Debating the "Smallness" of College Radio

I once heard an anecdote about group of commercial radio folks visiting a non-commercial FM radio station. As they walked through the station and noticed a wall full of vinyl and a studio outfitted with functional, yet aging equipment, the visitors chided the college radio station for being out of touch with the commercial radio industry. They suggested that things would be better if the college radio station had equipment and operations that were more like the commercial radio station where they worked.

What do College Radio Stations Aspire to Be?

I was saddened when I heard that story, as it made me realize that there are some radio practitioners out there who hold a specific type of radio as an ideal for other types of radio stations to aspire to. Why can't we have many different forms of radio and appreciate a variety of stations for their unique qualities?

Some college radio stations do try to model themselves after commercial radio stations, whereas others may prefer a public or a community radio model. However, a large swath of college radio stations aspire to be college radio stations. In fact, commercial and public radio stations have been known to take lessons from college radio. College radio stations built websites, embraced online streaming, and experimented with video before the majority of their commercial and non-commercial counterparts. And college radio is one of the last bastions of experimental, freeform programming; which is largely absent from commercial and public radio.

College radio stations have been innovators since the earliest days of broadcasting, so why can't they be seen as leaders in 2016?

Does Size Matter?

This all brings me to this week's Radio Survivor Podcast.

I was never a member of a Speech & Debate team, so it's somewhat new territory for me to be engaging in a public debate for anyone to see (well, hear). For this week's Radio Survivor Podcast, I did just that.

Ken Mills, a radio consultant with a background in commercial and public radio, blogged about the state of college radio recently and his posts ended up generating some lively discussion in the college radio community. On last week's podcast, we (my co-hosts Eric Klein, Paul Riismandel and I) talked a bit about his thesis (mainly that college radio's "smallness" is a threat to its future) among ourselves, but realized that we should interview him for the podcast in order to get a better sense of his arguments.

While it was a polite discussion, it became clear that Ken is looking at college radio from a completely different perspective than I am. While he does have a college radio past; he looks at college radio today from more of a management perspective than I do. He worries about numbers, like ratings and fundraising dollars and is less concerned about the impact (educationally, socially, musically, etc.) that college radio may be having on its participants, community, and listeners.

College radio is incredibly diverse, from tiny, low budget streaming stations, to high wattage stations with big staffs and budgets (and everything in between). Programming can vary tremendously. Some college radio stations operate like their commercial top 40 radio counterparts, whereas others embrace freeform, DJ-controlled programming. The majority of stations are somewhere in the middle, perhaps operating with a specific music philosophy (underground, metal, etc.), playing a mix of news, talk, sports, and music shows, or focusing on radio as a learning experience connected with coursework.

I agree that every college radio station should work hard to do its very best, but Ken and I just don't agree on what that "very best" might look like.

College Radio Station WCUA at Catholic University. Photo: Jennifer Waits

College Radio Station WCUA at Catholic University. Photo: Jennifer Waits

Exploring Radio History at the Radio Preservation Task Force Conference

I had a wonderful time at the Library of Congress' Radio Preservation Task Force Conference. In addition to connecting with fellow radio historians, archivists and enthusiasts, I also took part of numerous radio station tours.

A highlight was a conference-organized tour of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpepper, Virginia. During the visit we learned about preservation efforts and were able to feast our eyes on plenty of vintage audio material, including cylinders, transcription discs, wire recordings, reel-to-reels and more. It was a radio geek's dream come true.

To hear my recap of the conference, listen to this week's Radio Survivor Podcast.

Watching a cylinder being played at the Audio-Visual Conservation Center. Photo: J. Waits

Watching a cylinder being played at the Audio-Visual Conservation Center. Photo: J. Waits