Shaw University sells WSHA-FM radio station – and a piece of history

WSHA radio's "Traces of Faces and Paces" co-host Frank Roberts, center, checks out U. S. Senate candidate Cynthia Brown's campaign button in 2002, after Brown appeared as a guest on the show at Shaw University
WSHA radio's "Traces of Faces and Paces" co-host Frank Roberts, center, checks out U. S. Senate candidate Cynthia Brown's campaign button in 2002, after Brown appeared as a guest on the show at Shaw University News & Observer staff file photo

Shaw University’s WSHA-FM, the first public radio station owned by a historically black college — and the go-to station for jazz, blues, reggae and gospel music in the Triangle — has been sold.

Shaw announced the sale in a news release this week as part of a plan to overhaul the school’s Department of Mass Communications.

Interim president Paulette Dillard said the sale is part of a plan to "provide a 21st century education for the students who elect to come to Shaw." The investment in the mass communications department is a way for the school "to improve the career possibilities, the educational programs — the things that attract students to our university, because first and foremost, we are a university," said Dillard.

The sale has brought criticism from some Shaw alumni, who say the university is selling out its history "for a few pieces of silver."

The station’s 88.9 frequency will be transferred to the Educational Media Foundation, a nonprofit organization that operates radio networks specializing in adult contemporary Christian music. Dillard expects FCC approval of the sale to take about 90 days.

Dillard declined to disclose the sale price, but it will be public record once the deal is final.

In the meantime — for 90 days, at least — nothing will change for listeners. According to the deal described by Shaw, the school will retain ownership of the radio tower, WSHA call letters and broadcasting equipment. Dillard said the school will stream jazz over the internet from its website, shawu.edu/WSHA, but the details of that are still being finalized.

The WSHA campus offices are to become laboratory space for audio engineering, video editing, social media data analysis and streaming content creation.

Critics of the sale

A movement to save the station was started in December with a change.org online petition, which to date has more than 1,800 signatures. It was started by Edith Thorpe and Chrystle Swain, both graduates of Shaw who have worked in radio and television broadcasting.

Bob Robinson at the controls of Shaw's WSHA radio station, playing jazz for listeners on a Saturday afternoon in 1995. Karl Deblaker / News & Observer

Additionally, a group called Friends of Shaw University has also been outspoken in its criticism of the sale. Kesha Monk, a 1995 graduate of Shaw who works in radio in Boston, said she and members of that group have been trying to save the station since they learned of a Board of Trustees vote to sell the station in December.

"Once we learned of their intent to sell WSHA, a group of alumni actually offered to purchase the station. However, our efforts were blatantly ignored," Monk said in an email to The News & Observer. "As a Shaw alum I am appalled that this is what it's come to. ... Our rich history is being sold for a few pieces of silver to fill budget holes left behind by past presidents."

Dr. Dillard denies any knowledge of alumni offers to purchase the station.

"I can say emphatically I never received an offer from any alumni group to purchase the station," Dillard said. "And certainly, something like that, had it come in, written, et cetera, we would have record of that. ... I have no knowledge of any such offer."

As for the people upset about the loss of the station, Dillard said she can empathize, but the school's focus is on the future.

"It’s about what we do as a university and not so much about the fully understandable love and historical significance of WSHA," Dillard said. "There’s nothing we can say to anyone that necessarily lessens the emotional and historical significance of our owning WSHA for 50 years.

"Raleigh is a rich media market, and we want to be able to train our students to be the place that industry looks to to provide the next generation of media talent," said Dillard. "We have to be able to upgrade our programs and do those kinds of things. And let's be perfectly, candid — we don’t have a lot of ways to do that because everything that we do is funded primarily through student tuition."

About WSHA

Shaw, the oldest historically black college in the South, founded WSHA in 1968.

The station’s programming is a mix of jazz, blues, funk, reggae, Latin, African and gospel music, plus public affairs programs and some content from National Public Radio. The station is run by a combination of students and volunteers.

WSHA’s stated mission is to “serve the Triangle community and the world, across continents, as no other station does with information, cultural, educational and global programming."

Brooke Cain: 919-829-4579, bcain@newsobserver.com, @warmtv, @brookecain