Memphis’ only all-jazz radio station unexpectedly went silent April 1 to protect dozens of its DJs from turning its studios into an inadvertent coronavirus hotspot.
The University of Memphis, licensee of WUMR, previously announced that the station would transform through a partnership with The Daily Memphian, an online-only news startup, and Crosstown Concourse, a once-blighted Sears warehouse in Memphis turned into an artsy retail-residential hub.
Together, they planned to revamp WUMR’s music mix, add local news coverage and relocate off-campus later this spring. While it was expected that WUMR would briefly go dark during the transition, COVID-19 had other ideas for the station’s two full-time employees and 34 student and community volunteer DJs.
“The university didn’t feel good about continuing to have volunteers come through the studio” as COVID-19 cases multiplied, said Daily Memphian CEO Eric Barnes. “… So we’re going to go dark for longer than we really would have wanted.”
WUMR fans seemed caught off-guard by the brief statement posted to the station’s Facebook page the evening of March 30, thanking them for years of listening and simply stating the station would cease broadcasts by April 1 “in light of the unprecedented coronavirus situation.”
“Without WUMR, local radio is a virtual wasteland,” one Facebook fan despaired, while another pondered, “What will I do with my Sunday evenings?”
The station had been pumping jazz into listeners’ homes and cars for over 40 years until the university transferred ownership of the station to the new nonprofit Crosstown Radio Partnership March 31, according to FCC filings, which also show the call letters have changed to WYXR.
Barnes couldn’t provide a specific date for when the radio station will reopen underneath the soaring atrium of Crosstown Concourse a few miles away from the university. He hopes it can be this summer, but that depends on how long COVID-19 keeps the world hostage.
“The only holdups now would be coronavirus-related,” Barnes said, noting that construction is considered an essential business in Memphis. “Construction hasn’t started, but the planning and all that has. Unless the rules about that change, we would assume that we can work on construction as soon as the plans are finished.”
The Crosstown Radio Partnership has also been seeking an executive director to lead its new venture, and Barnes said it hopes to announce its selection soon.
Financial records show the university spent over $121,000 on WUMR in fiscal year 2017, the most recent year of budget data available, which a yearlong review process determined was not financially sustainable. Rather than shut the station down, university leaders reached out to The Daily Memphian and Crosstown Concourse to create the new nonprofit and keep the music alive.
“This is a way for us to maintain the ability for our students to be involved in a radio station,” Anne Hogan, dean of the university’s College of Communications and Fine Arts, told Current in January. “And one that is a 21st-century entity that has all of those elements of streaming, podcasting, the terrestrial radio station and everything that is current about the ways that people relate to radio.”