Is college radio a niche student activity or should it be mainstream?
Students were moving into the dorms in anticipation of another semester soon to begin. Under a tent, sweltering in the heat, and wearing our official radio station t-shirt were a group of my passionate students. Despite the fact that the heat was brutal, they were happily passing out flyers to all the incoming students shuttling back and forth between the dorms and their cars, laden with their possessions. We even had hundreds of donuts to give away, having just signed an underwriting deal with a local donut place the day before. In addition to all this, the PA was broadcasting great music to the masses, and there wasn’t a single person in the area who was not aware of our presence. The students under the tent were a beacon of energy and excitement, and a source of free donuts too! Their enthusiasm was palpable.
Enduring the heat: some students from Brave New Radio
Such a scene is familiar to anyone involved in college radio. We use the opportunity at the start of the academic year to get out in front of as many people as we can, to promote what we do, but more importantly, to recruit students to get involved. Without a fresh intake of new recruits, the station’s future would be in question. So it’s as much for our own survival as it is to remind or inform people that we exist and that we are actually very worthy of their time and their ears. It has become an essential ritual for many college radio stations across the country at the start of every academic year. Yet, what kind of results does the ritual yield?
For our station, WPSC, on the campus of William Paterson University, we are engaged in a perpetual effort to not only be listened to on campus, but to actually make people aware of our existence. From the flyers and the filled in sign-up sheets that we get from the start of the semester, we will then go through the recruitment process and interview as many of those students as possible. And yet, despite attracting the attention of hundreds of students, and signing up perhaps dozens who say they are really interested in participating – the final number of students each semester that truly commit is probably less than 30. This number of course varies per station across the country, so there is no way of knowing if this is a typical number. But how can it be that an activity as ‘cool’ as being a radio DJ could end up with such a relatively small number of students actually doing it?
For us, the question is all about what kind of radio station we want to be. There is no doubt that we want students to be involved, many of whom will never work in the radio industry professionally, and are not even communication majors! Yet, we have worked really hard to instill a culture of professionalism at the station, where we take very seriously the act of broadcasting and the preparation and content of our shows. This is probably the reason why we have the attrition rate that we do. Once students find out exactly what it takes to be involved, the idea that this is a serious endeavor with serious responsibilities, rather than just occasionally playing their favorite music on the air, probably turns some students away. Of course, there is real work to be done, but for those students who do commit, they find themselves part of something very special. They find themselves as a group of students who are united in striving to make the best radio possible, and are supportive of each other’s efforts. For many, they will find friends here that will last a lifetime.
But the question remains: When we engage in this ritual every year, are we setting the bar too high for students to be involved? Is there some other way that students can be involved with the station that does not require them to commit so much time? Or does loyalty require serious commitment? Is college radio a niche student activity or should it be mainstream? It’s a question worth exploring, as every year we once again perform the ritual anew.
– College Radio Reality is a monthly column written by Dr. Rob Quicke for Collegeradio.org.