Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Future of College Radio

For those of us following college radio, it's no secret it's in decline. Limited appeal, a headache for their university overseers and inconsistent formats have always put college radio stations at risk for divestment. 

But lately we've seen some pushback: WRAS stunned Georgia Public Broadcasting with a #savewras social media campaign that drew well known musicians who had gotten their start at the college station to the cause. Rice University students took their pleas to "save" their college radio station from being sold to a newly restructured Houston Public Media, a merger of public radio and public television. The Rice station allowed the umbrella organization to move its classical music entirely over to one channel and re-format their other station as all NPR news. 

And there are many others: in Florida, in California, in Minnesota, in Pennsylvania. So what is the future of college radio? And what's the case for it? College radio stations regularly posit themselves as "music discovery" stations - they play the stuff commercial rock or tripe A format stations are too timid to put on the air. Time was, before podcasting and YouTube and social media, nobody really cared what those rinky dink college stations played anyway, and they did serve a purpose to those larger commercial stations as the first filter of music coming down the pike. 

College radio no longer has the monopoly on music discovery anymore. Spotify, Pandora, not to mention our own personal social networks provide an alternative and more effective curation than any college radio station ever could to attract an audience of any size. 

College radio has another major disadvantage to any sort of growth or ability to innovate: their university masters are so bureaucratic that they could never have the flexibility to re-brand themselves in a smart and strategic fashion. They could never incubate and experiment in a way that a public radio triple A format station could. (There is one notable exception: WFUV in New York has been able to take its relationship with NPR to capitalize on the growth of NPR Music and submit tiny desk concerts to the growing shelf of music videos that audiences are flocking to. 

So that leads to what options ARE available to college stations? Well, they could become NPR member affiliates. That would add some structure to their formats as well as offer up some national programming that could free up the station's management to do some of the experimentation that WFUV is doing with its tiny desk concerts. Another option would be to take it to the community and identify a need for a community license that is free form music formatted (an NPR station did this in Colorado when the university let it slip they were entertaining offers.) 

Fundamentally though, the fringe is not doing an effective job of making the case for why the radio spectrum should have a home for them. With the ability to stream online and podcast, it's a tough sell - literally, a tough sell, since those college radio stations have a dollar value, some in the tens of millions of dollars. 

Just as community radio stations no longer have a monopoly on providing a platform for marginalized political opinions and as hubs of activism against social injustice, neither do college radio stations for music discovery. And music discovery isn't going away because college radio stations goes away. Far from it.