It’s not ‘the end of the world’
By Mason Bigler
Special to CMR
Borrowing from Matchbox 20, going to spring break in 2020 was like “waking up at the start of the end of the world” for college radio. Luckily, the world’s not over just yet.
Because of COVID-19, some college stations were abandoned for the spring semester, only on air because of automated systems. Others had to fight for their right to keep student DJs through strict rules and sanitation. As outlined below, some of those rules are still in place, while at other universities, precautions are being relaxed and the radio stations are returning closer to normal.
Savannah College of Art and Design
At the Savannah College of Art and Design home and Atlanta campuses, COVID-19 forced them to vacate both stations and leave them running only on automation.
In an email correspondence, SCAD radio adviser Jessica Clary said both stations lacked live DJs from March 2020 to April 2021.
“We closed completely,” Clary said. “Both studios are in on-campus residence halls, and we didn’t want to put people at risk.”
No one was allowed into the stations during that time, but the automated system continued to broadcast live music.
Clary also said that in January one student DJ per week went to go into the station to add or remove music from the stations’ playlists. These DJs weren’t allowed to do shows during this time—only to update the automated playlists. After reopening in April, both stations were allowed one live student DJ per day.
Each DJ goes through a health screening and on-site temperature check before entering the station as well. They’re all given individual mic screens stored in zip-top bags, have to wipe down the entire station with antiseptic wipes after their shows, and can’t go live until 12 hours after the previous DJ was live.
Rice University, in Houston, also temporarily closed its radio station but was better able to keep new programming running on the station through that time.
From March 2020 to August 2020, Rice’s station KTRU wasn’t allowed to have people in the station. To get around this, the station worked to create hour-long, daily automated shows. Rice Director of Student Media Kelley Lash said the show was made with downloaded and recorded assets.
“We were spending a lot of time to have one hour a day that felt like it was programmed by a person and not by an automation system,” Lash said.
Whenever the show was not playing, the automated system took over completely.
KTRU was also lucky enough to have plenty of support from DJs in the community to fill this hour-long slot with content. However, non-student DJs weren’t allowed in the station after KTRU was reopened because the university could not require them to take weekly health checks.
When it came to sanitation after reopening, Rice had headphone and microphone covers, disposable headphones, UV wands and boxes, 45-minute shows with only one DJ to allow sanitation time and social distancing, and mandatory hand washing prior to shows.
Rice’s media department was also allowed to keep excess funding from the prior year to put the money toward new systems that could help with COVID-19 mitigation. During normal years, money not spent by the end of the fiscal year is returned.
Neumann, in Aston Township, Pennsylvania, saw its station recover quickly from the initial panic of the pandemic.
To start, Neumann Media Director Sean McDonald was able to acquire funds that he used to ship microphones to students. Neumann’s WNUW also took advantage of applications like Zoom and Discord to record or do live shows remotely during March and April 2020. Once students and faculty were able to return to campus in August 2020, McDonald improved the existing editing bays to allow shows that sound like all DJs were together while being in separate rooms.
The WNUW student staff also worked to get on- and off-campus listeners involved by encouraging them to use their phones to record and send in content to the station. McDonald said this also helped to get the station back on its feet quickly.
When students returned for the fall 2020 semester, WNUW banned headphone sharing, had microphone and headphone covers, installed air filters, required all surfaces and objects to be wiped down, and required social distancing and masks at all times while in the studios.
However, in the spring 2021 semester, even when multiple people were in-studio, as long as students were live on air they did not have to wear masks. However, once they turned off the microphones, they were again required to wear masks.
With sports coverage, McDonald said he got the live feed from games for one radio host and one television host to watch and commentate on individually from separate studios.
“I made a deal that we would cover our basketball stuff only if I could get the feeds from the arena into our TV studio, if I could get the scoreboard information, and I could control the cameras,” McDonald said. “They (the hosts) had to call play-by-play just looking at those couple camera angles we had.”
McDonald said this was all possible due to previously installed infrastructure and equipment.
Northwest Missouri State University
NWMSU, in Maryville, Missouri, was very relaxed compared to other schools in the United States.
When students were returned home in March 2020, the station was left to run on automation. Meanwhile, students were required to record 10-minute minimum shows or air shifts that would then be uploaded onto the station’s automated system by KZLX faculty adviser Alex Kirt.
When students returned for the 2020-2021 academic year, shows were allowed multiple DJs and guests but required social distancing and masks if more than one person was in the studio. All surfaces still had to be wiped down before and after each air shift or show, but there were complications Kirt had to address.
“At the radio station we use Shure SM7Bs, and those just have a big foam windscreen on them,” Kirt said. “I did some more research and found out that they (companies) actually make products for disinfecting microphones that you can just spray on them and it dries almost immediately and just kills the germs.”
KZLX is also split into five sub-practicums: sports, promotions, news, music and production. These practicums act like parts of a professional station that assigned students work on when not doing their shows or air shifts. The sports and promotions sub-practicums had to completely change their approaches in order to keep content running smoothly at KZLX.
Prior to COVID-19, KZLX’s promotions was in charge of creating posters, giveaways and general student show promotion. Running the KZLX social media was only a side project.
After COVID-19 began, the promotions sub practicum changed to focus entirely on the station’s social media. All promotional materials or giveaways were moved to one of the four social media accounts.
Sports, on the other hand, didn’t have an obvious alternative to their usual content and had to get creative. Kirt said they explored sports history and used weekly themes.
College radio did not die because of COVID-19. College stations across the United States adapted, and it was difficult, but they didn’t disappear. Even the stations that had to shut down are seeing their doors reopened to students again. Thousands of students also received greater training in remote broadcasting. If COVID-19 couldn’t stop it, then college radio in the United States still has a bright future.
Lash said there were bright sides that can be focused on and used to move forward.
“I don’t know if we’d have the new system if it hadn’t been for COVID. I don’t want to say that good things have come from this, but we took advantage of not being able to spend that money the last year,” Lash said.
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Mason Bigler is a 2021 Northwest Missouri State University graduate who works in radio and print journalism.