Thursday, December 08, 2011

Protecting Your College Radio Station from a Sale

The past 18 months have not been kind to college radio. Their budgets battered by the Great Recession, we've seen colleges and universities experiencing a sea change in their attitudes towards their radio licenses.  Instead of being viewed as something that would never be sold, some are electing to sell with little to no public warning to the students or station staff, and sometimes even when a station was in good fiscal health and was a source of prestige for the college.

As of this writing, we've seen:  KUSF (University of San Francisco), KTRU (Rice University), WRVU (Vanderbilt Student Communications, at Vanderbilt University), WNAZ (Trevecca Nazarene University), WDUQ (Duquesne University), WLIU (Long Island University), and KCMP (St. Olaf College) just to name a few.   And that doesn't include several colleges who LMA'd (Local Management Agreement) their college station to another entity, effectively removing students or local involvement from the station in the process.

For years, many colleges have long looked at their student radio stations as, generally, something they'd simply rather not deal with: out of sight, out of mind.  That's understandable; it costs a lot to have a station, and it benefits a relatively small (if not tiny) percentage of the student body.  Compared to other student activities, college radio tends to be fiendishly expensive.  And unlike most other activities, a licensed station has the potential to incur substantial fiscal penalty (i.e. FCC fines) and the ability to potentially embarrass the college on a very public stage.

Regardless, for decades, most colleges kept their radio stations.  Now they're selling them.  What's changed?

In short, two things: the economy, and the internet.   The "Great Recession" has hammered both tuition-driven and endowment-driven colleges.  And a student radio station is always going to be inherently secondary to the core mission of the college...that being education...unless it's one of the select few stations specifically integrated into a broadcasting school's curriculum (e.g. WERS at Emerson College).   To put it simply, earning a few million off a sale of a station looks mighty attractive when the alternative is to lay off professors and/or shut down a major or department.

Meanwhile, the internet has completely revolutionized communications.  Whereas before, access to communications was restricted to those handful who controlled an FCC-licensed radio or TV station, or those who could afford a printing press and distribution ANYONE can effectively start their own "radio station" on the web.  Concordantly, anyone can find exactly what programming they want and have it available immediately, no waiting necessary.  That means the principles of scarcity no longer apply to radio.  College stations can't expect their campus' students will listen simply because they're on campus and the station is the only source of new and exciting music; it just isn't.

So basically, if you're running a college-owned radio station...or, as Vanderbilt shows, even if you're just at a station associated with a college...then if you want to prevent a sale, you need to take active steps. Whereas "flying under the radar" used to be a good way to be safe, today it prevents nothing and ensures that if and when your college decides to sell, it'll be too late to do anything about it.

What can you do?
  1. Be Relevant to your Campus Community.
  2. Be Visible to your Campus Community.
  3. Be Integrated with Projects/Programs Important to your Administration.
  4. Be Fiscally Self-Sufficient (most important!).
The first three are old hat.  Everyone's heard them, even if many stations inexplicably fail to adhere to them.  But what they mean has changed dramatically in the last five to ten years.   And those three alone won't cut it anymore.  Especially if your parent college is feeling a fiscal pinch.   To really protect yourself, you've got to raise your own budget.

First, be relevant to your campus community. This doesn't have anything to do with what music you play. With a few exceptions, most college-age students don't listen to the radio for music anymore. Nor do administrators, and being popular to listen to among administrators is nice but it won't save you from a sale. Local community listeners (and community DJ's) don't pay tuition, and thus are little help in making you relevant.

"Relevant" means one of two things. If your college has a strong radio broadcasting curriculum, then your station must be integrated into it...preferably for credit in some way. It must be for radio; simply "communications" or "journalism" is not enough.

If your college doesn't have that curriculum...and for most of you, that'll be the case...then being "relevant" means "being a fun student activity."  That's measured by a simple yardstick: how many students do you have? If most of your student activities on campus have 20 students, and you have 150 students, that looks impressive.  When your events have 10% or more of the student body (5% at larger campuses) attending, that looks impressive.  These metrics go a long way towards justifying any money students are providing towards your budget.

Next, be visible to your campus community. This ties in to relevance. People must know about you before they can decide you're relevant, and there's two key ways to be visible: live events and swag. Unless your air studio is visible from a high-traffic area in your student center, then you need to get out there and broadcast live at least once a week from a high-traffic area. Usually a dining hall or campus coffee shop is a good place for that. If needed, use Skype and some laptops to get the audio back to the station (Skype has near-CD quality audio these days). Borrow a PA system from the campus A/V office. And make sure you're DJ'ing every live event that any other campus group organizes, too!

While doing these live events, you need swag to give away! T-shirts are key. Not only does everyone love a free t-shirt, but now you've got people walking around advertising your station. Shirts too expensive? Get some sponsors to defray some of the cost for their logo on the shirt! Bumper stickers and key chains are also nice. Fridge magnets are ideal because you can often work with the campus microfridge delivery guys to put them on ALL the microfridges when they're delivered each year. Travel mugs are great because you can often cut a "green" deal with the campus cafe for free/cheap coffee if they use your mug (no wasteful cups).   Don't forget some vinyl banners, too. You can get them very cheap (less than $50 for a 4x8ft full-color banner) from places like Build a  Just remember: while every station is different, one of the biggest parts of your (non-payroll) budget should be for promotions.

Then, be integrated with projects or programs that are considered important by your campus administration. First off, it's things your administration finds important. Things the students or the community or even the faculty are nice, but they're not relevant unless the administration thinks it's important, too.

What things does your administration think are important? That varies a lot from campus to campus, but often it's things that make alumni happy. Specifically, happy enough to donate money to the college. A big thing here can be SPORTS. Providing good, solid sports coverage is often a good way to keep athletics happy, and at most colleges, athletics has a lot of power. How to do a good sportscast would fill a separate article, but I'll say this: you cannot sacrifice the fundamentals of a good broadcast at the altar of student involvement.   Athletics will not care that you're providing valuable experience to students if the sportscast sound anything but top-notch.  A clean, crisp, professional job is a must on each and every sportscast: you need good technical quality (see this article) and good sportscasters.  In fact, consider hiring a local pro on a per-game basis to provide consistency from year-to-year and also to help teach your students.

Sports isn't a big deal on your campus?  Or it is, but you need some other ideas, too?  Here's a few more good strategies for integration:
  • Commencement: If you don't broadcast your commencement ceremonies, you really should. Granted, it can make for some truly hideous radio programming. Especially if you're at a smaller college where they read each and every graduate's name.  Ugh.  Oh well.  Kiss your normal listeners goodbye for that day and do it anyway: it's good politics. And if you're lucky your college will get an interesting guest speaker for the ceremony.
  • Convocation, etc: Many colleges have various official ceremonies that entail a guest speaker.  Whatever they are, broadcast those too!
  • Guest Lecturers: There's undoubtedly some faculty or admin groups that bring guest lecturers/speakers to campus on a regular basis, too. Seek them out and offer to broadcast them live. Or even on tape-delay.
  • Promotion of Research: Faculty are always looking for ways to publicize their research.  Some may even have grant funding, like the NSF, that has public outreach requirements attached.   So go to the department chairs (especially science departments) and see if you can get some researchers to come on the air and talk about their work for a few minutes (or an hour).
  • Alumni Weekend: Every college has an annual alumni weekend, go to your alumni office and offer to help with planning some fun events for alums. Maybe an "all alumni DJ" weekend. Or even just DJ'ing some other events - just make sure you play audience-appropriate music!

The above three rules are important, if not critical, to giving your administration every reason to support your station instead of selling it off.   But the global economy is in the tank.  And if your college's budget is in the tank, too, then sooner or later they're going to start looking your station's value purely in economic terms.  And that means you're toast unless you have a purely economic argument to support keeping the station.  That's where the new, fourth rule comes in:

Finally, you need to be fiscally self-sufficient. If you can independently raise the funds for your own budget, politically it will be very difficult for an administration to justify selling off the station. The nice part is that it doesn't necessarily need to be a lot of money. Most college radio stations can do very well on just $50,000 a year. That number excludes any payroll costs for a professional advisor/manager but that's okay; it's great if you can raise enough money to cover the payroll costs too, but it's not essential in terms of protecting yourself from a sale.

I'll cover more of the how to be fiscally self-sufficient in a future article.  But for now, understand a key fact: you cannot be a "radio club" and successfully raise outside funds.  A "radio club" inherently puts the needs of its internal members first before all others.  To raise funds, you must put some other group first: preferably an off-campus listening audience, but the student body as a whole also works fine.

In other words, instead of a club, you must be a business.  And any good business puts the needs of its customers first.   This may mean stricter formatting of your station to appeal to a wider audience.  It may mean reducing the authority of student managers in favor of more experienced professionals.  It may mean substantially longer training/internship periods (one year or more) before DJ's are allowed to have a show.   It may mean creating a partially-separate, web-only "station" for students to "have fun in" and also to provide a training ground for those students who are "serious enough" about broadcasting to put in the effort and "prove themselves" good enough to move over to the FCC-licensed station (those phrases in quotes can mean substantially different things at different campuses).   It may mean partnering with another, outside station and trading airtime for access to their resources, both in terms of equipment, facilities and manpower.   Or it could mean a host of other changes, large and small.

Exactly what it means will vary a great deal from station to station, but the biggest first step is thinking of your station like a business and realizing that a lot of the "sacred cows" in college radio could very well need to be slaughtered if you're going to ensure your survival.

Bringing it all together: The economies and politics of college radio have changed, yet the methods by which many college radio stations operate have not.  This article has given a rough outline for what a station can do to substantially reduce the likelihood of a sale by its parent organization.

But implementing the outline depends on a station already having modernized underlying operational structure.  A structure that many stations just don't have.  For a frightening number of college radio outlets, the volunteer/staff structure, management structure, funding structure and programming styles have remained essentially unchanged since the 1980's.  So please understand that to successfully implement this outline can very well require truly massive, structural change to almost every aspect of how your station operations.

That is, admittedly, a scary thing.   Change always is.  But change is happening across the entire radio broadcasting landscape whether we find it scary or not.  Whether we like it or not.  Whether our administrations like it or not.  We ignore it at our peril; very, very few college administrations will give much - if any - warning that they are considering a sale of the license.  And successfully implementing these changes will take months, if not years, to accomplish.

The good news is that EVERY station CAN implement these changes.  There is nothing stopping you, and there are ample examples out there of successful radio stations, or any communications outlet.  Study them, figure out the fundamentals of their success, and adapt as needed to your own situation.  The only rule is that your station cannot afford to risk being behind the curve.  Instead, get ahead of it: get relevant, get visible, get integrated and get fiscally self-sufficient...get active!


Aaron Read said...

One postscript to this article: if your parent college is a state-run institution, the rules are often somewhat different.

State colleges/universities often cannot easily sell out major assets...such as an FCC broadcast license...without going through a substantial review process. Plus there is often significant opportunity for political influence by elected officials.

On the flip side, in a state school, a department that earns its own budget (particularly through underwriting and direct fundraising) can be problematic if the underlying structure isn't ready to handle that.

In short, many state school stations have less to fear about their license being sold out from under them. In fact, we have yet to see any major incidents of a state-owned college radio station being sold or LMA'ed. However, that doesn't mean that it CANNOT happen...only that it is somewhat less likely to.

Accordingly, I would argue that the fundamentals in this article still apply, with one addition: many state colleges have an emphasis on job placement after graduation. If your college is like that, then if your station is reliability placing graduates into jobs in the radio broadcasting industry, it is a powerful argument to keep your station in place and funded.

Lou Pickney said...

My alma mater, the University of Evansville, nearly sold the license for 91.5 WUEV a few years ago. Luckily that didn't happen, thanks in large part to alumni reaction. Though, at least with HD radio subchannels and/or internet streaming, many college stations (like WRVU now being on 90.3 WPLN-FM-HD3) live on despite giving up the FM license.

Aaron Read said...

FWIW, Lou - I appreciate the sentiment that many schools have by "giving" an HD2 channel to a displaced college radio station. But while I am a proponent of HD Radio technology (at least for FM) I disagree with the idea of using it to "make up for" the loss of a regular FM license.

The simple reason is that it provides none of the benefits and all the detriments/responsibilities of having an FCC license, especially when any money spent on it could usually be better put towards improving operations within a web-only "station" instead.

HD Radio is still too niche a technology to work for college radio. You have to have a format that listeners REALLY want to listen to and specifically want to listen via over-the-air reception. And you need a coordinated marketing campaign on an analog outlet to drive HD Receiver sales, and you need local vendors willing and able to work with you to provide HD Receivers to be for sale in the first place.

By way of example, I would suggest Vermont Public Radio's endevaours on HD Radio to describe what it takes to make HD work. They had a mandate and listener demand for both news/talk AND classical radio. They couldn't do both with analog licenses alone, but they were able to provide reasonable coverage of both on analog and use HD to make up the gap. And they promoted the heck out of it across multiple media and also worked extensively with local vendors to help sell receivers.

Very, very few college radio stations have the resources or commitment to that level of effort that's needed to make an HD2 channel a success. And the few that do, probably aren't in any danger of losing the analog channel in the first place.

Again, I appreciate the sentiment that these colleges are showing, but they'd be better off pouring those resources into a web-only outlet that's more accessible to a wider audience, (usually) more relevant to their target audience, and better able to duplicate the experience of broadcasting on an FCC licensed station without actually needing the license. It can be done, but it takes extra effort to do so.

Aaron Read said...

Today I came across a related article that neatly comes at similar issues from a different angle. I highly recommend reading it and its followup posts.

PubRadio Stations Coping With University Budget Clowns

(NOTE: Even though it's focused on "public radio," the lessons are just as applicable to "college radio.")