College and high school radio stations face unique challenges these days.
Where once students were lined up for air shifts, many time slots now remain unfilled, leaving faculty advisers with the dilemma of how to fill those slots or reducing operating hours and risk losing the station’s license. In the face of these challenges, some have developed strategies to thrive in the Internet era, and engage students in broadcasting.
WSPS(FM), a 200-watt station licensed to St. Paul’s School in Concord N.H., is one such operation. The station started in 1972 as a Class D 10-watt broadcaster. It airs at 90.5 MHz.
By day, the station broadcasts a seamless flow of world music, blues and jazz, filling a void in the programming offered by commercial stations in the Concord area.
At night, the students take over with a mix of more contemporary music.
The station’s expansive playlist largely is the work of Dr. Glenn Reider, the WSPS faculty adviser, who recounts his musical evolution thusly:
“I started out in high school listening to classic rock, and then got into reggae. After that, things were just added piece by piece, mostly from world music. The last step was older material like Rosemary Clooney and Dean Martin.
“When I was finished, I just wasn’t interested in a steady diet of any one type of music.”
The technical core of WSPS’s musical programming during daytime hours is its automation software, which has changed over the years.
“When I came, we were using one of the commercial automation packages, but it was labor-intensive to load in new songs, and the cost of ownership was getting prohibitive,” said Reider.
He looked for alternatives, and found MegaSeg, which cost around $250. A bonus for Reider as a Mac user is that MegaSeg runs on the Macintosh platform. WSPS uses two Macs with MegaSeg for their operations. One is dedicated to running the on-air programing, the other is for loading in songs and some post-production work.
Reider regularly adds material to the WSPS music library, which has more than 18,000 selections. WSPS also uses MegaSeg to post a list of the most recently played 20 songs, and five upcoming songs on its Web site.
While the variety of music heard over WSPS is vast, there are some things the station doesn’t play. “Disco,” said Reider, “I just never could get into it.” A quick check of the library reveals the exception, Gloria Gaynor’s classic “I Will Survive.”
As with many student-run stations, Reider is unhappy with the response from record labels.
John Hamilton, left, a student station coordinator, and Dr. Glenn Reider, faculty adviser, relax in the WSPS studios.
“I can’t get any of the major labels to send material out for free, and we have no budget to purchase CDs.” Much of the station’s music is purchased from iTunes.
Many of the station IDs are done by St. Paul’s faculty, which help the station maintain an identity with the school. Reider records these around campus using a laptop with a USB microphone and GarageBand software. Other promos are recorded in foreign languages, adding to the flavor of world music programming.
Reider has programmed MegaSeg to run 24/7, and audio is routed through a fader in the control room console, making student programming a matter of fading down automation, and fading back up at the beginning of the day. This option also provides an automatic cover when students can’t do shows and during Christmas, spring and summer breaks.
In addition to the FM signal, the station has both on and off-campus Internet streams. Alumni of St. Paul’s School enjoy the broadcasts of the school’s Christmas service, classical music competitions and other school functions over the Internet stream.
After 7 p.m., the students take over the airwaves, playing a mix of heavy metal, thrash groove, punk and other contemporary music. St. Paul’s has an enrollment of about 520 students in grades 9–12. The staff is small but enthusiastic.
“I don’t think of it as a commitment, but total pleasure,” said John Hamilton, a senior and one of three student station coordinators. His duties include training new student operators, being on-call and sitting in with first-timers to help them get over the jitters.
Hamilton and Reider also train student broadcasters in the station’s policy regarding profanity, which is stricter than what is mandated by the FCC.
“No comments or lyrics that are degrading to women, no religious bias, no gossip about other students or faculty, and of course, no profanity,” said Hamilton.
In addition to its CD collection, WSPS holds onto classic vinyl.
Most of the students bring their music to the station on iPods or laptops, although CD compilations of new music are also aired.
The evening audience is different than daytime. “Parents of student DJs listen quite a bit, and we get a lot of phone-in requests from around Concord,” said Hamilton. “It’s a great opportunity for students to learn about radio in a forgiving environment,” added Reider.
For Hamilton, the lessons learned at WSPS extend beyond putting together a radio program.
“I’ve learned a lot about time management, I’m a lot more comfortable with speaking and I know myself better.” He adds that radio announcing is a good jumping-off point for public speaking, and he hopes to continue his radio work when he goes off to college.
WSPS has also benefited from good relations with its alumni. One who went on to a successful career in broadcast management and station ownership has donated money to upgrade the station’s equipment. Another became an FCC attorney and processed the paperwork for WSPS to increase power to 200 watts gratis. A donation of 6,000 albums and CDs came from another.
Reider reflected on the evolution of WSPS since becoming faculty adviser in 2004.
“Running with automation has been a great option for us. It has enabled the station to have a 24/7 presence on the FM dial, so we don’t have to worry about losing the frequency when the license comes up for renewal.” At the same time, opportunities remain for students to play a part in programming and operations. He adds that the station is one thing that helps make St. Paul’s a leader in New England-area prep schools.