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College FM Licenses Matter

If you feel your college station is under threat, my research may help

As veterans of the radio business are well aware, there is unexplainable magic attached to the work we do. 

Radio has the unique ability to capture the imagination and open the theater of the mind in ways other media cannot. It was the first place where talent and audience could engage directly via telephone, making it the original social medium. And radio is free to receive, one of the last forms of mass media a consumer can access without subscription fee or paywall. 

Despite its amazing power and reach, the medium has been widely misunderstood — many would say mismanaged — in the 21st century. Newer forms of digital media and content delivery have moved to the forefront of consumer and advertiser perception. This has created financial issues for operators and led to a diminished outlook for the health of our beloved business, especially as companies and advertisers look for ways to court younger listeners.

A troubling trend has emerged as part of this progression.

College radio, once a bastion of alternative programming, free speech and public access to the airwaves, has seen its licenses and institutional support dwindle. Institutions are selling or turning in legacy licenses at an alarming rate. There are many factors at work, but the biggest reason seems to be a perception among some administrations that Gen-Z students do not engage with traditional broadcast radio, so operating a campus FM station has little value to the institution. 

I have the good fortune to work for two fantastic broadcast organizations. As the chief engineer for Salem Media of New York, I am actively involved in maintaining studios and transmission facilities for their New York City cluster. My experience has been incredible and I consider our management team to be some of the most passionate folks in media. 

I also have enjoyed a relationship spanning over two decades with WRHU Radio Hofstra University as a student and chief engineer. WRHU has an active membership of 300 students and maximizes its radio program by curating an all-inclusive media training and proving ground for broadcasters. 

WRHU student Jason Eusebio builds a Telos Axia system.

While other schools have cut budgets and marginalized broadcast facilities, Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication has invested in technology and talent to create one of the finest college radio programs in the country. The station is at the forefront of its communications facility. This investment has paid off handsomely for the school.

There is a symbiotic relationship between WRHU and other New York broadcasters like Salem, where many top students have been given the opportunity to transition from the college station into a “soft landing” within regional commercial operators. This creates a healthy pathway for students to enter the business and allows local media to give students a running start in their careers. 

WRHU students Kevin O’Neil, Jason Eusebio, James Owens, Michael Ventrice and Ethan Adeniran prepare for the live FM broadcast mix of a rock band from the Adams Quad at Hofstra University.

With this example in mind, I had a hard time accepting that other schools couldn’t see the benefits in nurturing their FM broadcast programs. 

I’ve heard administrators justify the sale of FM licenses by claiming that their stations can be moved to web-only channels, which supposedly provide the same student experience while minimizing expense and risk for the university. While this argument may speak to those in the halls of administration, the thought of removing young voices and community members from the FM band and ending the broadcast relationship between college and community via FM doesn’t sit well with me.

In 2018, I enrolled in Hofstra University’s EdD program, focusing on higher education leadership policy. For my research topic, I decided to examine the state of college radio FM licenses and student and administrative perceptions surrounding their impact. 

I figured that if I could identify the core value centers within college radio broadcast programs, my research could provide station managers and faculty with information to make a case to administrations to continue and grow these programs. 

As my good friend and mentor Bud Williamson once told me, a radio station needs a group of passionate people and a community to wrap their arms around it and protect it, otherwise it is at risk for failure. I hoped that this research would be my way of wrapping my arms around every college station in the country and providing my fellow broadcasters with qualitative peer-reviewed research.

WRHU student Amanda Grimes engineers a live remote for “The Joe Piscopo Show” on Salem station WNYM(AM). She’s with Producer Joe Sibilia, center, and Joe Piscopo.

[Related: “Women in Engineering: Jade He at Hofstra University“]

Findings

My findings were gathered at three college radio stations in the tri-state. I conducted one focus group per site each with four active station members, as well as individual interviews with two student station managers and two faculty-administrative managers.

The work produced some surprising and encouraging findings. 

While many of the students surveyed did not indicate that they chose the college based on the presence of an FM station, they overwhelmingly responded that the broadcast radio program was the centerpiece of their college experience. 

Students believed FM broadcasting was a critical function of the college radio program, due to the “legitimacy of performance” created by the presence of overarching FCC oversight and a perception of greater engagement with the community and their peers who found the station via FM. 

The students believed the FM broadcast encouraged them to take the college radio experience more seriously and believed that the station had a direct impact on their personal growth, life experience and leadership training. 

Students also responded that being part of the FM station gave them greater respect and understanding of broadcast media and that their participation had turned them into advocates and supporters of FM radio. 

Students at the station were also actively encouraging their peers to listen to OTA radio. They reported that despite industry perceptions, Gen-Z listenership of the FM and AM band is widely popular, because reception required no subscription or ISP service. The students pointed out that not all young people could afford “pay to play” content platforms and, in their opinion, radio provided the perfect environment to discover new material without having to strain their budgets.

Perhaps the most interesting finding came in the form of institutional retention. 

Students believed the college radio program motivated them to finish their studies at the college, as they had become attached to the station and the craft. Camaraderie at the station was helping them improve their socialization at the college and gave them a greater sense of self-confidence, since working within the college radio framework required them to collaborate with each other and interact with the audience via FM. 

As one student reported, “You never know who may be listening, so you have to sound your best.”

The faculty-administrative managers (FAMs) of the college radio stations that participated reported similar findings. 

The adult managers all agreed that providing a robust, thriving radio program could have a wide array of benefits for the students. FAMs also pointed out that alliances with local and regional broadcasters and organizations like the Society of Broadcast Engineers and National Association of Broadcasters were a key component in keeping the broadcast program relevant. These partnerships provided students with employment, mentorship and leadership opportunities as well as professional networking. 

Operating an FM license gave a college and a radio broadcast program prestige, as it elevated the station onto the same playing field as its commercial counterparts. In summary, I found that many Gen-Z college aged students are actively engaging with college radio terrestrial stations and learning valuable skills that enhance their academic, social and pre-professional growth.

Finally, as an engineer, I would be remiss not to point out the technical opportunities that a student-run FM broadcast facility provides. Students who engage with FM broadcast technology can develop valuable STEM skills that can led them to jobs in broadcast engineering, disaster communication, civil communication, radar, cellular systems maintenance, satellite systems, electronics and other high-value career areas that are lacking in qualified candidates. 

If you are a college radio faculty member or administrator, you probably know all of this. My research is for you to employ, especially if your institution is considering selling or ending its FM broadcast program. 

Radio World has graciously allowed me to post a link to my research so that you can obtain a copy of the study and present it to the decisionmakers at your college campus before irreparable harm is done to the students, the college radio program and the legacy of the institution. You can find that here

I encourage you to use this study to ensure that your radio station enjoys a happy, healthy and long life into the 21st century. It’s up to you to wrap your arms around the station and protect it. The next generation of broadcasters is watching and listening. 

The original version of this story misspelled the last name of Jason Eusebio.

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