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Is College Radio Still Viable?

Higher education institutions are keeping up in the mobile media age

Is college radio still viable in today’s media environment?

This very topic was tackled at a couple of sessions at the Broadcast Education Association 2015 Convention in Las Vegas in April.

Monica Wicke, a student staff member at UTA Radio, is on the air. The organization is made up of the professors, instructors and advisors mentoring the next generation of radio broadcasters at colleges and universities across the United States.

Spoiler alert: The short answer to this article’s question is “yes.”

College radio is vibrant and growing in ways of which you might not be aware.

Today’s college station might be available only online, like at the University of Texas at Arlington.

It might be a 100-watt low-power FM station, such as WACC(LP) at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Conn.

It might be a 16,500-watt educational FM station, like KVSC at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn., that also operates four HD signals, a 24/7 sports streaming station, a streaming music station, a special streaming station for the growing Somali immigrant population in the city, plus two LPFM stations.

Or it might be a college radio station like Virginia State University’s WVST that originates programming heard on Sirius/XM, in addition to those programs it broadcasts to its home service area of Petersburg, Va.

One thing is clear: Today’s college radio is very active on all media platforms and current students are learning about a wide variety of programming venues. Many of today’s college radio stations are run like a business with strict programming guidelines and expectations.

Chad Roberts at Central Michigan University told the audience in Las Vegas that, in addition to live performance radio, they also teach students how to voice-track. His guidelines to students were to keep it “tight, bright, on and gone.” Keep your breaks shorter than 90-seconds maximum and remember, one thought to a break.

Lance Liguez at University of Texas at Arlington said that today’s students are very engaged in radio. He’s especially seen an increase in the number of students who want to pursue sports radio; both play-by-play and sports talk.

Liguez, like most of the other educators I spoke with, does not classify radio as merely those audio products that emanate from either an AM or FM transmitter, but rather as any audio-based product. Educators consider streaming, podcasts and satellite all forms of radio. Higher education is very accepting of today’s technological advances and is working with students to be skilled to operate on all these platforms.

I know my students do not distinguish between AM/FM and podcasting, satellite or streaming as one being “radio” and the others not; it’s all radio, and it all is easily accessible via their smartphone.

Drawing these false lines of distinction is not new. When radio came on the scene and began to broadcast news, newspaper journalists — who were called the Fourth Estate — would refer to radio journalists as the Fifth Estate. Today, we consider them all to be one and the same.

Higher education is very accepting of today’s technological advances and is working with students to be skilled to operate on all these platforms. Speaking of news, many college radio stations have active radio news departments and can often be seen winning radio news awards for both long-form and short-form news broadcasts at competitions, including those held by Hearst and the Associated Press. However, Liguez did express concern that he’s beginning to see students coming up who are more interested entertainment-style news over the more serious news of the day.

Jim Gray, who oversees KVSC, the public radio service of St. Cloud State University, does such a good job of training his students in the NPR style of radio that when they leave school, commercial broadcasters tell him, they love hiring his students but they have to keep them off the air for 30 days to “flush the KVSC out of them.”

The second most popular position in radio that students are interested in pursuing is becoming on-air personalities; especially morning shows personalities.

Colleges do differ in the amount of programming formatics they enforce on their students, but even those colleges that consider their stations to be “free form” still have basic program elements that everyone must follow.

Often the difference between strict programming formatics and not is tied to whether the college offers a degree program in radio broadcasting. When colleges or universities offer broadcasting degrees, their student radio stations are run more like a business. Those that don’t are more likely to run their student radio stations like a club.

When I earned my FCC Third Class license back in 1967, it was called a “Radiotelephone Operators License.” And when I teach my class in the history of broadcasting in America it reminds me that radio has never been the same from the moment it was born. It has been growing, changing and morphing almost every year of its existence. Radio has always been in a state of constant change.

Maybe the FCC was ahead of its time when it named its operator’s license, since today most students listen to radio via their cellular telephone. As I meet incoming freshmen during student orientations, I’m seeing students who think that’s the way radio’s always been delivered. Because to them, that’s the way it always has been.

But when a college decides to sell the FCC license of its student radio station and move to an all-online radio experience, what’s the impact on its students, faculty and its learning program? I take a look at that in my next column.

Dick Taylor is a Certified Radio & Digital Marketing Consultant and assistant professor of broadcasting at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky. He is director of the KBA WKU Radio Talent Institute and remains on the board of the New Jersey Broadcasters Association.

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