Leadership Lessons from Starting a College Radio Station

Leadership Lessons from Starting a College Radio Station

By Jim Bolt

KSSU (originally KEDG, https://kedg.weebly.com/) was founded at Sacramento State in the spring of 1991. I should know because I am one of the original founders. It just so happens that 1991 is also heralded as the year that “college rock” exploded into the mainstream as a commercial success. The alternative music revolution changed the charts forever!

I’m very pleased to announce that our station (https://www.kssu.com/) will turn 30 in 2021.

The first meeting of the ABC (the Associated Broadcasting Club was the campus club we formed to get the station off the ground) brought nearly 100 students into a large conference room on campus. I stood at the front of the room and said, “if you’re here to be a college radio DJ, you’re likely 2 years too early…no hard feelings if you’d like to leave now.” Half the room emptied. I then said, “Chris (my cofounder) and I have written on 6 pieces of paper and placed them around the room. Each one of them represents what we think are the key areas needed to start a college radio station. Please pick an area of interest and go to the paper, pick a ‘point person’ and send them to the front of the room.” Six people came to the front of the room and we all introduced ourselves. I then turned to the rest of the students and said something like “we have just assembled the loose structure for our radio station. Things will be hard, and sometimes seem impossible, we will be told ‘NO’ a thousand times, but I promise you that Chris and I will always tell you what’s going on and we will always help you with any challenges you have.” These 50 students stuck by us, unwavering, for 2 years.

Many of us were working 30-40 hours a week, attending college fulltime AND trying to start a student-run, college radio station. We left notes for each other in physical mailboxes and folders. We called each other on landline phones, and we met at work and in coffee shops to make progress on our goal. We were 100% committed.

The university administration was both our enemy and our “ally.” It had already given away the first FCC license to Capital Public Radio in 1979 (which effectively shunned student involvement from day 1). CPR was also conspiring to get the second FCC frequency from Sacramento State. We had a natural enemy (or competition, if you will) in Capital Public Radio. We were instinctively unified against our foe (we didn’t need to do anything to build a coalition, create a sense of urgency, or define the competition). We all had a natural love of music, current events, and campus news. And, we wanted to share those passions with the campus and community. We also felt that it was an embarrassment to have a major university, with 20,000 students, and no student-run, college radio station (especially when several area high schools had carrier stations).

Companies take months, even years, to institute these types of organizational mindsets. They are constantly trying to assemble high performance teams and to drive change. We already came to the table unified and ready to do what was needed. There were technical experts, tenacious personalities, and even negative (though not destructive) energies to contend with, but everyone knew that we were all in this together.

As the face of the college radio movement at Sac State, I met with top campus officials, faculty, local media, and local music promoters. Thankfully, I had the help of a fantastic on-campus administrator as a mentor, and a motivating faculty advisor who took us on when others would not.

After rallying, and leading, a group of 50 fellow students, for 2 years, to ultimately secure $150,000 in station startup costs and a $30,000 annual operating budget, I learned quite a lot about myself, management, and leadership.

I have certainly had failures and successes leading teams, volunteer organizations, boards, and business units. I have often harkened back to my days of starting the radio station to reflect on how we did things on a day-to-day basis and what we did when times got tough. These lessons have stayed with me and I am grateful to have learned them.

However, I would not truly internalize the concepts (and differences) of management and leadership until much later, while earning my MBA at Notre Dame. Management is about being a task master and running timelines, calendars, and projects. Great managers are great tacticians. They are vital to any organization’s success.

Leadership, on the other hand, is about influencing, orchestrating, collaborating, negotiating, encouraging, and motivating. It is about creating, and communicating, an inspiring vision. It is about being strategic, but also being able to help with the execution. It is about being authentic and transparent. It is about honesty, integrity, and humility. It is about kicking down obstacles for your team or organization. But, most importantly, it is about truly being there for your people. Leadership is what brings about break-through innovation. It is what creates entirely new categories, businesses, and concepts. And, becoming a leader does not always come easily.

Much to my surprise, I realized that I had been (mostly) leading without even knowing it. It is true that I had many challenges along the way, but I learned from each of them. It is also true that I was a “rebel” (see the book Rebel Talent). I still am. But, I was instinctively doing much of what leadership involves, because those qualities are who I am at my core. This is where I credit my upbringing for instilling a solid set of values and beliefs (thank you mom!). That is, by no means to say that I don’t still have to work on honing leadership skills today, because it is truly a lifelong process.

My fellow students, who self-selected into our movement, were all passionate and excited. They had integrity and ethics. They were (and still are!) great people, who knew that students deserved a voice on campus and in the community. I made lifelong friends in the process of starting the radio station. Some went on to work in the entertainment industry, others work in government or education. Whatever they are doing, I would like to believe they are doing it well because of our shared learning experiences in starting the station together. They trusted me to do the right thing…always…and I mostly did (miraculously). They are what made our organization a well-oiled machine and it was truly an honor and a privilege to have been their leader.

College radio stations provide a rich experience in many facets. By sharing your musical passions, exploring your political ideals, or reporting on campus and community news, you are growing as individuals. These experiences teach a different level of responsibility and commitment. You become part of something much larger than yourself. Regardless of your position, whether it be station manager, promotions director, staffing coordinator, or DJ, you are learning important lifelong lessons in how to work with others, how to manage…and maybe even how to lead.

To all the college radio stations around the world…keep on rockin’ it, don’t stop rockin’ it!