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Is Terrestrial Radio Dead to Undergraduates? WVKC Changes Spark Debate

WVKC logoAs we wrote back in August, changes were planned for Knox College radio station WVKC, following a deal with Tri States Public Radio. The student radio station in Illinois was slated to move off its 90.7 FM signal in exchange for a beefed up Internet feed and an HD channel. With the new school year in full-swing, WVKC is now heard on its new digital home and public radio programming from Tri States Public Radio is airing on 90.7 FM under a 20-year management agreement. The station itself is being spruced up and its record library will soon be accessible to all students. An article in the Knox Student states,

“Since the switchover to digital streaming, little else has changed for the WVKC staff apart from a new stream encoder that has been installed in the broadcast studio and has not impacted the day-to-day operations of the station.”

Former station staffer Andrea Miklasz penned a letter to the editor of the Knox Student, expressing sadness over these changes. She writes,

“I do not believe that giving up a 1000 watt radio broadcast signal in exchange for Internet streaming abilities and HD radio broadcast capability is a good deal for WVKC, Knox College or the Galesburg community. I believe that the Knox administration saw a way to save money and took advantage of what may have been the naivete of the student general managers to get their endorsement. HD radio technology has not been successfully adopted by most, and although ways to listen on the Internet are increasingly ubiquitous with the popularity of smartphone technology, there is still a digital divide that excludes people in their cars and those who live on the poorer side of the tracks.”

In a lengthy response, Knox College’s AV Coordinator Todd Smith argues that,

“Up until this change occurred, the streaming capacity of WVKC ranged between 25-40. Yes that’s right, 40 listeners at the most. That’s not even a party, just a gathering. Now we have virtually unlimited streaming. That means globally.”

He also suggests that terrestrial radio is not a part of the current undergraduate experience, saying, “Guess what Alum from the 90s, nobody has a radio anymore. Sure a few people do, they also have VCRs. We want people to hear the station. We want students to listen…”

In this online commentary, it’s unfortunate to see a generational divide as far as radio goes, especially since station alumni can be huge advocates and allies (and even financial supporters) of student radio stations. It’s tough, since there’s so much passion for one’s own college radio experience, it can be hard to understand different perspectives. I know first-hand that it can be sad to see one’s college radio station change and evolve. However, I’ve learned that it’s the nature of the beast and I’m more sympathetic after realizing that my own college station went through many different iterations before I even arrived on campus.

When I was in college, we didn’t have a licensed FM station and I still harbor hope that current students there will pursue the rare LPFM licensing opportunity this month (government shutdown-willing). Although it seems like a moot point at Knox (since terrestrial radio doesn’t seem important for current Knox students), the university IS free to apply for LPFM if there is interest. Even though the school holds WVKC’s FM license, since the FM signal is no longer controlled by students, Knox can apply for LPFM.

It’s good to hear that streaming will improve dramatically for the Knox College radio station, but it will also be interesting to see how many more listeners the station attracts. Based on anecdotal reports from other college radio stations, it’s rare for a stream to draw more than 40 simultaneous listeners unless a special event, like a popular sporting match or live concert is taking place. Attracting listeners is one of the ongoing challenges for streaming stations.

What do you think, is terrestrial radio unimportant for 18 to 22-year-old college students? Can a purely streaming station get as many listeners as a station with both terrestrial and streaming capabilities? And where does HD fit into the equation?



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3 Responses to Is Terrestrial Radio Dead to Undergraduates? WVKC Changes Spark Debate

  1. John October 5, 2013 at 8:05 pm #

    As I have commented previously, HD radio has done a miserable job marketing itself. It has done it “top down” so to speak. Clear Channel and NPR are on board but there are no listeners. That is the bottem, looking up. Maybe if there was more college radio on HD channels with heavily subsidized receivers the HD mode would take off.
    Will it happen? Probably not. It is important to know by the way that and HD signal while on the same frequency, does not have the same coverage. Its coverage is significantly less.

  2. Peter October 6, 2013 at 3:16 am #

    Yes, FM radio is essentially dead to undergraduates in this compact residential college town where few people commute in their cars. What interest they do have in LPFM reflects their desire to be heard by more people in general or to be played in stores, but they don’t think that FM will help them reach more students. Instead, they see the key technologies right now as social and mobile to complement the audio stream.

    HD radio was stillborn; it’s technology nobody understands at a price nobody would pay, 10 years too late to matter. The transition couldn’t have gone worse unless they’d gone the extra step of pulling the plug on analog a la digital television.

  3. Michael Payne October 22, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Here is a prime example of a all too common mistake being made in educational radio today; and that is narrowcasting to the students and/or the faculty. Your prime focus is the community that supports your school. A smart business move is to always augment your on air signal with technology that works. At the station I was at, we added a very nice internet stream and had a deal to be on a major FM station’s HD-2 or HD-3 until new owners squashed that deal. The on air, and the stream still live on. Unless you are offering something VERY unique, the chances are you will not break the 100 visit barrier. (100 people listening at once is a rather large pipe) 20 to 40 listeners via the net is a good average number. The real question is how much time do they spend online. When it comes to the end of the day, you may have a dozen or more hours with 20 to 40 unique listeners per hour. Being on a HD channel is all well and fine, but you have to promote it like crazy to get people to buy a HD radio; and you have to have a product that is worthwhile as well. Never assume that “whiz bang” will get the job done.

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