Last week, college radio stations converged on Seattle for the National Student Electronic Media Convention. In the halls of the host hotel, students and staff advisors talked excitedly about their stations, career options for young people interested in radio, and what others are doing to enhance relationships with their respective campuses.
In short, the National Student Electronic Media Convention swims against everything we in noncommercial media are told about radio.
At a time when mounting data suggests young people do not own a radio or just listen less and less to radio, there was instead a deep kind of optimism in Seattle. People see the potential, rather than the limitations. Where statisticians see disinterest, attendees see a sort of exclusivity, like vinyl records and nouveau cool aesthetics. In Seattle, students lit up when discussing radio.
Why is there so much energy here for what we are told is a dying medium? And what can we learn when it comes to considering our future in community media? What can community radio and public media learn from college radio today?
What is striking about some of the best college radio is how much relevance is tied to relationships. Around the public and community media water cooler, we talk about relevant content. That often takes the form of news, talk and other formats aimed at providing up-to-date information to listeners. But I also understand it needs to be more than pumping out what you think the audience wants to hear. What so many of these student-run outlets get right is in listening to what their peers and community are into and providing that as much as possible. They understand it is establishing a real-world bond with the people they serve, doing a lot of hearing what is interesting, then offering that, sometimes with a spin. Nevertheless, good radio, as college radio demonstrates, is about engaging those people directly.
Community radio can also learn from some of the best college radio stations how to be plugged into youth culture by going to where the culture is, rather than assume they’ll come to the station. There’s a timeworn anecdote that suggests our circles get smaller as we get older, that we go out less, and complacency sets in. What became apparent at the National Student Electronic Media Convention is a commitment from everyone — managers on down — to be embedded in the music subculture, to be out at events, to be in the place among diverse groups, and overall to be a participant in popular and indie scenes so you are seen and present. For overworked community radio managers, that may feel like a tall task. The rewards, however, are only going to support the future of your radio station.
And while there may always be a touch of hipsterism to various elements, college radio shows community radio how to come at music and what is happening now without the subtle and not-so-subtle judgments of young people and pop culture that can be alienating to those people community radio needs most. That is not to throw shade at the myriad classic rock/pop/folk/blues/etc. programming, but rather the attitude that posits the old way of making music and doing things is better than what young people are into; 9.9 times out of 10, it is not. As Seth Godin points out, many instances are frankly issues of people who just want the world to stay the same and not change, or who look askance at those who do not do things the way they want them done. Such individuals have, in effect, become “that guy” we all grew up around, who looked down on what “the kids” were into. Not good. Community media can always learn to be better about this.
Another thing community stations can pick up from college radio is being involved in live music in new ways. Many community radio organizations air live performances and even local remotes. But what if your station thought a little grander? What if you broadcast something your listeners, or many others for that matter, could not get to easily? One can bet it would spike your online audience and create new ways to find donors. College radio has jumped in on this innovative new path in amazing ways. From massive stations like the University of Washington’s KEXP to outlets like KFJC, licensed to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, live broadcasts of international concerts have become a superb opportunity for these stations to attract listenership online. KEXP’s Iceland Airwaves Music Festival broadcast is becoming somewhat of a tradition, for which the station has built in promotions and giveaways. KFJC is broadcasting from two festivals in Berlin in a few days. It is almost certain 99% of the audience is not planning to travel all that way for a festival. All the better to air a big event that is a rare radio experience. Why not consider borrowing this kind of idea? There are many logistics, but the potential is tremendous.
College students running university-based radio are the literal future of community radio. Let’s do more to ensure our present welcomes them in the best way we can.