The usual excellent suspects associated with our Radio Survivor podcast produced an interesting debate program about the “self-imposed smallness” of college radio last week. Popular radio blogger Ken Mills served as the show’s guest critic. He’s a very smart articulate guy with a lot of experience in radio.
“I come from a management background,” Mills told Jennifer Waits, Paul Riismandel, and Eric Klein. “I come from a background where, in the commercial world, if you don’t make your budget you’re out. And in the non-comm world you may get another chance but at some point you’re out. I look at things through that lens.”
So here’s Mills’ bottom line on college radio:
“I think that college radio’s self-imposed smallness is a threat to its future. The key to long term success in any non-profit, non-commercial media in particular, is independent long term sustainability. And I don’t hear anybody in college radio talking about that. It’s kind of the same as it was in the 1970s.
The reason I talk about threats is, they’re coming from all directions, first, universities are cutting, second student fees are getting are getting out of control, and third, the price and cost of getting into the FM spectrum continues to rise, and so the big public radio companies, and particularly the big religious broadcasters such as the Educational Media Foundation are on the hunt for stations that they can sweep up . . . “
At this point Jennifer waits came in with a good question, what do you mean by self-imposed smallness?
“The view more often than not is inward,” Mills replied. “In other words they really don’t broadcast to the larger community, they’re really more concerned with their peer group, people right around them, and if it’s educational sometimes it’s solely training. But there isn’t a lot of thought about audience . . . and there is a direct correlation between audience size and the ability to generate revenue from listeners, whether that be pledging or underwriting or events or whatever.”
As the conversation continued, Mills acknowledged Waits’ observation in an earlier podcast that a whole slew of college sponsored Low Power FM radio stations are coming down the bend. This obviously challenges some perceived specter of a generalized abandonment of radio by universities. At some point the discussion moved onto the lack of ratings for college radio stations. “Why are ratings important?” Paul Riismandel asked.
Mills: “Because the size of an audience is directly correlated to the ability to have more diverse funding, particularly listener funding, and my belief is that college radio has been too dependent for too long on student fees and the largesse of the university’s involved.”
Riismandel pointed out that many college stations can’t afford to subscribe to Nielsen Portable People Meter ratings (not to mention accessing the encoding system needed to participate). “I don’t disagree with you that having a larger more diverse audience means you can bring in more fundraising,” he added, “but not subscribing to ratings doesn’t indicate that a station doesn’t care.”
I’m not going to transcribe the whole show, because I want you to listen to it. But the conversation definitely struck me as one in which everyone was right at least part of the time. I would add to Mills’ list of worries the accelerated abandonment of the humanities at many universities. And I’d also add that too many college and community radio stations spend too much time constructing fictional narratives about “communities,” rather than trying to figure out how to reach broad groups of people who don’t necessarily have much immediate involvement with each other but live in the same place (aka “audiences”).
But ultimately I think that college radio’s problems are political rather than managerial. Colleges aren’t supposed to provide services solely for sale; they’re supposed to teach and offer at least some things that we need but aren’t necessarily willing to buy as individuals. Not a few of the college radio programs I cherish around these San Francisco Bay Area parts are anything but marketable. The question of how to support that sort of fare is a question for everybody, not just for radio station managers, blogger consultants, and us podcasters.
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