In Minnesota, the Decision to Cut a Degree Track Reflects Larger Concerns
Riverland Community College in Austin, Minn., used to broadcast rock programming 24 hours a day over www.kerc.net, which had been the heart of the school’s broadcasting course for the last several years.
Now the Internet radio station and the associated classes have been suspended.
Eric Shoars was the lead instructor and general manager of the Internet station. He lost his job.
“The administration tells me that enrollment and placement were not satisfactory,” he said. “Everything else about the program was fine. We were ahead of the industry in equipment; the students had access to new learning tools such as Computer Concepts Corp.’s Maestro voice tracking system and (Syntrillium Software’s) Cool Edit Pro, which commercial stations in the area don’t even have.”
College President Dr. Gary Rhodes made the final decision along with Vice President Mike Bequette.
“Technically the radio program is suspended for three years while we assess the situation,” said Rhodes. “It may be rejuvenated; but the number of radio jobs in the area for our grads is just very, very low, and that’s a concern because our task job is to find employment for grads.”
Shoars agreed that while the technical term is “suspension,” the college is not taking new students and that studio equipment is being sold.
“You combine low radio wages with the fact that we had an 11-percent increase in tuition and our state funding was cut from 49 to 43 percent, so we just had to make a decision on what we could sustain,” Rhodes said.
“Eric has done an outstanding job marketing the program, and it would have been in worse shape without someone with his level of enthusiasm.”
More numbers entered into the decision. Shoars was trying to expand his recruiting base from the three cities the college serves – Austin, Albert Lea and Owatonna, Minn. – but wider recruitment is more expensive.
“State funding for that was just unavailable,” said Shoars, who also has written occasionally for Radio World.
The program enrollment slipped from a high of 20 students per year at its peak to about six last year.
“It’s ironic that if someone got a radio job before they graduated from our program, we couldn’t count him/her in our placement rates,” he said. “Also, if one of my students graduated here with a two-year degree and went on to a four-year school before entering the industry, we couldn’t count that person either, which made our placement numbers look a little worse than they really were.”
Ironically, another consideration working against the school is the desirability of the region.
“People in radio here aren’t trying to move out of the market,” said Shoars. “They like it here and they stay.”
Shoars said changes in schools mirror changes in the industry.
“In Minnesota, you probably only have three or four radio programs left in the state. Other than those, a student would have to attend a four-year school and take a broader course including print and TV.”
Shoars is on the board of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association, a position from which he can watch industry trends closely.
“With consolidation in radio, there are fewer positions available; and it’s even more competitive because people consider this industry as ‘show business,'” he said.
He also said many people take the internship path into radio instead of seeking formal training at the college level.
“If you serve an internship, it costs about the same as a community college, but you don’t have to set foot in a classroom,” Shoars said. “Community colleges are being phased out.”
“We are not doing a very good job as an industry of attracting young people to radio,” Shoars said. “It’s a video generation today, and many people just don’t have that radio passion and commitment.”
He also believes that because many radio stations now use voice tracking, overnight and weekend time slots that had served as proving grounds for announcers are no longer available.
Rhodes believes many people who might have gone into radio the past now choose the computer industry.
“We have some other technical programs here where the jobs are available but the students just don’t see much sex appeal in them,” he said. “Everyone wants to get into computers, even though the jobs are available in other areas such as manufacturing. TV and radio are still somewhat attractive, but we just don’t have the jobs here.”
On the air
KERC.net began in 1972 as KAVT(FM), a 10-watt station. In 1992 the license was given to Minnesota State University in Mankato; the unused FM tower remains at Riverland.
At the time of this license transfer, the station became a local cable access station known as MRTC, which stood for Minnesota Riverland Technical College, the former name of Riverland Community College. 1992 also was the year Shoars arrived as an instructor. He found the cable access operation unsatisfactory because few people could hear the students.
In November 1999, the station went on the Internet as www.kerc.net.
As of mid-June the Internet station was still running on automation, but was scheduled to disappear shortly.
“Everyone got on the air, and not just to be heard within a few blocks,” Shoars said of the online station. “They could audition live for anyone in any market on the Internet. We treated the students like they were working for a real radio station. Everything we did in the classroom could be applied instantly on the air.”
Among the Riverland graduates working in the field is Dean Lickteig, program director of KCZQ(FM) in Cresco, Iowa, who was pleased with his training.
“I graduated in 2001 and would rate the program a ’10,'” he said. “Eric gave us the keys to the station and we were responsible for controlling all aspects of the operation.”
But Lickteig is realistic about the pressures and lack of glamour in the industry.
“I think what scares some of these young kids is that they know they’re not going to be making a lot of money right away. The other thing that scares them is the complicated nature of the jobs out there,” he said.
“It’s not just reading time and temperature. It’s production, it’s constructing playlists and hard work. They are just not going to be stars right away.”
Into the future
Now that he no longer has his teaching position, where is Shoars headed?
“Someone of a higher authority has a plan for me, but He’s not sharing it with me yet,” Shoars said. “I’m not sure if I’ll get back into education or into radio, but the industry is in my blood.”
Shoars has a theory that the biggest broadcast groups eventually may choose to set up their own schools, which would train students at no cost. In exchange for the training, the groups would use these employees at whatever cluster the companies chose during a contract period of several years.
“Anyone can train a board op, but compelling radio is more difficult to teach,” Shoars said. “The thing that will keep listeners is real content, not just two hours of non-stop rock.”
Addressing a not-so-tongue-in-cheek appeal to the chairman and CEO of Clear Channel Communications, Shoars said, “Mr. Mays, if you need someone to run a broadcast school, I’m your guy.”