Editor’s Note: In this article, the second in a series, Lucas McCallister shares with Radio Survivor readers some recommendations gleaned from his recently completed Master’s thesis research about college radio station structures.
I want to talk a bit about healthy habits for college radio stations. After conducting surveys with 50 stations and speaking with 10 advisors, I began to find a pattern of described common behaviors between stations that had some recent success or a solid foundation. These are those four behaviors:
#1 – A healthy station has a well defined structure and cultivates its members
This one seems obvious, but don’t underestimate it. One of the challenges of college radio is that there is a constant state of flux in membership and student staff. A well established structure of defined responsibilities and positions with a clear and effective training system will help ease this strain.
This structure should be built to suit the station’s needs. For example, some stations may make format decisions by having the entire station vote on program acceptance. While this doesn’t happen in the commercial world, it may suit the needs of the station fine. (Also, perhaps we should be challenging the commercial world’s approach anyways?)
However, if your station’s purpose is to act as a lab for students to have pre-professional training, then it would make sense to have programming control under the purview of a program director. The choices you make in the management structure should be a reflection of the station’s goals.
Cultivation is also a key word here. Nearly every station manager I spoke with had a training component at their station that included DJs ‘shadowing’ or assisting existing shows’ hosts. Slow accumulation of knowledge and assimilation into the station culture ensures that new members not only learn the ropes, but learn to work with their peers and view the station as a shared resource. Radio can attract big personalities, and putting the breaks on the path to station privileges by requiring merit is a good way to determine who really cares about the station as more than just a stepping stone to a career.
#2 – A healthy station does not fight its battles alone
All but a couple of stations in my survey had membership with some kind of organization and almost every manager I spoke with had positive things to say about their memberships. Since my survey was facilitated though the College Broadcasters Inc. (CBI) listserv, most of the stations were CBI affiliates. A couple of stations had Intercollegiate Broadcasting System (IBS) memberships as well. Regional memberships were mentioned by a few stations, too.
Why is membership important? It offers multiple benefits. First and foremost, it provides a channel to ask questions about issues when they come up that you or your station might not have faced before. (Heck, CBI has its main listserv publicly available) Why bother learning things the hard way, when you can get seasoned opinions on legal and technical questions (and anything in-between)?
The other benefit is conventions. These benefit more than the faculty advisors. They allow the students in stations to see that they are not the only college station in the world – they can see stations operating just like they are or ones that are completely different. It opens their eyes that their station is part of something bigger, that it will go on after they leave, and that they have a responsibility to keep it running well.
Memberships can be expensive, and they aren’t perfect. CBI’s conventions tend to be on the East Coast (making it tough for those on the West Coast), but IBS holds conferences across the U.S. Still, with a limited budget, it might be tempting to find some other solution than paying a yearly membership fee. Conferences are kept as cheap as possible, but tickets and travel can be tough on a tiny station budget.
In this case, regional memberships can be useful. They’re probably cheaper, and I’ve heard from some that their regional radio organizations were quite supportive of college radio.
Another option is to try to create working partnerships with local community or commercial stations. Creating a cooperative effort to do air checks for students, discuss radio and media in the context of the community, review the radio business, and challenge each other is an important part of keeping college radio vibrant. This takes me to my next point…
#3 – A healthy station works with its environment
One college station I spoke with operated in the #1 market in the U.S. Because of this, they were able fill a good part of their budget doing underwriting. In the words of the advisor, “We could do everything exactly the same as we are doing here in rural Iowa, and there is no way it would work the same.” So, placement has a lot to do with it. If you’re in a good metropolitan area, work with it!
Any station should really look for what gap it can fill in the market. Finding a niche format is a common answer. But there are other ways too. What other ways can the students be served? What other groups in the community could benefit from small efforts from the station? Community groups don’t just have to be a financial or trade partner for underwriting and advertising. They might be a great way to share the goals of alternative mediums. Think about how your format can serve students and community. The two should not be seen as completely separate.
This point can be tricky for stations that are Internet-only, but again, thinking outside the traditional radio box can be beneficial here. A few stations I spoke with ran DJ services, moving beyond simply doing remotes. Think of the potential that exists in your Internet presence. Write articles about local concerts, do a photo blog, do anything you can to tie your station in with the local scene. If you do it right, you’ll become a part of that scene and that synergy is something that can drive people online to listen. Yes, there’s a big Internet full of online radio stations, but if you’re the only one catering to the local taste, with local bands, and local issues, that’s what matters.
#4 – A healthy station thinks long term
Really, the previous three all come down to this principle. It is really easy for students and staff to get caught up in the day-to-day operations, and only focus on the small accomplishments that seem possible during their short tenure.
Cultivation and constant work to maintain ties outside the normal station boundaries will provide more opportunities for long-term projects. What was once a simple one-off concert with a local venue can turn into a sponsored annual festival. A community service project can turn into a yearly fundraiser partnership. The effort to get a LPFM license, started by an advisor and student manager and then handed off to other students along the way, can become an actual license.
A skilled and present advisor and staff members who work to create successors with vision will find that their efforts go much further. A station that ignores the trends at large, ignores their home environment, and ignores their serviceable community will dwindle and collapse. Remember to look up from the constant training and re-training every now and then to see the broader picture. Otherwise, you may end up spinning your wheels every year, having to re-do everything all over again, and never getting to succeed beyond what has already been done.