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Radio Preservation Task Force - back of program: "Radio Just Got More Exciting" - Photo: J. Waits

College Radio Watch: Preserving College Radio’s History at the RPTF Conference

I’m back from my whirlwind East Coast travels, which included numerous radio station tours and the Radio Preservation Task Force‘s inaugural conference: “Saving America’s Radio Heritage: Radio Preservation, Access, and Education” at the Library of Congress and University of Maryland. The two-day conference was a wonderful opportunity to talk radio with an incredible roster of scholars, archivists, and long-time radio practitioners.

College Radio Participants Past and Present

During one of the sessions numerous participants mentioned their college radio pasts and when I asked how many had done college radio, hands shot up in the air for the majority of the people in the room. Throughout the conference I heard mention of college radio alma maters and it was clear that many in attendance had fond memories of their days in college radio. I was particularly pleased to meet a handful of current college radio DJs and managers from WITR (Rochester Institute of Technology), WNYU (New York University), WHCS (Hunter College), and WPRB (Princeton University). All were interested in preserving radio history as well as materials from radio’s present (including show archives). Additionally, many of my radio scholar pals who I ran into at the conference continue to work in college radio as volunteers, DJs and/or advisors at a variety of stations, including WSUM (University of Wisconsin-Madison), WPRB, Bellarmine Radio, WTJU (University of Virginia), KSLC (Linfield College) and others.

College Radio’s Hidden History

College radio is the main reason that I’m on the Task Force. A project of the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Plan, the Task Force is charged with preserving radio history, developing an online inventory of radio collections, finding and saving endangered collections, and helping to increase academic work related to radio. When I first learned of the project, I jumped at the chance to bring a college radio perspective to the proceedings.

Like many marginalized radio communities, college radio stations are typically left out of the official histories of radio, despite the great contributions made by college radio stations and participants. College radio stations have always been on the forefront technologically, beginning with the early days of radio and continuing into the present with stations’ early embrace of the web, social media, and video. Additionally, college radio DJs and program hosts have produced risk-taking, innovative programming, ranging from coverage of student protests to ahead-of-their time public affairs shows about subcultures to out-there freeform music shows to live broadcasts from afar.

College Radio Archive to Collect Student Radio History

Throughout the conference I noticed that college radio sometimes got a footnote when a ground breaking show was mentioned. Often these shows started on college radio. Although college radio was frequently in the background, it was the focal point of one session as well as one additional presentation. Elizabeth Hansen, founder of the College Radio Archive, spoke about “Searching for the Signal: Locating Student Radio’s Lost History.” A former college radio DJ and Music Director herself (at Middle Tennessee State University’s WMTS), she’s working to create an online archive for college radio recordings and ephemera. Reflecting back on her first introduction to college radio (through the pages of CMJ magazine), Hansen opined that, “It seemed like a magical place.” After doing college radio and studying radio in school, she’s now turning an archivist’s eye to it. Hansen has been scouring the web in search of college radio collections, digging for photos, playlists, and old radio shows in places as far flung as alumni Facebook groups and Soundcloud. If all goes as planned, she will launch her website on May 31st with material from WMTS.

A Deeper Dive into College Radio in the College, Community and Educational Radio Caucus

In order to ensure that specific aspects of radio history get sufficient attention, the Radio Preservation Task Force has established a preliminary set of caucuses, including: African American and Civil Rights Radio, College, Community, and Educational Radio, Gender and Feminism Radio, Labor Radio, LGBT Radio, News and Journalism Radio, Spanish Language and Bilingual Radio, and Sports Radio. Many of these interest areas overlap and college and community radio certainly have connections with all of the other topics listed.

At the conference, we had the first gathering of the College, Community and Educational Radio Caucus, of which I’m the co-chair along with Laura Schnitker from University of Maryland. Before the session even began we had some conversations about how our caucus seems to embrace a large swath of the radio community, including high school, college, and community radio stations. There was some discussion during the caucus about whether we should have separate caucuses for college and community radio, since there’s a great deal of material and work to be done to save collections in both sectors. National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB) CEO Sally Kane argued eloquently for a combined caucus, pointing out that the groups will be even more marginalized if the caucus is divided.

As part of the caucus meeting, Tim Brooks, Feliks Banel and Brian Fauteaux gave short presentations about radio history at Dartmouth College, the important role of radio pioneers in the Pacific Northwest, and strategies for preserving campus-community radio history in Canada, respectively. Since Schnitker and I both come from college radio backgrounds, we also outlined history projects that we have undertaken at Haverford College and University of Maryland in order to help inspire other stations. Mike Lupica from WPRB also shared details from an exhibit (which closes in May, 2016) and website celebrating the 75th anniversary of student radio at Princeton University.

Debating Definitions: What is College Radio? What is Educational Radio?

During the remaining time left in our caucus, we had a group discussion about strategies for preserving college, community and educational radio history. As expected, we had some lively conversation about definitions, particularly when it comes to educational and college radio. Lines can get blurry, particularly since the FCC labels specific non-commercial FM licenses as “non-commercial educational radio” licenses. Those licenses are doled out to a wide variety of non-profits, ranging from high school stations to religious stations to NPR affiliates.

For the purposes of the caucus, many of us agreed that college radio typically refers to student-oriented radio stations on college campuses. Educational radio is a bit trickier, but definitely is related to a legacy of early radio stations that broadcast educational programming and even coursework, often referred to as “Schools of the Air.” These instructional programs could be considered the precursors for extension classes sometimes broadcast over television stations as well.

In addition to educational radio that is focused on on-air instruction; there are also college radio stations that are tightly connected with academic programs. These pre-professional stations often serve a “lab” function and are part of the overall training that radio students receive. These stations may also be considered educational, although they are quite different than stations airing coursework.

The Work Ahead for College Radio Historians

As we wrapped up our discussion, participants were concerned with a few major areas. There was a desire to share resources/methodologies, a call for working together to help save stations in trouble (saving not just stations, but station spaces), and an interest in collaborating in order to advance the preservation of college/community/educational radio history. It’s hoped that the group can utilize the Task Force website in order to communicate and bring in more participants. Some specific ideas that came about related to identifying the total number of college radio stations in the United States (through outreach to college radio organizations and through crowd-sourced lists) and also identifying stations that are about to celebrate significant anniversaries. Through our case studies, we found that stations often develop history projects as part of anniversary celebrations.

It was certainly an inspiring conference and it was thrilling to meet so many people who share my passion for radio. As always, if you are aware of existing community, college, high school, or educational radio collections, please let me know in the comments.

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