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The mediageek’s advice for college stations, part 2: No more elitism — Recruit, recruit, recruit

This guy is in your station, judging your taste

The theme of part 1 of this series, posted last week, was ensuring that your college station works to be valuable to your school, and is also recognized by the campus for this value. Part 2 follows in this theme by focusing on the most important aspect of this: keeping students involved in college radio. I addressed an element of this in part 1 with the advice that the management of a college station should be made up of a majority students. In part this addresses the rationale used by many schools questioning the value of their stations that there are not many students involved in the first place. However, student involvement goes further than station management.

It is my opinion that the majority of a college station’s on-air staff should be made up of students. I believe that college stations need to face up to the harsh reality that a decline in student involvement is a very real threat to stations.

I don’t deny the fact that today’s young adults listen to less radio than people in the same age group did ten or twenty years ago. Obviously the fact that college-age students listen to very little radio has an influence on their awareness of college stations and their desire to work in college radio. At the same time I do not believe that this is an insurmountable challenge.

There are still college radio stations across the country that enjoy strong student involvement. Futhermore, college students get involved in all sorts of extracurricular activities that seem even more archaic than radio. For instance, a capella singing groups continue to be very popular on campuses across the US even while its an art form that otherwise can be considered a niche interest at best off campus. If a capella can attract thousands of new eighteen year-old adherents every year I should expect college radio should be able to do so as well.

The difference between a college station with strong student involvement and another with many fewer students involved can be distilled down to one crucial factor: recruitment. I see four principal aspects to this process:

1. No More Elitism — The Days of “High Fidelity” Are Over

2. Recruit, Recruit, Recruit

3. Be Inviting and Enthusiastic

4. Educate and Orient

No More Elitism — The Days of “High Fidelity” Are Over.

Music lovers who’ve seen the movie “High Fidelity” are quite familiar with the archetypical snobbish record store clerk played by Jack Black. In one perfectly emblematic scene, Black’s character mocks a businessman customer–the only customer in the store at the time–who comes in looking for a copy of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” a song not generally considered by critics to be Wonder’s most sophisticated work. Of course the customer leaves empty handed and disgusted from the interaction. And in the process the store sells nothing.

College radio can not afford to be on this path.

The harsh truth is that college radio stations have often been perceived as elitist and exclusive enterprises, where questions of having the correct taste in music–especially not liking anything too mainstream–dictate who gets to be on air. The even harsher truth is that this has been true of a lot of stations, and is still true at many.

My first college radio experience twenty years ago was partly marked by being told my musical taste sucked and was utterly inappropriate for the station’s critical, but relatively undefined, standards. I’ve talked with many other folks who went to college in the 90s and early 2000s who have shared similar experiences. Some decided to tough it out and bear the exclusion and passive aggressive mocking because they loved radio too much. Others concluded that dealing with the snobbery wasn’t worth the effort and missed out on the college radio experience. The flip side is that their colleges’ stations missed out on some potentially great volunteers.

One thing that made a big difference for me as a freshman wannabe DJ was the kind assistance of one senior DJ who had some empathy because he probably had a similar experience four years earlier. Instead of trying to lecture me on what the right music was he took me aside and asked me about the music I liked and why I liked it. He explained the rationale behind the station’s ethos of not playing mainstream and major label artists in a way that made it sound reasonable rather than arrogant. Then he took me through a tour of the record library to point out some bands that either sounded like ones I liked, or which were influences upon the bands I liked. His assistance helped me assemble a demo tape that I both enjoyed but also managed to pass muster with the program director well enough to land me an overnight slot.

Now I might have persisted even without this DJ’s help, but I very well have decided to pack it in. I can’t even imagine how different my life would have been if I hadn’t been able to figure out how to get involved in my college station and had my passion for radio intensified through this experience.

By the same token, every new freshman who gets turned off of your station because she gets told her taste in music sucks, or that she’s going to have to do scut work and study hard before she gets any chance to be near a microphone is the potential loss of your next great DJ or program director. Not only do you lose a volunteer, you also have to live with the fact she will probably tell all her friends about what assholes the station staff were.

It should be obvious that this does nothing to help your station recruit more students.

The first step is really to arrest that elitism if it exists at your station. It’s not something you can do overnight, although it isn’t as hard as one might think. The most important action is for the station leadership to set the best possible example, and encourage the station staff to be welcoming and willing to mentor rather than just filtering out newbies who don’t yet possess the proper taste.

Following this advice does not mean that your station has to water down its cultural and artistic standards. Rather, what I’m encouraging stations to do is what that one DJ did for me. Provide training, orientation and mentoring to new DJs in a way that encourages them to learn about the station and helps them expand their musical horizons. Read on for more specifics.

Recruit, Recruit, Recruit

Recruitment has always been a necessary endeavor for any student group, and college radio is no exception. However, the more popular or desirable a particular activity is will influence how hard and often a group has to recruit. For decades the sheer attractiveness of being on the radio was probably the most effective recruitment for college stations. This let many stations get away with putting forth minimal effort to bring in new DJs.

But now that the status of radio is different I’ve been surprised by how many stations I’ve seen that haven’t changed their recruitment strategies in years. And then they’re surprised that they’re getting fewer and fewer interested students coming out.

I find it quite understandable that with the difficult and time consuming work that comes with running a broadcast station the thought of stepping up or changing recruitment efforts can fall by the wayside.

Especially if your station already has a routine, it can be difficult to find the motivation to break out of it. However, if your station is not recruiting as many students as you would like, or if you have a continual problem with unfilled time slots, you really have no choice but to increase your recruitment efforts and to try new approaches.

If your station has one recruitment meeting per year, semester or quarter, try doing more than one. I’ve seen many stations use facebook to get the word out, sending out invites that spread quickly across campus. And, of course, don’t dismiss the value of ads in student publications and old fashioned flyers.

Networking with other groups on campus can help as well, in addition to improving the image of your station on campus, as I discussed in part 1. Every campus event your station tables, DJs or co-sponsors is in effect a recruitment opportunity. Make sure to have a stack of flyers or program guides. And there’s no excuse not to have a staff member there with a clipboard to get the names and emails of interested students.

Of course, your next step is to follow up with those new recruits.

Be Inviting and Enthusiastic

When members of your station’s staff are talking with potential new DJs I can’t stress enough that it’s best be friendly and inviting. This doesn’t mean you have to be fake or ingratiating. We’re presuming that your station actually wants and needs new DJs, so act like it.

Talk about how exciting your station is, and be ready to tell some of its history. It’s great to know about any famous alumni or anecdotes about particularly cool programs or events. Most of all, be enthusiastic. And this is not something you should fake or should have to fake. If you don’t think your college radio station is special and something exciting to be a part of, then new recruits aren’t going to either.

New students leaving a recruitment event or any interaction with station staff should be excited at the prospect of getting involved. Do what you can to make this happen.

Educate and Orient

Once your station has a batch of new recruits you probably have less than a month to keep them excited about coming aboard and start them on their path to being DJs or working in some other capacity. So don’t wait around to start working with these folks. As quickly as possible find out what they’re interested in doing and hook them up with the right folks to do this.

Every station has some kind of training program, even if only to educate new DJs on how to operate the broadcast board and learn FCC rules. This training is also a great opportunity to educate and orient new recruits to your station, and your station’s mission and history. If your station emphasizes music that isn’t heard on other stations, explain why this is and give some examples of the music the station plays. It’s probably the case that your station played many artists who are popular now before they ever entered the top 40. You might point out some of these bands and how important college radio has been in exposing new, innovative artists to listening audiences.

One of the things that impressed me most about WNUR when I started as adviser three years ago was the depth and quality of the station’s training and orientation. At WNUR the training is handled by each department, so the new sportscasters receive a different regimen than the newscasters and rock DJs, but each program is specialized and comprehensive.

I was particularly surprised by the training process for new rock DJs. As one might expect, it’s usually the most popular programming department with new student recruits. Therefore, depending on the year, there are usually more DJs who want a show than there are open slots to go around, often by a ratio of 3 to 1 or more. So, out of any department at the station the rock show could most afford to simply thin the herd by casting off those with musical taste not deemed worthy enough. Except that’s not what they do.

Instead the rock department holds weekly meetings where the staff reviews new albums together and everyone learns about and discusses college and independent rock history. The WNUR rock show has its own bible of sorts, which is a binder of photocopied pages covering important and seminal periods, scenes, genres and subgenres in rock music. From 1960s garage rock to 1980s post-punk, new DJs learn both the history of the rock music played at the station and the bands at the cutting edge today.

As part of the training process new rock DJs apprentice with more senior DJs who have their own shows. During this process, which lasts at least a quarter, the apprentice DJs have a chance to select sets of music and be on air with experienced DJs serving as mentors. Once an apprenticeship is completed DJs have the opportunity to have their own show.

In the last couple of years there has still been more DJs than open slots, so the producers of the rock show have asked DJs to team or alternate in order to give more DJs a chance. While that does represent a compromise for a DJ who wants to do a show by herself every week, it also means that a newly trained DJ doesn’t have to wait as long to get a regular spot as she would if there were no teaming up or alternating. While there is certainly some attrition, it’s my observation that there’s still quite a bit of retention because the process is predictable and the gratification of getting on air isn’t too delayed. The end result is that the rock show has no lack for well trained DJs who are enthusiastic about the station at its mission.

This is just one model a station could follow, but the same principles can apply. Treat new recruits with respect and teach them the ways of your station, especially its standards for music or other practices. Don’t expect them to arrive already fully versed in non-mainstream music and culture, but ask them to be open to it. Then provide them a path to actually get on the air that is consistent and fair.

Summing Up

Even if your station has a steady supply of volunteers, it’s never too early to think about your recruitment and training efforts and seeing if they’re truly able to sustain your station. If your station is in the position of needing more DJs, or needing to increase the number of student DJs, then you can’t afford not to take a fresh look at your recruitment and training and try some new approaches.

I realize this is a long post, and part of a multi-part series. But I do hope to spark some conversation about concrete ideas and tactics for college stations to sustain themselves in the face of changing landscape in the media and in higher education. Please share your advice and experiences in the comments.

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