One university highlights a need to be assertive in stating our value

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at www.radioworld.com.

“Not core to student learning.”

When you’re a radio station based on a campus, such a phrase can be one of the harsher criticisms you can hear. Whether you are music-based college radio or a university licensee doing news or a blend of community programming, you want to feel central to or at least highly regarded as a part of campus life.

If your college is your primary funder, those five words have an entirely different weight altogether.

When Western Illinois University announced in August its intention to eliminate all funding to the university radio station, effective March 1, it sent shockwaves. The news is just one of a spate of college radio setbacks, including the Alabama Community College System selling WSGN, the University of Evansville’s imminent sale of WUEV, and the College of Wooster’s move of WCWS off FM, among others. This kind of announcement felt like yet another dark cloud on a stormy horizon.

[Read: Community Broadcaster: Thank You, John Crigler]

Once this sort of bad news drops, coming back is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Of the two dozen sales or major alterations over the last few years, a university’s reversal is almost unheard of. Protests, pleas, public comment and even bad press rarely prompt university boards to change course. To its credit, WIUM, known popularly as Tri States Public Radio, is still fighting back.

Following a Freedom of Information Act request, WIU responded to WIUM with emails and various documents going back to 2015. In the FOIA filing, the station is ostensibly seeking insight on university deliberations. Among the matters uncovered are issues of a university facing a variety of difficult decisions as finances struggle. While the cut is not as catastrophic as a sale of the license, as has occurred in many communities, WIUM faces some difficulties going forward. The city is rallying around the station, but the future remains uncertain.

As you may guess, there has been much speculation about whether the defunding is related to programming and local reporting. The WIUM report remarks the situation may be simply a matter of the dismal state of education funding. “The university is struggling with its finances in the aftermath of the state budget impasse. Public higher education received little state funding support during the impasse, forcing Western to spend down its reserves. That’s been accompanied by sharp drops in the university’s student enrollment,” noted Emily Boyer and Rich Egger. “Western says it finished last fiscal year $4 million in the red and the administration has said the university faces another year of deficit spending this fiscal year, though it has not yet said how large the deficit might be.”

Any news junkie might find a familiar ring to the state of Illinois’ and the campus’ woes. That’s because more than 20 states trimmed per-student funding in 2017, and the White House has gone on the record in wanting more cuts. As states around the nation have similar wrangles over education and statewide budgets, what is happening at Western Illinois University has parallels elsewhere. Colleges all over are looking to cut expenses, including programs, staffing and longtime initiatives.

In talking with college radio leaders, there is growing understanding that being more assertive about stations’ accomplishments is a priority. Rather than fight the steep uphill battle of post-decision retraction, the behind-the-scenes conversation is all about making a stronger case now. When college radio is regarded, as it was in WIU emails, as not core to student learning, a bit of strategy for all stations may be in order.

Moreover, WIU communications reveal something critical to the future of college radio. The unfolding drama also prompts an existential question of sorts: we as college radio interested parties may provide an important educational service, but does our license holder believe the same thing?

There are a variety of community rooted college stations such as Goddard College’s WGDR, the University of California at Santa Barbara’s KCSB and Prairie View University’s KPVU that are doing a range of community relationship building activities. From WGDR doing unique youth community outreach to KPVU connecting with younger audiences, there are some courageous experiments out there. They’re shaking up the way college stations traditionally do radio. Such open-minded attitudes are needed now more than ever.

Everyone concerned about the precious and increasingly imperiled university licenses is undoubtedly watching the WIUM affair with great interest. WIUM leadership is clearly focused on sustainability. For stations and supporters, stating the case for these organizations’ educational mission and continuing to innovate are central to reminding licensees of their necessity.

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