Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What Exactly is "College Radio"?

WTBU of Boston University.  I made that sign in 1997,
it's still there, at least it was in 2010.
I've worked in and with college radio since 1994, when I started at my alma mater's student station, "WTBU".   Since then, I often hear people try to define "college radio" and inevitably the analysis falls apart. To put it in perspective, consider this analysis:

  • "College radio" is typically thought of as broadcasting on FM stations between 88.1 and 91.9 MHz, usually on comparatively smaller signals and with non-commercial formats.  However, there's WBRU 95.5 at Brown University, KUOM "Radio K" 770AM at University of Minnesota Twin Cities, and WHWS-LP 105.7FM at Hobart & William Smith Colleges.
  • "College radio" is typically thought of as being owned by a college or university, or perhaps a high school, but WFMU at 91.1 in NYC is neither owned nor affiliated with any college (it used to be owned by Upsala College, but the college went defunct in 1995).  And several stations like WBRU (Brown), WVBR (Cornell), WHRB (Harvard), WMBR (MIT) and WPRB (Princeton) are affiliated with parent colleges but are owned by an independent entity, usually largely staffed by alums...and it's not a concept exclusive to Ivy League schools but a lot of Ivies happen manage their stations that way.
  • "College radio" is typically thought of as having student management and airstaff but many such stations, both at colleges and not, have paid staff and community (non-student) volunteers.   Some are entirely professionally staffed, like WXPN at University of Pennsylvania, KUT at University of Texas, Austin, WBUR at Boston University, and WUMB at UMass Boston.
  • "College radio" is typically thought of as playing music that commercial stations will not, but WBRU and WVBR are affiliated with colleges yet tightly-formatted as modern rock stations.  Come to think of it, both WBRU and WVBR actually are commercial radio stations.  Advertising and all.
The bottom line here is that you can't really use the term "college radio" to refer to ownership, frequency, management style, operational style or staff makeup.

So what CAN you use "college radio" to refer to?

I say you can use "college radio" as a reference to a particular format of programming.  In the sense that it's almost the absence of a format...quite literally it can refer to the "freeform" style of no format / totally random genre playing.   But there is a relatively distinctive sound that most people can identify as "college radio."   

I liken the concept to "public radio," which also covers a wide variety of ownerships, frequencies, management styles, etc...but nevertheless has a very distinctive sound and relatively consistent programming.

And I would go so far as to say there's a lot of value in thinking of "college radio" as a format.   A format is, at its core, an idea.  A concept to organize a set of values around.  And what values do "college radio" espouse?  How about creativity, freedom, experimentation, and learning.   Those are good values, are they not?

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