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. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Want a successful college radio station? One that the regents will never sell to a Christian organization, or broker to a regional NPR-based network?

1. End block programming. Anyone who's that into non-stop reggae isn't going to remember you play it Saturday's from 3-6. They got reggae on Pandora now. Built lots of reggae into your mix programming because ... (see 2)

2. Get more eclectic in standard mix shows. No more hours and hours of white music (indie pop, CMJ picks) without a sonic break. Build eclectic spice into your anglo mix. Reggae, Blues, Chill, World Music, right after the Shins and before the next flavor-of-the week. Get colorful.

3. Play the better new songs more often. Somebody famous called college radio "awesome music you've never heard before, and will never hear again." Stop that. Get a good new band? PLAY THEM. Own the good new music you play — as in, play it more than once. In the early 80's, Rick Carrol of KROQ took the total castaway new music releases nobody else would play and made them hits. How? He played them often. Humans like to hear songs repeated — science backs this up. Your new music category should have no more than 100 songs. Play each song a minimum of 30 times before you evaluate if the audience actually like them.

3b. Develop some core bands. College radio music directors have a short memory. A regular listener doesn't know which bands a college station really supports because it changes every week. What are the bands to todays's college radio that Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and The Beatles were to 1970 AOR? Pick a few — own 'em. And just because you play a new band first, then a station on the other end of town plays ONE song from that band, don't drop them ("oh, they're too popular now"). They're your band, you played 'em first.

4. Talk about student activities, a lot. Minimum 3 times an hour, live on the air, your pimping a student activity that's happening in the next 48 hours. Chess club having its annual pancake breakfast, last day to drop classes, parking fines increased in front of the student union — whatever. All. the. time. This is the most important thing you do. Seriously.

5. Get one of those wonderful $100 digital recorders and get street audio on the air. All your ID's voice by students — and make a point to record the foreign students. Hear your call letters read by a student from Uganda, Russia, or Japan. It sounds hipper than you really are.

6. Give stuff away. College students are poor and are always looking for free food — they're pretty easy to figure out. Ask around — most business will give you free stuff for mentions. And t-shirts. College students love t-shirts.

7. Get your logo on everything.

8. Make it a policy that no live break — ever — can go over 40 seconds. Anything over that is recorded, and with a point (i.e., news or psa's). DJ patter should be short, and ALWAYS about something happening on campus.

9. Don't let your sports department go on the air for a half-hour giving ESPN-wannabe commentary on national sports. Their beat is student teams, and only student teams.

10. Tell strories. People love stories that are concise and well-written. Talk about your listeners — the ones that are doing cool stuff. Make them stars. But, remember the 40 second rule.

Commit to new music, make you mix diverse, talk all the time about student activities, don't talk for more than 40 seconds, give stuff away, keep the news and sports on the University beat, and tell stories. You'll own the campus and we can put the stories about college radio dying to rest.