direct student involvement in the radio station.
“Music will be the focus, but we’re leaning on The Daily Memphian to contribute stories, podcasts and local news at the top of the hour,” said Robby Grant, a former Crosstown artist-in-residence who will serve as an advisor for the changes happening at WUMR. “Crosstown will also be working with the University of Memphis to figure out how to bring in faculty and student voices to contribute to the station.”
Grant, a longtime radio enthusiast, previously worked on a committee to improve community radio station WEVL 89.9 FM, and in his current role will act as a representative of Crosstown to bring together ideas from all three parties.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Crosstown, especially around the musicians in the area,” said Grant. “I’ve always had an interest in radio, especially community radio stations. When the opportunity came to Crosstown, they called me right away and I jumped at it.”
Grant said inspiration for the WUMR’s new format came in part from forward-thinking nonprofit radio stations that utilize a similar private-public partnership like WWOZ in New Orleans.
“They’re super focused on the local culture, and it’s great to see them so steeped in what’s going on in the community,” said Grant. “WFMU out of New York has been around for 60-plus years and they’ve really developed the reputation of a totally freeform, locally focused effort worth taking note of.”
In addition to a highly visible new headquarters on the west side of the central atrium of Crosstown Concourse, where visitors will be able to walk by and see WUMR DJs at work, the station will also have the capability to broadcast live concerts from local music venues including the Green Room, the Kemmons Wilson Family Stage at Crosstown Theater and the future Scheidt Family Music Center.
The Green Room, a lounge-style venue that houses around 100 people, hosts three to four live shows a week with a range of music that includes everything from blues, soul, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop and performances from guest DJs.
“That’s the whole idea behind the Green Room: when you walk in you know it’s something that not everybody gets access to,” said Richardson. “With this new partnership, we hope to invite a few more people in to listen to what’s happening there.”
The Kemmons Wilson Family Stage at Crosstown Theater is a 420-seat performing arts theatre that has hosted musicians like the North Mississippi Allstars and also functions as a movie theater. It currently hosts a monthly ongoing jazz series: Kafé Kirk with Kirk Whalum.
“There’s some really great ongoing jazz programming happening over here, so it’s not going to be going away anytime soon,” said Richardson. “It’s always going to be part of the station, but it won’t be just about jazz like it was before.”
While Crosstown Concourse will provide the location and a good deal of the programming, The Daily Memphian will provide additional content in the form of news broadcasts and locally produced podcasts.
“When we were first approached for this project, we wanted to come up with a new plan that will have a bigger impact on the community with broader opportunities for students,” said Eric Barnes, CEO of The Daily Memphian. “I think the end result will be a very meaningful, very cool music station with news, talk and public affairs.”
Barnes, the man behind Memphis’ newest nonprofit, all-digital approach to local news, is no stranger to innovation.
“Our whole mission when we launched in 2018 was to bring locally focused journalism back to Memphis,” Barnes said. “I believe it’s brought the spotlight back to Memphis in a big way.”
The Daily Memphian currently produces up to nine podcasts a week from its downtown headquarters with subjects that include sports, food, politics, arts and culture.
“The podcasts are on the table in some form or fashion, and we’re exploring options for a quick, locally focused newscasts derived in part, but not exclusively from, The Daily Memphian’s content of the day,” said Barnes.
In addition to news content from The Daily Memphian, Barnes said the door is open to all kinds of content produced by UofM students.
“There are big opportunities to get students involved — and not just on the music side of the radio station — on the news and talk end, as well,” said Barnes. “We won’t be the exclusive provider of the news and talk side of things, but we’re definitely looking to be one of the chief participants.”
The new WUMR 91.7 FM is slated to go live in late spring of this year.
“We’re looking to get our FCC approval by March and hopefully make it on the air by sometime in late spring,” said Grant. “At the end of the day, it all depends on timing and resources. It’s a very exciting time for us, with a little bit of unpredictability thrown in for good measure.”