The Old College Try
January 21, 2011
My college didn't have a real radio station. That was not ideal for someone like me who really, really wanted to do college radio, but that was how it was. The school actually had one of the very first college-owned stations, back in the 1920's, but gave it up in one of the early frequency shakeouts, and that was it.
But that wasn't it, not precisely. We did have a carrier-current station, the kind that sent its "signal" over the electrical wiring on campus and could be heard amidst static and skywave on an AM frequency, at least hypothetically and before a real broadcast station was dropped in on the same dial position. In reality, through neglect and questionable wiring, the station, with a flood-damaged studio in the basement of the Dining Center, made it all the way to one side of the cafeteria upstairs; that side was the "radio side," where the station played in the background underneath the sound of trays and silverware and chatter. The other side was the "silent side." We could take our ratings from a head count in the two rooms. I'd say we had about a 52 share of Adults 18-22.
Since then, the station has gone off the "air," then on again, then off, then on. The best I can determine is that it's off the air now after an attempt to do it by streaming, then as an all-podcast operation. They can't get enough people on campus interested.
And that's not a surprise, since, if the 18-year-old me were to be transported to 2011, I wouldn't need the college radio station. I'd probably have started my own podcast well before that, because the world would need an adenoidal, nasal teenage voice talking about the Phillies and Eagles and playing indie rock. College radio used to be where you learned how to do radio while inflicting your musical taste on the public. Now, it's DIY time. You don't need a college radio station for that. All you need is a laptop and a mic.
I'm waxing nostalgic because this week brought more news of colleges getting rid of radio operations. The University of San Francisco sold KUSF to a company (that happens to be controlled by USC) that is taking it Classical with a professional staff. Morehead State sold off one of its stations, too, although not its primary one, and the controversy over Rice University selling off KTRU to the University of Houston's professionally-staffed station is still rankling people there. The comments of the president at USF summed up what some schools are thinking: He noted that KUSF was largely staffed not by students but by outside volunteers, and he said that the school's "primary mission is to our students, it is not to the community at large."
And that's one way to look at it. It always seemed odd to me that, down the road from my school, Penn's WXPN didn't seem to have any students involved and instead had another carrier-current operation for students to play with, and USC's the same way, with their FM operated by pros and a carrier-current station with sometimes very leaky wiring (I've heard it driving along the adjacent freeway) for the "kids." If I was a student there and couldn't get to work on the "real" station, I might be frustrated. But those stations DO serve a cultural purpose in the community, and probably raise a nice amount of money for the operation as well. In those cases, the mission IS to the community at large, and as long as they're self-supporting, they make sense.
Otherwise, a school is justified in thinking that a radio station is a luxury in 2011, a luxury they can sell to pick up a few quick bucks in tough economic times. And, yes, podcasts have made student radio seem like a relic from the stone age. But what my old station did provide that a podcast can't was simple: the experience of working with people, being part of a group whose goal was to create cool things, learning not just how to work with equipment but what to do when things went wrong, and making friendships that continue to this day (and include at least one guy who I ended up working with years later in L.A. -- Hi, Ronn!).
If getting rid of a station means getting rid of that, it's sad. But I don't know that students today are looking for that; they just want to do a show, and the broadcast part can wait until and unless they want to do it for a salary (and at that point, their lack of training becomes an issue, but we can talk about the "farm system" at another time). And when they can have an instant international audience for their podcasts without ever setting foot in a radio station, I'm not sure I can blame them.
This column is, as you might have noticed, late this week. So I'll dispense with the rundown of wha you'll find at Talk Topics, the show prep column at All Access News-Talk-Sports, and just tell you to go there. Now. It's where you'll find hundreds of things about which you can talk on the radio on a podcast, or to yourself. There's also a fresh "10 Questions With..." James T. Harris, who's doing weekends on both WTMJ/Milwaukee and KQTH (104.1 The Truth)/Tucson and popping up elsewhere lately (like a fill-in stint at WTDY/Madison). And there's always the rest of All Access with complete industry coverage updated all day, plus columns, charts, job listings, and more.
As always, you can keep up with everything on All Access' handy Twitter feeds, too, including Talk Topics at twitter.com/talktopics and Net News at twitter.com/allaccess. And you can get the All Access app for iPhone here or for Android here, both developed by jacAPPS. Unrelated to All Access, I have a few other outlets for non-radio writing, including pmsimon.com, twitter.com/pmsimon, and the latest addition, nerdist.com, where I'm writing about pop culture, tech stuff, and other geek-worthy topics.
Again, sorry for the delay in the column. It was touch-and-go there, anyway, topic-wise. You have no idea how close you came to getting a column with detailed analysis of the AFC and NFC Championship games.
Perry Michael Simon
All Access News-Talk-Sports