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College Radio's Love-Hate Relationship with Non-Student DJs

WRVU at Vanderbilt University Grapples with Role of Non-Student DJs

When you tune in to your favorite college radio station you might be surprised to learn that the people behind the microphones might not actually be college students.

Many college radio stations rely on non-student DJs and it’s not uncommon for some stations to have more DJs from the community than from the college. On the plus side, some community DJs have been on the air for years and years (in some cases decades) and provide a sense of stability to a station’s air sound.

Yet having too many community DJs can also put college radio stations in a precarious situation at some universities, especially in these uncertain economic times. If it appears that an organization isn’t popular with students, the school may question why it is being funded. Some stations, like KSJS at San Jose State require all DJs to be registered in radio classes in order to participate, which has essentially eliminated all but a handful of community DJs because of the expense associated with signing up for classes as a non-student.

WITR at Rochester Institute of Technology also seems to be moving in this direction, having recently reduced the number of non-student DJs on the air. The station is rumored to be shifting to a student-only station. Over 1,000 people have joined a protest group on Facebook called “Modern Music No More: Save WITR!”, which is focused on changes to both music programming and the move towards fewer community DJs. Despite these protests, an article today claims that non-student DJs actually left of their own accord after they were asked to shorten their shifts.

In December, Vanderbilt University station WRVU made the decision to place a cap on the number of non-student DJ shows (it’s now limited to 25 non-student DJs) at their station and as a result of that they eliminated a number of programs hosted by community DJs. The reasoning in part was to make room for more student DJs, but unfortunately some of the eliminated slots (10-hours worth of programming) are still vacant because they aren’t enough students able to fill those shifts.

This week I posted an interview with WRVU’s General Manager Mikil Taylor on Spinning Indie. Mikil was amazingly candid about the station’s decision to eliminate some community DJ shows and gave me a bit of perspective about how everything went down. According to Mikil:

“…at some point we had to face the question as to what was more important: Educating students or providing good non-mainstream music in unfamiliar genres? Considering we are funded mainly by Student Activity Fees and were founded as a learning tool for students, emphasizing students has to be the priority.”

Mikil added that,

“The board wanted to emphasize students, and feared that having over half of the DJs at WRVU be unaffiliated with Vanderbilt was crowding out students. In addition to the crowding out of times, they also felt that potential student DJs were discouraged by the number of older DJs at the station. Considering our funding, they did not want to do anything to discourage student participation.”

I’ve heard this argument before, that stations with schedules dominated by long-time DJs can feel inhospitable to younger DJs, who might sense that it’s next to impossible to get on the air.

Mikil emphasized to me that WRVU still has a good number of community DJs and that they are welcome at the station. He pointed out,

“I think one thing that’s been lost in all this hubub is that there are still 25 fantastic community DJs at WRVU, in addition to the 70 or so students, faculty members, and alumni also doing great shows.”

See my entire interview with Mikil to learn more about this situation at WRVU.

What role do you think non-students should play at a college radio station?


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3 Responses to College Radio's Love-Hate Relationship with Non-Student DJs

  1. Tapeleg April 2, 2010 at 10:35 am #

    College radio should be more like college sports, in that it is somewhat transitional. If a college is spending the time and money for a station, the students should be involved closely, on air, and behind the scenes. They aren’t always the best DJs, but how else are they supposed to get better? They need to be given the opportunity to do the job.

    Even public stations that are latched on to a university get me sometimes. I know the audiences like their comfort zones of having the same DJ day after day, but I think it comes with the territory.

  2. Eric May 30, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    I ran into trouble at two such stations, both in Atlanta. One was WRFG, a community station based out of the Little Five Points Community Center in Atlanta. Even though I had taken broadcasting courses at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, I was required to take the Radio Free Georgia broadcasting course, which ran $45 (way beyond my means back in 1989). So, I ended up going to a Christian radio station in Marietta which had offered me better time slots (as it was a 10,000-watt daytimer at the time).

    I also ran into a similar situation at WGHR, the station that was once attached to Southern Polytechnic State University (then the Southern College of Technology). The station was student-run, and focused too much on alternative rock. I did an Oldies show for the station in 1990, and produced the same show for the station in 1991 and 1992. The station was grossly mismanaged. WGHR was at 102.5 on the FM dial while I was there; it later moved to 100.7 FM before being forced off the air by the 100.5 assignment for College Park, GA.

    I have been out of radio for nearly a year now; having been cut loose by WSIE, attached to Southern Illinois University, last July. If there is a place for non-students, it should be primarily in the overnight time slot (Midnight to 6:00 or 8:00 a.m. local time). Those alumni that got laid off from commercial radio or the local NPR outlet should also get first dibs at the shifts the students won’t take. I would have loved to do an overnight slot.

    The station I trained at, KCFV (89.5 FM), dropped its last alumni and non-student shifts in 1991. I had to leave the station in 1995. The one thing that students need to learn is how to find commercial broadcast work. I found my commercial radio jobs on my own, without help from former colleagues.

  3. Jerry Drawhorn June 27, 2014 at 8:34 am #

    As in all things it depends on the context. A large power station that broadcasts into the community will have a different audience than a 10 watt station that primarily reaches the campus community. That larger station may have a need to serve a larger community of “underserved and unserved audiences”. As well, it depends on the other stations in the area. Is there a Low Power Community Station in the area?

    If a station is primarily funded by student fees then there’s a good argument that non-student participation should be less. But if air-spots are going wanting I’d hope that they are made available to non-students that are producing a sound that adds to the station. A reggae, jazz or blues speciality show or two can often add to the service to the community and bring the station community support. Non-students also fill in during Semester breaks and Summer holidays.

    But if the station supports itself by an on-air fundraiser then having a bridge with the community by having community or alumni b’casters seems important. Sometimes non-students play other important roles. They may be the chief engineer, or actually train students in studio or production work. They may have knowledge of FCC regulations. Or do news/public affairs. Or they know how to do fundraisers, or concerts, or have connections with the music distributors in a particular genre.

    Sometimes, even if there are rules against non-student DJ’s, non-students will end up tag-teaming with a student as a guest….which soon becomes a co-host gig. It’s hard to argue that they are taking an on-air spot from a student in these cases.

    Non-student DJ’s have to realize that they are benefitting from the good will of the station and maintain themselves with decorum, do a lot of volunteer work, treat students with respect, and not act like an entitled nobleman. Ultimately their status is dependent upon students who see their value and who may have to defend their role from student governments or Administrators who view their involvement with suspicion.

    Some stations don’t have any affiliation with either a Communications or Journalism Department and so there aren’t any “broadcast” courses to take…except for some that are actually “in house” that are actually performed by…Non-students…with the money going into the station coffers. In those cases the person taking these courses are not actually students enrolled in the college per se.

    Non-student DJ’s may (and this is a generalization, admittedly) provide a model for knowledge, presentation, and maturity. They may have connections with artists, or play music in specialized genres. The give the station some level of a consistent sound that isn’t buffeted with the current trends.

    A final point, the fact that an individual is a student gives some greater degree of control by the University or College over that student DJ…they can be taken to the student disciplinary board for violations of the campus conduct code. That said, off-campus individuals can be banned entirely from campus (tougher to do with enrolled students) and charged in criminal court for serious violations. It’s just a different level of formality and in the former case (students) things may be handled in a more confidential manner.

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