Campus radio stations are tempting targets for purchase by outside interests

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By DANIEL REIMOLD

KUSF "Funeral" observed on campus (Photo by Jennifer Waits)

In late January, at a small makeshift cemetery, a young woman dressed in black rested flowers in the grass in front of a radio station’s headstone.  Near the top, the gray grave marker sported the acronym R.I.P.  The identity of the deceased appeared underneath, spelled out sloppily in red paint: KUSF 90.3 FM.

The moment of mourning was actually a silent protest.  It was part of a larger movement opposing the sudden death of KUSF, the station affiliated with the University of San Francisco.  As PopMatters reported in mid-March, on a Tuesday morning just before the start of spring semester, USF officials “shut down the transmitter for 34-year-old college radio station KUSF without warning during the middle of a volunteer DJ’s show.  A band waiting to appear on the show was sent home, the locks on the station doors were changed, and KUSF volunteers were escorted out.  By 5 p.m., music from San Francisco’s classical station KDFC was heard emanating from KUSF’s airwaves.”

The rapid shift to a classical format was a financial decision.  USF administrators sold the station to an outside public radio group for $3.75 million.  The sale is pending approval by the Federal Communications Commission.

Near the start of a campus forum to discuss the station’s sale, USF president Stephen Privett, also a Jesuit priest, told the hundreds in attendance he needed to leave at a set time.  “I want to be honest with you,” he said.  “I have a funeral tomorrow morning that I have not yet prepared for.”  Among the cries sounded in response, according to The San Francisco Chronicle: “This is a funeral right now, pal!”

A funereal gloom– and a sense of FM doom– looms large over the college radio landscape.

Hundreds of student stations nationwide continue to provide undergraduates with invaluable on-air experience and act as the last bastions of non-mainstream music promotion.  But their survival prospects on the AM/FM dial amid a down economy and unending Internet and iPod assaults are bleaker than they have ever been.

“It seems as if the other people I speak to in college radio trudge on believing they are losing relevance every single day and ‘the end is near,’” said Schyler Orr, general manager of KAMP student radio at the University of Arizona.  Taylor Smith, general manager of WRMC at Vermont’s Middlebury College, agreed, noting, “College radio does seem to be entering a dark age.”  Lindsay Zoladz, former general manager of American University’s WVAU, wrote in a late April Washington City Paper piece that she began referring to her role as “the head custodian aboard a sinking ship.”

Orr, Smith and other station managers stress that students are still eagerly joining their staffs; local and indie bands are still being discovered, promoters and record labels continue sending music, and stations are coming together with unparalleled vigor to combat the challenges being flung at them like Angry Birds.  “On the one hand, it’s frightening and dark days, but on the other hand there are lots of fights and a lot of spirit,” said college radio expert Jennifer Waits.  “Radio stations all over the country are pitching in and speaking up about their desire to preserve college radio.  It’s empowering.”

Yet, the truth remains – the combined power of student stations’ wattage, funding, and administrative support is decreasing.  Hopes for high-tech trends such as HD radio have not been realized.  Online streaming has also not yet emerged as a savior.  And radio’s prominence within university curricula and media programs is at an all-time low. As legendary U.S. rock magazine Crawdaddy! proclaimed in April, “The future of college radio is in crisis.”

“Potential Purchase Targets”

At present, the most worrisome trend is the increasing number of terrestrial student radio stations that have been sold or operate under the threat or rumor of sale.  As Waits wrote for PopMatters in March, even more popular, reputable, and venerable student stations are being eyed as “potential purchase targets.”  A December 2010 New York Times report similarly shared, “[A]s colleges across the country look for ways to tighten budgets amid recession-induced shortfalls, some administrators . . . have focused on college radio, leading even well-endowed universities to sell off their FM stations.”

Among the recent victims of sales or sales talk: KAUR (Augustana College), KTRU (Rice University), KTXT (Texas Tech University), KUSF (San Francisco State), WCAL (St. Olaf College), WDYN (Tennessee Temple University), WHIL (Spring Hill College), WJHU (Johns Hopkins University), WNAZ (Trevecca Nazarene University), WRVU (Vanderbilt University), and WXEL (Barry University).  Other stations have had their funding slashed or student staffs drastically reduced.

In late April, to help raise awareness of the increase in sales, College Broadcasters, Inc. called for a moment of silence on college radio stations across the country.  At 11 a.m. EST on April 28, numerous stations interrupted regular programming for 60 seconds.  In its place, the sound college radio supporters fear most: dead air.

Administrators who have singled out student stations for on-the-dial deaths call college radio, as Zoladz wrote in Washington City Paper, an “obsolete format.”  They cite the paucity of students who regularly tune in to the stations and the large majority unaware they even exist.  In some cases, they point to stations maintaining school affiliations while sporting staffs made up of more outside locals than students.  They mention programming that is not line with student or mainstream interests.  And they throw up their hands at stations’ non-profit status.

College radio’s retort: These are the things that make us great.

College radio has always been a little-known but much-loved enterprise.  It has always had a commitment to its surrounding communities.  It has always boasted a healthy amount of student staffers and raised enough money during fundraising drives.  And it has always challenged students and others with programming centered on quality, not cash.  “College radio is non-profit and that is perhaps its biggest strength,” said David Ayrton Lopez, the general manager of Stanford University’s KZSU.  “We are not pressured to play music that will generate revenue.  It is more about music and less about money.  This translates to artistic freedom.”

“Radio with a Sense of Adventure”

Student stations still want their freedom primarily on FM.  The Internet has been a helpful add-on– and the lone home for campus stations that cannot afford wattage– but it is not a desired permanent replacement.

This past semester at Ohio State University, rising junior Steve Meil launched AROUSE (the Amateur Radio Organization for Undergraduate Student Entertainment) to revitalize OSU student radio.  His long-term goal is to start a full-bore freeform student station– on FM.

Meil has been told he will need roughly $100,000 a year for the first five years to get on the FM airwaves, not counting electricity and miscellaneous operating costs.  He will need to hire and work with legal consultants to navigate the FCC approval process.  He will need to secure dedicated studio space.  He will need to purchase the proper equipment and hire engineers to handle installation and oversight.  He will separately need to train an array of behind-the-scenes and on-air staffers.

He is fully aware an online-only operation would be much cheaper, smaller, and easier to manage.  He wants no part of it.  “Online streaming, it’s easy, but it’s the minor leagues,” he said.  “With [terrestrial] radio, it’s in your face.  It’s right there.  It confronts you.  With the Internet, you have to look for it.  You can’t just turn a dial and find it.  The Internet just isn’t there yet.”

Beyond niche podcasting success, the web has not yet established itself as a destination radio platform.  A spot on the dial remains the way to reach more listeners.  “In terms of viable numbers, if you’re not on the air, you’re fighting an uphill battle,” said Warren Kozireski, the general manager of WBSU at SUNY-Brockport and CBI past president.  “Online, you’ll have friends of the DJs listening and maybe a handful of others.  If you don’t have an operation where you can be a preset on someone’s car radio or home stereo, you’re kind of lost.”

With more student stations silenced or relegated to still mostly untapped web streams, radio’s “local flavor” may also be lost.  “Many Americans, including members of Congress, have complained that consolidation, voice tracking, syndication and automation have left communities without a true local radio station,” Mark Maben, the general manager of WSOU at Seton Hall University told CBI at the time of its call for the moment of silence.  “Student stations are often the last locally-focused radio outlet in their community.”

They are also among the last stations exhibiting any spontaneity– in programming, playlists, and on-air presence.  “It’s easy to bemoan commercial radio . . . because it’s all so regulated and formatted, but each individual hosting a college radio show, assuming they have free reign over what they play, exerts their own personality into their show,” said Adam Spektor, general manager of WRUW at Case Western Reserve University.  “I think people really enjoy that, hearing someone on the air who is as sincere, human, and passionate about what they do as they are, as opposed to having to go by strict guidelines or scripts.”

In a related sense– even though “the Internet has stolen some of college radio’s taste-making muscle,” according to a 2009 Chicago Daily Herald report– student stations still remain the last major platforms for offbeat and independent music.  According to Becky Sullivan, station manager of KJHK at the University of Kansas, “College radio is still providing what made it popular back in the eighties . . . an incredibly eclectic mix of music that is really impossible to hear anywhere else.”

This eclecticism is especially valuable in an iPod era in which so many of us only listen to the same songs, again and again.  “It’s great to have your entire library at your fingertips, in the way we listen to music today, but serendipity is now all but extinct,” former WVAU general manager Zoladz wrote in late April for Washington City Paper.  “We drill deep into our own niches, meaning that we don’t give the time of day to things we don’t already anticipate that we’ll like.  Half the fun of college radio is being exposed to things outside your perspective, or even your comfort zone.”

Slogans tell a similar story.  One of the mottos of Internet radio service Pandora: “It’s a new kind of radio– stations that play only music you like.”  By comparison, consider the tagline of a show that aired this spring on Binghamton University’s WHRW: “Music you didn’t know you liked until you heard it!”

Many student stations sport similar audience-challenging music philosophies.  The focus of WWHR at Western Kentucky University is to “revolutionize the commercial audio landscape.”  Meanwhile, University of North Carolina’s WXYC is set on playing “music usually considered too erratic, abrasive, or long for regular radio play.”  At KVRX at the University of Texas at Austin, it’s “None of the Hits, All of the Time.”  The University of Idaho’s student-owned and operated KUOI sums up its mission in six words: “Radio with a sense of adventure.”

“Radio Isn’t Just Radio Anymore”

Stations are also embracing adventure off the air as they work to reinvent and expand their reach.  Station managers describe efforts to transform their call letters into full-blown brand names.  “We have tried to make our station much more than just a radio station, but rather a brand that students turn to for everything music, news, and sports at our university,” said Ryan Patena, the general manager of WIUX at Indiana University.  “While one cannot be oblivious to the fact that radio itself is a dying medium, I am optimistic that new opportunities will allow college radio to continue to have a strong presence at universities.”

Some view the web as the greatest opportunity.  “Instead of killing it, the Internet has just forced college radio to get more creative,” College Music Journal editor Rev. Moose told the Chicago Daily Herald in 2009.

Since the net’s arrival, college stations have been far ahead of their commercial brethren in harnessing the power of radio 2.0.  More than 16 years ago, the first two stations to broadcast online were student-run, the UNC’s WXYC and Georgia Tech’s WREK.  Subsequently, as Waits wrote in a 2010 PopMatters piece “Technology and the Soul of College Radio,” college stations were “building websites, setting up netcasts, establishing archives, and developing online playlist capabilities while their commercial radio counterparts struggled to even put up basic web pages.”

The current generation of college radio-heads hope to continue the explorations and innovations of their predecessors.

When she was six years old, Sara Miller, station manager at the University of Minnesota’s Radio K (KUOM), received a small transistor radio from her grandmother.  She called it her “first window into the wider world.  Long after bed time, I would lay under the covers pressing the maroon plastic to my ear, listening to music and voices from places as a far away as Chicago– impossibly exotic for a child from the northern woods of Minnesota.”

Years later, she runs a student station “on the bleeding edge of emerging media technologies”– boasting dozens of student staffers, a website, blogs, a Twitter feed, a downloadable “Track of the Day” mp3, and music and talk programming available on four local FM and AM stations, online, and via an iPhone app.  The station even has its own computer desktop wallpaper.

“College radio is in a unique position to be at the forefront of the changing media landscape,” Miller said..  “The people who lead college radio stations are at the forefront of the technology revolution, so we are in the best position to move forward and create a new media model for the next generation. . . . Our strategy is working– Radio K has a record number of online listeners, web visitors, and social media followers.  This increase is a direct result of new ideas and technologies that our students are employing.”

Student stations are increasing their social media presences daily.  A growing number are maintaining blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, and live webcasts.  Some are also staging regular studio performances and nearby concerts featuring local musicians.

Michael McAfee, station manager of KVRX at the University of Texas at Austin, said the key is realigning passive listeners as active participants.  Among other efforts, the station has been hosting a monthly showcase concert at Austin’s Spiderhouse Ballroom featuring up-and-coming Texas bands.  “As long as college radio can stay true to its independent principles while diversifying our product, we will live on,” he said.  “It isn’t enough to broadcast every day and hope that people remain loyal.  You have to engage them and offer them incentives, like $5 concerts, to stick with you.  Essentially, we have to become more than just a radio station.”

Or as Caroline Marchildon, the station manager of WUOG at the University of Georgia said, “Radio isn’t just radio anymore.”

Dan Reimold

Daniel Reimold, Ph.D. advises The Minaret, the campus newspaper at the University of Tampa, where he is an assistant professor of journalism.  He maintains a blog, College Media Matters (collegemediamatters.com), which is affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press.


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