Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Three Lies of College Radio

Especially the Lies.

Bashir: What I want to know is, out of all the stories you told me, which ones were true and which ones weren't?

Garak: My dear doctor...they're all true.
Bashir: Even the lies?
Garak: Especially the lies.

(I admit it, I'm an incurable Trekkie)

Much like my hairline, I'm going to go a little bald with this post:  I think it's time that college radio stations stop lying to themselves.  How so?  Let me give you three statements I often hear about college radio that are simply just no longer true, if they ever were:

  1. College radio plays music you can't hear anywhere else.   Uh, no.  Pandora, iTunes, Spotify and a dozen other online services make this statement manifestly untrue.  In fact, the opposite is true: since a radio station can only broadcast 24 hours in a day, an online service will always be able to deliver more obscure music to a listener than a radio station can.

  2. College radio provides a service to its student body.  For the student DJ's and volunteers, certainly this is true.  But that's, at most, maybe 100 to 150 students.  Even at a small college of a few thousand students, that's a very small percentage of students served by an activity that might cost more than all other student activities' budgets combined.   If you're referring to the student body listening to the campus radio station, what proof do you have of this?  Used to be you could assume at least some students were listening because, prior to 1990, radio was pretty much the sole outlet for music consumption.  Today, you can assume that, like as not, most students on your campus don't even own a radio, much less listen to your station.  

  3. College radio provides a valuable marketing tool for its parent college.  How, exactly?  With some obvious exceptions, a lot of colleges...even state-run schools...are actively recruiting students from regions outside of the station's broadcast reach.   Granted, a station may have an online webcast, but how is that any different from any online webcast the college's own communications department could do, and do more targeted and on-message than anything the radio station could do.  Furthermore, if you're trying to reach high school students and their parents, is your content and marketing set up to reach those audiences?
This isn't to say that all three of these statements are automatically untrue at every college radio station.  But they represent long-held ways of thinking for college radio that really aren't true anymore.   Funny thing is, they all can be true, it's just that college radio needs to think in new ways to turn these these "lies" into "truths".  For example:
  1. Make your station a unique source of content, not simply of music.   Your DJ's should be interacting with the audience, providing additional info over the air while also interacting one-on-one via social media.  Nifty facts about the music.  Other info about what's going on around campus.  Broaden your idea of "content" to have more campus-specific and local-community-specific content like lectures, live shows, local news, etc.  And remember, your DJ's are not unique just because they're at your station; unless they're willing to put in a lot of work, they're gonna sound just like DJ's at every college radio station out there.

  2. When it comes to the student body, go to them; don't make them come to you.  Because they won't; the entire student activities schema is about bringing everything to the student body on a silver plate.  Your station cannot be an exception.  More live broadcasts on campus.  More events on campus.  More co-sponsorship of events on campus.  More exclusive contests for students only.  More coverage of things on-campus that students care about: sports, rallies, popular causes, etc.

  3. Understand what your college is marketing, and help that.   Don't assume that just because you air some PSA's about campus events that you're "marketing the college".   Marketing and recruitment is a very serious, well-researched, well-planned and specifically-executed mission at any college these days.  You need to figure out what image your college wants to project and do that. If your college is big about sports, have a lot of game coverage.  If your college is big about liberal arts, have a lot of coverage of visiting lecturers or symposiums.   If your college has a strong journalism program, have a lot of local newscasts by students.   Remember that the goal of your college is to get students (that they deem desirable) to attend.  Your programming should appeal to those potential students and/or to their parents.
You might note that all three "lies" really revolve around the biggest lie that far too many stations tell themselves: that their programming is about the listeners and not about the DJ in the studio.   The former is a radio station.  The latter is merely a radio club.   Clubs are fun, and they have their place, but it's hard to justify tens of thousands of student fee dollars every year on a student club.  Especially in this lousy economy.  So if you don't want to lie to yourself, always ask the question: who does this policy or procedure benefit more: your listeners, or your DJ's?  (and the answer cannot be "both")

If you can face that answer, you'll be a long way towards finding the truth of a successful radio station.

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