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9 Tips to Ensure College Radio’s Survival

I’ve been obsessively following the sagas of KTRU and WRVU, two college radio stations that are in danger of losing their FM signals. As I write more and more about the situations at stations where licenses have been lost, where administrations have sold off frequencies and transmitters, and where radio station staff members seem powerless to stop the machine despite their eloquence and protestations; I’m realizing that there needs to be a how-to list for college radio stations in peril.

As much as I try to express to other radio stations the warning cry of: YOU COULD BE NEXT, it seems that most college radio stations don’t rally until it’s too late. As I was reading through one of the Save WRVU websites today, there was a post about how they are just now learning more and more about the history of their own station. While they are finding it instructive, it’s unfortunately that they didn’t have a more solid understanding of their station’s history until now, as it’s become useful information as they build arguments in favor of retaining their FM status to their governing organization.

So, here are my tips for all college radio stations in order to help secure your survival on campus. Whether your station appears to be in immediate danger or not, it’s never too early to start communicating your worth:

1. Be a Great Station

This is obvious. But do a kick-ass job with your station’s programming. Actively recruit new DJs and make sure that you have a large, active staff of on-air DJs. Air live shows for your entire schedule if you can. Automated programming can be the death-knell for a college radio station because it signals to listeners and the administration that not enough DJs care enough about the station to be on the air.

2.  Promote Your Station

Spread the word about your station. Co-present events on and off-campus. DJ at parties. Have booths at local festivals and fairs. Regularly communicate the ways that your station interacts with and contributes to your campus community. Document listener comments and promote student involvement. Beef up your website, blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feeds to make it clear that you are an important voice on campus.

3.  Compile Your Station’s History

I’m always surprised by how few stations have well-documented histories on their websites. Take pride in your station’s past and present by taking the time to archive stories, photos, and achievements from the past. One of the Save WRVU Sites is beginning this process now in order to help provide some perspective on their current crisis.

4. Embrace and Engage Station Alumni

College radio is a big deal to those who participated in it. Alumni of college radio stations are often ardent supporters and defenders of their beloved media outlets. Radio station alums have been known to make big donations in order to ensure the survival of stations that they valued while students and they have also been formidable forces when schools threaten to close down their cherished student activity. Reach out to alumni to get their stories about the station. Hold station reunions. Hofstra University station WRHU goes so far as to have an entire alumni section on its website, in which radio alums are highlighted by decade. For the past 2 years they’ve also been honoring stellar alums of WRHU by inducting them into the WRHU Radio Hall of Fame. This really helps to show people outside of the station that radio matters.

5. Become Self-Sufficient

If you don’t already, do your own fundraising and try to become a self-sufficient organization on campus. Seek out underwriting, host station benefits, sell radio station paraphernalia (T-shirts, compilation CDs, sweatshirts, etc.), and consider doing on-air fundraising. The less of a drain that you on your institution’s resources, the better.

6. Build Up a Case for Your Station’s Relevance

I think that every college radio station should work on a list of arguments in favor of college radio. If you can’t convince yourselves of your relevance and importance, then it will be impossible to convince others. If you have a terrestrial signal, write out a list of reasons why it is critical to maintain it. Explain the value that your station has to students on campus, to the broader community of listeners, and to alumni.

7. Learn from the Experiences of Stations Fighting to Survive

Take a look at the Save KTRU website in particular. It’s beautifully organized, making it clear how listeners can help. Do the things that they are doing BEFORE your station is in danger. Have a great website, start a blog, update your Facebook page and Twitter feed regularly, seek out letters of support from alumni and listeners, build relationships with key people in the administration of your school. Do all of this before your station is facing a crisis in order to make sure that you have listeners, alumni, and administrators on your side.

8. Lend Your Support to Other Stations in Need

It’s good karma to spread the word about other college radio stations who are in need of help. Write letters of support, tell your friends, and argue for their survival as if your own station depended upon it. Right now that means speaking out for KTRU and WRVU. Not only will this help other stations in need, but it will also help contribute to the overall discussion about why college radio is important and relevant.

9. Defend Your Terrestrial Signal Like Your Life Depends Upon It

When schools start contemplating selling off radio stations they are often lured by the promise of quick cash by radio suitors. The dark side of this equation is important to point out to anyone who cares about radio, the media landscape, and independent voices. Often those promising big bucks for radio station licenses are large conglomerates: mainly religious broadcasters and public radio groups. Much of the non-commercial radio dial is now taken up by non-local public radio entities and religious stations because they have the money to buy up empty slots on the dial. Unfortunately this means that there are fewer and fewer local independent non-commercial stations (let alone college radio stations), making for a far less interesting radio experience for listeners.

So, even though station owners like WRVU’s Vanderbilt Student Communications like to say that the station’s role on campus FOR students is of primary importance, I think it’s irresponsible of them to ignore the damage that they might inflict on the local indie media landscape if they sell their station off to a non-local radio conglomerate. It’s also important to remember that once a station gives up a terrestrial signal, it’s very difficult (there just aren’t that many frequencies even available), time-consuming (it can take years even if there is an open signal) and expensive to get a new license. Do not discount the value of a terrestrial radio license. There’s a reason that these big radio groups want to buy them. The majority of people listen to terrestrial radio and it’s still the cheapest way to reach the largest audience of listeners.

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2 Responses to 9 Tips to Ensure College Radio’s Survival

  1. Paul Riismandel October 6, 2010 at 11:23 am #

    Jennifer, this is fantastic advice and a must-read for every student and advisor in college radio. It’s also completely applicable to community and LPFM stations.

    Online radio is great and provides the opportunity for stations to expand their audience and provide even better service, but it’s not a replacement for traditional broadcast. Look at some of the most popular indie online stations like KEXP and WFMU and you’ll find that their foundations are broadcast stations. Seattle-based KEXP even went so far as to get a second broadcast signal across the country in New York City.

    The last two years WNUR’s fall recruitment meeting has been an overwhelming success — today’s college students are still interested in radio. To give back to the campus community WNUR’s DJs have been making appearances to spin sets at more campus events, in addition to appearances at events around Chicagoland.

    Last week WNUR did a live broadcast from Northwestern’s north beach on Lake Michigan for a beach party thrown by the School of Communication. Students, staff and faculty all came up to me to tell me how great the music was, even though they didn’t necessarily know any of the artists and songs. I made sure they knew where and when to tune in.

    Getting out there, being visible and being heard are great ways to demonstrate both how independent unheard music can also be fun and crowd-pleasing, but also how demonstrate the unique service a college station provides. How many commercial music stations are out live DJing events on the air? Not when the “DJ” is a voice-tracked from a city hundreds of miles away and played off a hard drive in the studio.

    Thanks so much, Jennifer, for your continued support and guidance for college radio!

  2. Pat M October 13, 2010 at 10:12 am #

    You make some very good suggestions, but the head of the snake needs to be cut off.

    Most radio takeovers are being done by NPR: a government-funded cancer that’s eviscerating free radio. They’ve been after my radio station’s license twice in the last 18 months and have tried going around the license holders, who’ve refused to sell, using the most underhanded means. When NPR first attempted this in 1981, they tried using their FCC contacts to have my radio station’s licensed pulled. This outfit is run by unscrupulous and power hungry fanatics.

    To combat NPR, people need to dispense with their preconceived notions about CPB and the whole nest of public radio vipers underneath them. Those who’ve been misled to believe these are benign organizations need to see them for the tyrants and propagandists they are.

    Public radio partisans have been using taxpayer money to buy up college stations and others in the non-commercial band (88-92MHz). Their goal is to create mass media similar to Radio Moscow. Independent programing is eliminated in favor of mostly biased talk from the viewpoint of radical eastern elitist snobs. Any music that’s allowed is centralized and tightly controlled by NPR’s neurotic mafia, leaving no room for independent programming.

    NPR’s takeovers are part of a greater scheme to consolidation radio and stamp out unsigned musicians, web artists and others outside the control of these self-enamored cultural crackpots and their bankrolling sidekicks in the record industry.

    Hardcore NPR listeners think they’re moderates and informed, but they’re neither, and trying to enlighten them about this outfit’s underhand ploys is most likely futile. Those who value college radio’s independent programming need to see NPR and its minions as enemies.

    The best way to combat this is to eliminate NPR by writing your Congressional representatives and demanding that CPB and NPR be completely defunded. Make it clear any politician who refuses to do so will be targeted and voted out of office.

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