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Beyond polka battle, WMUA changes may represent a dramatic age shift

WMUAI strongly recommend that Radio Survivor readers tune into our thirtieth podcast, in which Jennifer Waits and Eric Klein offer an overview of the changes taking place at University of Massachusetts radio station WMUA-FM in Amherst. This transition reached my ear when management announced that, to make the signal more student focused, WMUA’s polka weekend programming would be reduced from twelve down to four hours a day. This sparked a petition protesting the cuts.

“I’ve been a deejay at multiple stations that had polka shows,” Waits notes. “In the case of the listeners to the Polka programming at WMUA, polka has been on for thirty-six years.”

“It’s the tension between opening up the space for more students,” Klein adds, “and the community that has come to depend on that station for community programming for decades.”

Since then I’ve continued to follow the WMUA situation. On top of the reductions in polka programming, a discussion show called “Focus” has also been cancelled. The program has been broadcasting on WMUA for almost half a century. It’s pretty obvious from this Twitter photo of the show’s last installment that it catered at least in part to an older audience (no disrespect;  I’m an “older audience” myself):

The changes could have been even more extreme. The Hampshire Gazette notes that U.Mass considered eliminating non-student community programming altogether. Here’s an excerpt from the University’s External Review report, which considered two options:

Option I
a) establishing that the only people eligible to work at the station are currently enrolled University of Massachusetts students.
b) remove all current Community on-air slots from the schedule at a date that works best.
Option II
Limit Community Members to 24 on-air hours per week.
(The University might want to consider an expansion of these hours during the summer and winter sessions.)

Obviously the administration picked Option II, but even that choice will result in a station with fewer older participants. That’s pretty obvious after watching this YouTube video about polka programming at WMUA.

“I would say that our audience is more of the older generation,” acknowledges WMUA polka programmer Mitch Moskal in an interview. “Probably in my area; fifties and up. But there are a lot of young people who show up for certain bands.”

In the end, the University may find the right balance between campus and community based participation. I really can’t imagine supporting a college radio station that doesn’t foreground the interests and participation of students. On the other hand, I experience it as rare to find a student who has a seasoned take on what’s going on just beyond his or her campus walls, culturally and politically. In any event, in the short term I can imagine how all this feels to WMUA’s older programmers and their audiences. . . .


3 Responses to Beyond polka battle, WMUA changes may represent a dramatic age shift

  1. happydancermom February 2, 2016 at 8:23 am #

    Community and students are the 2 hands that made WMUA a valuable resource as a training ground for students and an enriching part of life for people like me. Dividing and limiting community hours contributes to divisiveness and I hope there is a solution that keeps the station strong and the community proud supporters!

  2. ehayward February 2, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

    This makes a lot of sense to me–as it stood before, the limited amount of student slots (in a college radio station!) meant that being a part of WMUA was extremely difficult for those interested, and really made me feel like my campus didn’t actually have a radio station. My brother went to a college in Virginia and he had no problem goofing around on air for an hour every week–something fun to really get an introduction to the way radio works and to understand the system. Polka is a fine tradition and all, but 12 hours a day, every weekend? That is not a radio station for college students, which is, after all, the primary focus of a campus radio station. As an out-of-state student who pays a lot of money to be here, it felt like a real blow freshman year to realize there would be little-to-no opportunity to be involved with college radio, and even more disappointing to tune in and find it often not even geared toward the campus population. I’d take some 20-somethings dicking around and playing mediocre music over straight polka anyday–the first has variety and is at least a little relevant to me, and there’s a chance I’ll hear something I like. Polka, though? What does polka mean to me?

  3. Paul Riismandel February 4, 2016 at 12:04 am #

    I agree that community volunteers can be a valuable resource for college stations, but only if they actually make themselves available to the students. But all too often community volunteers just come in, do their shows, and almost never see a student unless their show follows or precedes a student’s show.

    I’ve been following the WMUA situation, too, and I was very disappointed when I read the Gazette article about the program, Focus, going off the air. What bothered me was the apparent attitude of the producers/hosts as expressed in the article. One said, “What we haven’t done, disappointingly, is brought in younger people… It’s disappointing that there is no Ken Mosakowski among the younger people.”

    Why should anyone be surprised that in 2016 a college student born in the 1990s doesn’t want to produce a show based on a model from 1968? That doesn’t mean they don’t want to create public affairs shows. What it means is that they don’t want to produce shows principally aimed at and controlled by people forty years their senior. And I can’t blame them.

    It’s too easy just to shrug off “kids these days.” What I want to know is what did these programmers ever do to actively recruit students, find out what they’re interested in, and then integrate them into the show? I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that they did very little.

    I am not saying that this is true across the board at WMUA — I simply don’t know. However, if students are not involved in a community volunteer staffed show on a college station I believe that those community volunteers should be held accountable for that, rather than sloughing off the blame on “kids these days.” That’s a cop out, pure and simple.

    In fact I think every community volunteer-staffed show on a college radio station should be required to have student involvement. Community volunteer programmers should be expected to actively recruit and mentor students in exchange for that valuable airtime, and held accountable for that.

    If one of the reasons for having community volunteers in college radio is that students will benefit from working with them and being mentored, then the volunteers have to make this so.

    I’ve seen this happen in music shows across genres like jazz, blues and world music, as well as with very radical public affairs shows. It’s absurd to expect an 18 or 19 year-old to come in to college radio with an intrinsic interest in politics or culture that she has probably had little exposure to before. The whole point of college is to offer this exposure in a setting that is encouraging and supportive, whether in class or in extracurriculars.

    Any community volunteer who won’t actively engage and recruit students as a teacher and mentor doesn’t belong on a college station. Any community volunteer who blames the students for their lack of interest in their show should be shown the door.

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