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WNYU, New York Is “Almost Public Radio”

This college radio station is student-operated and proud of it

This commentary originally appeared at Spark News.

From time to time we have featured independent radio stations that operate much like public radio stations but for various reasons aren’t public radio as we know it.

We call these stations “almost public radio.”

They copy public radio’s style, represent themselves as a public trust and/or are staffed by people who, frankly, would rather be working in public radio.

Today we are taking a look at WNYU(FM), licensed to New York University. WNYU operates a facility that, on the surface, has the necessary attributes to be a major public radio player. WNYU 89.1 FM broadcasts with 8,300 watts from its transmission site in the Bronx. The signal covers the entire city, Westchester County, suburban New Jersey and Long Island.

[Read: Fact: There Is So Little Time & There Are So Many Podcasts]

Despite this capacity, WNYU has only a few thousand estimated weekly listeners. Except for the students who work there, the station is unknown to most people who live in the city.

One reason for WNYU’S poor performance is because WNYU is a part-time radio station. These arrangements happen when two stations broadcast on the same frequency during different times of the day. In the biz, they are called “timeshares.” They are generally NOT happy situations.

WNYU shares 89.1 FM with WFDU, licensed to Fairleigh Dickinson University. WFDU broadcasts from just west of Manhattan in Alpine, New Jersey. WNYU is on-the-air from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. and WFDU is on during the remaining hours. Both stations operate 24/7 online.

The story goes that both NYU and Fairleigh Dickinson filed mutually exclusive applications for 89.1 FM at the FCC in the mid-1960s. After several years of hard feelings and legal and technical wrangling, the two universities compromised on a time-sharing arrangement in 1969.

Since then, the two stations have struggled and the two universities still have frosty relations.

WNYU TODAY

Another factor that may be limiting WNYU’s potential is their programming. To use a common phrase, WNYU is “too hip for the room.” When the “room” is New York City, there will be difficulty drawing a substantial audience.

The good news is that WNYU is programmed 100% by students. The bad news is these students are probably the only listeners. For instance, these programs aired on WNYU today:

“Smart Moves for the Stiff Mind,” a generous mix of IDM, EBM, minimal, abstract, ambient, synthwave, electro-acoustic, post-punk, post-rock, leftfield sounds and music. The program guide says it is danceable;

• “The Cheap Seats,” a show where sports fans bring (quoting from the program guide) “…the excitement that comes when a bunch of college kids vehemently discuss what they love”;

• “MCQ,” a two-hour showcase of queer Latin hip-hop artists;

• “Other Worlds,” two hours of experimental sound collages.

Some of these programs sound interesting and a few sound courageous and historic. But, the cumulative effect of an entire schedule made up of such programs is of very limited interest.

WNYU does sell underwriting announcements but there is no mention of memberships or pledge drives on the station’s website. It looks like folks at WNYU are having a good time. There is nothing wrong with that but it is a long way from public radio.

Financial information for college stations is difficult to find and hard to confirm.

In general, college stations have the smallest budgets of any noncommercial media type. This limits the opportunities for participating students.

Perhaps that doesn’t matter when you are having fun.

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