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Analyzing College Radio in 2012 – A Study of Different Station Structures

KSMC at St. Mary's College (Photo: J. Waits)

KSMC at St. Mary's College (Photo: J. Waits)

Editor’s Note: In this article, the first in a series, Lucas McCallister shares with Radio Survivor readers some findings from his recently completed Master’s thesis research. In his project he delved into the different forms that college radio takes in 2012.

I love college radio – so much, I did it though my entire college career, even while completing my master’s degree. In fact, I ended up getting my master’s degree BECAUSE of my college station, at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

WIDB, where I served as both the General Manager and Chief Engineer, faced some interesting challenges during my time there.

One of the things I became really interested in was the structure of stations – I found that everything depended on the right balance of purpose, rules, and chaos. And while it may seem obvious that no two college radio stations are the same, I was fascinated by why the two stations I had been a part of (I also volunteered at WPCD at Parkland College) were so different.

There’s not a large amount of written material about college radio. Sure, you have books such as Radio’s Hidden Voice: The Origins of Public Broadcasting in the United States by Hugh Richard Slotten, which covers some really good radio history. There are also big overview books like Sauls’ The Culture of American College Radio. However, literature about the management of stations and about station structure is even less forthcoming.

Books by Quaal and Martin (1968’s Broadcast Management) and Brant (College Radio Handbook from 1981) only address college radio as being like commercial radio, and Sauls doesn’t really go much beyond that in his work. There’s talk of the positions that students can occupy and roles of the advisor, but no expounding upon how “who is in charge of what” really affects the station itself. Early radio scholarship from the ’40s and ’50s focuses on what the goal of stations should be, with little perspective of how the structure affects that. This is understandable, since university radio was doing some real soul-searching at this point.

There is one report that I found that really delved into what I was curious about, and it covered it well. In The College Radio Study from 1969 for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vincent Badger points out that there’s a difference between stations affiliated with an academic department and those that are extracurricular stations with less formal ties to the university. There’s a similar, more modern version of this created by Terry Mattingly about college newspapers. Mattingly puts college newspapers in a spectrum of six models that range in orientation from being a university PR tool, to operating as tightly guarded educational exercise, to existing as a student-run enterprise with board supervision.

Vinyl at KSJS at San Jose State University (Photo: J. Waits)

Vinyl at KSJS at San Jose State University (Photo: J. Waits)

I really liked Badger’s study – it reflected the differences between the two college stations that I had worked at, and I was curious if its findings could be applied to college radio stations in 2012.

So, for my master’s project, I used the College Broadcasters Inc. (CBI) listserv to distribute a survey to college radio stations, based on a modernized version of Badger’s survey.

With 50 stations and a giant spreadsheet, I went to work. I also managed to interview 10 stations in a little more detail.

The results were interesting on multiple levels. Generally, you could still divide stations into those two categories identified by Badger. I’ll give you a write up of two stations, based on the statistics from the survey.

The examples I’m giving are not based on any specific station per se – in fact, there are many interesting exceptions to these in the study as well. Think of these examples as being representative of common patterns and as being very general archetypical frameworks that stations can be categorized into. As any good radio advisor knows, there is no “perfect” station that fits all people or all needs.  Every college station is in a different environment in terms of audience (including demographics, size, and public attitude toward radio), finances, method of broadcast (often related to spectrum availability), etc.

Sign at San Francisco State, home of academic station KSFS (Photo: J. Waits)

Sign at San Francisco State, home of academic station KSFS (Photo: J. Waits)

The Academic Station

The Academic Station is affiliated with a program in the Media or Communications College of its university.  Its purpose within the university is to prepare students for a future career in media or broadcasting, acting as a complementary hands-on space in tandem with coursework.

It is a noncommercial FM station that streams online. It has underwriting and occasional donors, but the vast majority of its budget comes from the college. At the head of the station is an instructor/faculty advisor who acts as the station’s general manager. The station also has a part-time paid engineer who assists in maintaining the transmitter and station equipment and who is also shared with the university TV station or other local broadcasters.

Underneath the faculty advisor/manager, student executive managers control most of the day-to-day operations, and may even have members reporting to them. The total main staff is about 7 people, most of whom will receive a stipend or some set of paid hours for their work. Most of the 60 station members are broadcast majors, though non-majors are welcome.

WZBC at Boston College (Photo: J. Waits)

WVBC at Boston College - WZBC FM's online-only sister station (Photo: J. Waits)

The Extracurricular Station

The Extracurricular station is a station completely student-run, and holds status as a registered student organization under the authority of a Campus Life department.

The extracurricular station’s mission within the university is to provide an outlet for student voice within the community, or in a simpler case, to be a club/activity for student creativity and participation.

It is also a noncommercial FM station that streams online. Most of its funding comes from a funding process in which station executives must justify their budget to a funding committee that distributes student activity funds.  The station probably has a Board of Directors which oversees it on a loose basis, and a faculty advisor who meets with the station staff during their meetings. The station doesn’t have a paid engineer, but it does have an engineer or two in can bring in for contract work when needed. The faculty advisor or a student engineer help make sure that equipment is in working condition.

The main staff of the extracurricular station will have about 10 staff members, and will also have a slightly larger general membership, at about 80 members. Depending on the college, there may be fewer broadcast majors, especially if there isn’t a particularly strong media program. About 6 members of the main staff of the station will be paid, though it’s very likely that they will be volunteering their efforts for no compensation.

Everything In Between and Other Things

WNUR at Northwestern University (Photo: J. Waits)

WNUR at Northwestern University (Photo: J. Waits)

Of course, no station is going to be a perfect fit for either model. In fact, there were a few stations that operated as extracurricular stations that were departmentally affiliated, with no major focus on training broadcasters.

In Badger’s original work, he stated that extracurricular stations were more likely to play rock music – today, the alternative format is widely accepted, so it’s no surprise that stations of both ends of the spectrum play it.

In fact, I wasn’t able to discern much of a major difference between format selection at either type of station. Granted, the information I had was mostly quantitative, so perhaps a more in-depth look at format would paint a clearer picture. Here are some more interesting notes:

·   Sports and remote equipment are used at about 75% of stations on average, with academic model stations being a little more common, and extra-curriculars a little less.

·   Extracurricular stations were 20% more likely to broadcast news, but were also twice as likely to use live news feeds such as the AP. Live audio feeds like these were generally not common at college radio stations. However, Academic stations have adopted the use of rip-and-read newswires more.

·   There was almost no difference in funding between the two models. But, funding had a bimodal distribution – most stations had a budget of less than $40,000 a year, with the majority at around $20,000. There was also a small lump of stations with annual budgets over $100,000. This probably has to do with geographic/metropolitan location.

That’s as much as I can share for now, as I am working on submitting an article about this research to an academic journal for publication. I can say, though, that I would love to see a study of this done on a larger scale with more stations that are online-only. I’m curious as to what their differences may be.

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3 Responses to Analyzing College Radio in 2012 – A Study of Different Station Structures

  1. Kml July 7, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    I hope to see more of your work in RS. I enjoyed this piece very much. With so many NCE stations at risk, exploring structure and best practices seems especially constructive. Thank you.

  2. BAN July 16, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    Great article and good analysis. I really hope schools can make the best of these different structures to keep college radio alive. On a different note, the WZBC photo is actually their sister internet radio WVBC. The WZBC FM-studio is in a separate room.

    • Jennifer Waits July 16, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

      Thanks for the clarification on the Boston College photo. It’s been awhile since I visited and I forgot that some of the pictures were of WVBC. I just corrected the caption.

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