On Monday, Amherst College’s student-run radio station WAMH-FM in Amherst, Massachusetts began airing daytime public radio programming over its 89.3 FM channel as part of a new partnership with the New England Public Radio Network (NEPR).
Today I spoke with WAMH’s Executive Director (and Amherst College senior) Robert Neel, who told me that this deal was supported by students at the radio station. Under the new arrangement, student programs will air from 4pm until 2am and syndicated public radio programming will run from 2am to 4pm on weekdays. Public radio shows airing on WAMH will include the BBC World Service, NPR’s “Morning Edition,” “BBC Newshour,” “On Point,” “The Takeaway,” “Here and Now,” “Fresh Air” and “the World.”
WAMH’s diverse, music-oriented programming will air starting at 4pm weekdays (and throughout the weekend) and according to Neel, it’s often a range of indie rock, alternative, pop, and hip hop. Although students used to clamor to fill 24 hours of programming every day and more than 100 student DJs were on the air as recently as 2000, in the past few years it’s been a challenge to fill more than 10 hours a day. Neel explained that, “as a result of various different things” including “radio falling out of favor” and “poor leadership,” student participation at WAMH has dwindled and around 3 years ago reached its lowest point. At the time, WAMH was in serious danger of disappearing and that, in part, is why the arrangement with New England Public Radio Network was so appealing. WAMH hadn’t been airing student programming during the early part of the day and Neel told me that students at Amherst College prefer time slots after 4pm.
Neel said that there has been a lot of work done to increase student participation at WAMH and that it’s been a “big initiative” for him. He guessed that there are currently around 40 DJs, with most slots from 4pm to 2am now filled. However, it’s often a struggle on a small campus of only around 1500-1600 students. Although Amherst College is part of a larger student community through the Five College Consortium (in which students can take classes at other schools in the consortium, including Hampshire College, Mt. Holyoke College, Smith College, and University of Massachusetts-Amherst), students tend to DJ at the stations on their home campuses and the Amherst station has traditionally been solely comprised of Amherst College students. Interestingly, back in 1950, there was a concerted effort for stations in the consortium to collaborate and WAMH (then a campus-only carrier current station) and several other stations in the consortium formed the Pioneer Broadcasting System and worked to share radio programs with their fellow stations.
School has only been back in session since September 8 at Amherst College and student shows on WAMH started on Sunday, September 20. Neel told me that students are excited about the partnership with New England Public Radio, which was approved by the station’s executive board and DJs, with the blessing of the student government and the administration at Amherst College. He said that it was really important that students maintained control of the station and there’s a clause in the contract that if a student would like to be on the air during the daytime hours currently allotted to public radio news, than the student show can take priority. Neel said that it was important for him to ensure that the deal made sense for their DJs, telling me, “my job was to protect the student resource.” He also told me that the administration said that “this was something that the students had to make the decision on.”
Currently the deal with New England Public Radio is a semester-long “trial” arrangement and either group can pull out of the partnership at the end of the semester. When I asked Neel about how the partnership will specifically benefit the station, he told me that it will help to attract a larger audience for WAMH and that there are also some extras that NEPR is offering to the station. Some of the possible ways that NEPR will assist WAMH include potential equipment purchases and studio updates, help with digitizing the music library, engineering help, and the development of a WAMH app to help with station visibility. Additionally, NEPR may develop a news and broadcasting course on campus for Amherst students, which will be run by NEPR through the college. Neel speculated that the class could have “broad reach” and may attract students interested in “story telling” and “podcasting” in addition to radio.
A piece for the Daily Hampshire Gazette includes a statement by NEPR’s executive director of programming John Voci, who characterizes the new WAMH schedule of programming from both NEPR and Amherst students as a “mash up” of news along with “the often experimental nature of college radio.” When I streamed WAMH today, I heard public radio programming later than 4pm Eastern time and it sounds like while new students are being trained, it’s possible that NEPR programming may extend later into the evening, as WAMH is still working to schedule new shows. It will be interesting to see what listeners think of the mix of sounds on WAMH in the weeks to come and also to see if this partnership works to increase student interest in radio at Amherst College.