ALL IT TOOK was a little sodomy to bring down KPSU, Portland State University's student-run radio station. At the end of a show called Debate Hour on Thursday, June 24, a serious political conversation veered into a juvenile discussion about sex and urine. Then someone uttered three words that prompted a listener to file a complaint: "Sodomy is great."
KPSU has leased airtime on nights and weekends from the Benson High School radio station KBPS (AM 1450) since 1994. Last year, PSU paid Portland Public Schools $46,400 to broadcast. But in response to the complaint, KBPS Managing Director Bill Cooper has immediately terminated the signal-sharing contract with KPSU.
The shutdown was a surprise to the students who run KPSU, even though Cooper had told KPSU adviser Jud Randall at the beginning of June that the school district would end the station's contract on July 1 in order to clear the way for more school district programming.
"Bill asked me not to tell anyone," says Randall. "At first I agreed, but then I changed my mind, and called him back to say so. He went ballistic."
Cooper was worried that, with knowledge of an impending termination, DJs would have few qualms about airing offensive content.
"In the world of radio, people going away don't know they're getting fired until after their last broadcast," says Cooper.
The signal-sharing contract between PSU and Portland Public Schools includes a clause that not only requires broadcasters to abide by a "conservative interpretation" of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) obscenity rules, but also to acknowledge that some college-level programming "is not appropriate or acceptable" for a school-owned station. So while Debate Hour did not break any FCC rules, it did cross the contract's blurry line.
KPSU has run afoul of this clause multiple times in the past, whether by failing to announce the station ID as required or embarking on an immature "discussion of women's body parts," says Randall. Still, former program director Cody Rich says that regarding the offensive-material clause, "Bill Cooper told us he would interpret it any way he wants."
Cooper says he thinks the loss of revenue for the school district is nothing compared to potential FCC fines—and told the Mercury so in no uncertain terms. "They were broadcasting on that station by the grace of our good will," he shouted.
KPSU still broadcasts online at kpsu.org and at 98.1 FM on the PSU campus. Now, the station is looking to the future.
"This is a chance to reinvent ourselves," says KPSU assistant music director Megan Stahl. "Now people will be reminded of who we are."