College Radio In The Digital Age

Posted on June 26, 2011

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May, 2011

It’s the first nice day of spring in New York and students cluster in Washington Square Park, loitering in the sun. At one point, it seems as if the majority of NYU’s students are outside enjoying the weather. Meanwhile, in the basement of NYU’s communication and technology building at 5 University Place, Jamie Dinsmoor plays the latest indie tracks from WNYU’s rotation. Joining her is a posse of WNYU’s members.

Jamie Dinsmoor

They’re talking while eating lunch in the office next door. It’s the FM hour when some of the best-trained radio hosts get a chance to talk with the world via the airways and web.

THE SCENE ON CAMPUS

This is a typical scene at most college radio stations in the US. College life today still seems to live up to the stereotypes that make it up. A dynamic collection of extra-curricular student clubs and organizations that act as the glue between the various personas; the frats and sorties, the chess wizards, the athletes, the politically active, the artists and musicians, etc. These types of people and their interests are what make up a college social scene, providing an escape from the daily stress of academia. Yet, the fairly recent advent of technology and the Internet have changed the game. Social networking, along with improved media streaming has made it possible for anyone with a computer to keep in touch, anytime, anywhere. Not to mention, it’s brought economical and sustainable solutions for communication (i.e. paperless). This advance is most noticeable on college campuses where a new tech-savvy generation is being forged. But left in the wake of this fast change are those who still rely on what has been proven to work, and they’re finding out that it’s not easy keeping up in the digital age. Yet, today’s roll for college radio stations in the US is becoming more important within local communities as a cultural, as well as an economical staple for students and residents a like.

THE WEB MADE THINGS EASIER

Mick Jagger was the first to broadcast live via the Internet at a Rolling Stones concert in November 1994, saying, “I hope it doesn’t all collapse!”, referring to the experimental IP server, ‘M-Bone’, being used to broadcast.

Internet Broadcasting

It didn’t, and since then, many improvements have been made thanks to the ever-expanding rate of computing and memory defined by ‘Moore’s Law’. Shortly after, Internet “web casters” started popping up everywhere, with popular sites and programs such as Pandora.com, Last.fm, iTunes and shoutcast.org.

Paid, subscriber-based satellite radio was quickly franchised and gave the automotive industry an alternative to installing analog radio decks in cars. Perhaps the best perk for web casters was that the FCC regulations that applied to traditional radio didn’t initially apply to web or satellite.This allowed for profanity and unlicensed programming.Then, in October 1998, US Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This resulted in web casters having to pay both performance and publishing royalties online. Traditional radio only paid publishing royalties previously. In other words, regulations only required traditional radio stations to pay a flat royalties fee to the US Copyright Office while web casters were suddenly required to pay a non-profit royalties organization, such as Sound Exchange, for each song they played in addition to paying for copyright. This crippled small stand-alone Internet stations, making it more viable for commercial radio to prosper. On top of all this, George W. Bush’s financial requirement policies for public and private colleges put most institutions in a financial pinch, forcing them to cut corners.

THE IMPORTANCE OF COLLEGE RADIO

Barney Canson

Back at WNYU, Barney Canson, the General Manager shows off his station’s vast collection of records, CDs, cassettes and a couple conspicuous-looking a-traks. From The Beastie Boys to Beethoven, eight double-sided shelves are covered by genre, alphabetically. The walls are plastered with colorful band posters, articles, awards and even a golden record encased in glass signed by the popular rap group, De La Soul. “FM is necessary and college radio has a moral obligation to provide an alternative to commercial radio,” Barney says. WNYU broadcasts 25 shows on 89.1FM transmitted at 8300 watts during the work week 4pm-1am and 47 shows internet-only at wnyu.org. Almost every hour of every day has a show. It is a thriving, student-run organization that unifies an eclectic mix of students from different disciplines. It is a utopia for music lovers, a resource for new musicians. Yet, Barney explains the struggle to get where they are now. “We’ve moved three times…One day, while at our past bigger space at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, these guys just came in with measuring tapes saying they were told to prepare for new classrooms.” WNYU’s staff were never told prior but were simply moved a couple blocks down into the space they now have. “And one time, they even tried to make the station a part of Stern! (NYU’s business school)”.

Struggles like these seem to be between the financially oriented academia that run most schools and the ambitious, free-spirited students who run the radio.

COLLEGE RADIO STATION VS. SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION

One current struggle influenced by the advent of Internet broadcasting is currently taking place on the campus of the University of San Francisco (USF). On January 18th, the school administration unexpectedly reclaimed the 3,000 watt FM transmitter used by KUSF and sold it to the Classical Public Radio Network (CPRN), a Classical station owned by USF and Public Radio Capital. Shocked and in the midst of shows, staff scrambled to find out what had happened. When they figured out what occurred, they were saddened to find out that their school had more lucrative plans for their frequency, 90.3 FM. After 34 years of commercial-free alternative music heard around the Bay Area, USF had hastily decided to switch the student programming at KUSF to web-only. Bay Area newspapers and Internet sources reported that volunteer DJs and staff were even escorted out of the station soon after transmission cut-off. They then found the locks to the station changed the next day. USF’s official statement posted online the day after the incident states, “the sale allows USF to focus on the station’s primary purpose as a teaching laboratory for students and to invest the proceeds to support USF’s mission.”

The current status of the station is proving to be even less optimistic by the recent FCC approval of USF’s request for the transmitter on April 12th. Final approval is still pending. Though hope remains as the students and volunteer DJs involved are gaining national attention and holding discussions with USF representatives. The station is also finding support from donations on their site, savekusf.org. This story is a sobering example for college radio stations across the country that demonstrates the impact the digital age has brought.

WELCOME TO RADIO ISLAND

WSIA Staff

Across fields of grassy knolls through corridors of old brick-building classrooms lies WSIA 88.9FM, the college radio station of CUNY’s College of Staten Island, not to mention, Staten Islands only terrestrial radio station. Located at the heart of the campus next to the cafeteria, WSIA has been around for almost 30 years broadcasting not only in Staten Island but parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey.“I have high-hopes [for WSIA] so long as there are people like John and Phil”, CUNY counseling assistant to WSIA, Sarah Cohen, says smiling referring to Chief Engineer, John Ladely and General Manager, Philip Masciantonio. With about 20 volunteers and only 3 paid staff members in charge, WSIA knows how to run a college radio station. Ladley, at WSIA for over 16 years, is credited as the “keeper” of the station. “I’ve raised this place from the ground-up” Ladley says after stroking his pet parrot, climbing around his neck to nibble at one of his many earrings. “I just came into the WSIA office when I was a student in the 1970s and I just got hired once I started fixing their broken headphones” Ladley recalls, “and I’ve been here ever since”. Characters like Ladely contribute to what keeps college radio such an interesting and important experience in college. This is just one aspect for what makes WSIA and its campus a college radio utopia. Away from the hustle and bustle of urban life, it rules New York City’s South-Western airways with their powerful class-D 11-watt FM transmitter.

Although, like KUSF and WNYU, they’ve also experienced their fair-share of trouble from the school administration; but they seem to have some key factors that kept their station in tip-top shape. For starters, Ladley is not a student and has a degree in tech management: someone to oversee technicalities and provide a sense of continuity for the next student managers. On top of that, larger schools with a wider range of majors create opportunities in  subjects such as sound engineering, communications and journalism. Yet, the strongest aspect seemed to be the local support and notoriety that they received. As the only radio station on the island, they serve a much more important purpose that other urban college stations couldn’t even dream of. Cohen says that despite their local fame, they still get plenty of new students who always say the same thing: “Cool! I didn’t know we had a radio station?”

STORY OF A PIRATE RADIO STATION

The allure of radio to college students comes mostly from how it’s been depicted: an underground place to explore and experiment with new music fueled by the rebellious spirit that many musicians cater to. To some it’s a hobby, but to most, it’s a way of life. Hip-Hop artist and Pratt Institute staffer, Al “Trigz” Pierre finds college radio essential not just to students, but to anyone curious about music culture. “I notice that most kids [at Pratt] like top 40 music but will then surprise you when they put on something completely different.

2009 Staff

As a beat maker for my songs, I find inspiration from anything I listen to. And college radio is like the glue that brings these people together.” Pierre, a staff member for Culin Art at the art and design school, Pratt Institute for more than 5 years, can usually be spotted at WPIR- Pratt Radio, a stand-alone internet radio station run by 11 students and a faculty advisor. Inside, a pirate flag hangs high above the wall to remind the current managers about the station’s pirate-radio roots. Toby Howard, a computer technician at Pratt’s service desk and Alumni, reflects when he once held a managing position during Pratt Radio’s illegal broadcasting, ‘Pirate’ days in the early 1990s on 87.5FM. “We were getting calls all the way from the Bronx! It was so cool, not worrying about the rules, playing whatever we wanted. But at the same time, we knew it was going to come crashing down one day”, Howard admits. And it did. The story is that then-General Manager, Dan Fries, didn’t renew the license for broadcast the year prior and in the Fall of 1990, after almost two years of work, station staff received an angry letter from the FCC demanding that they immediately cease transmissions or pay a $100,000 fine. Fries was expelled and the station was liquidated. A decade later, the station was reestablished as an Internet station, but still holds true to its pirate routes, yet differently. With the FCC regulations out of the picture and an international audience to appease, show hosts feel like they can be more creative.

Poster By Nick Madonia

Britt Moseley, a Junior sculpture major at Pratt had a Spring show on Pratt Radio every Saturday 3-4pm called, “What Things Sound Like”, a self explanatory name. In it, sounds from things ranging from power drills to live ducks are aired, leaving the listeners to guess and call in. “ I though it would be funny, like mocking NPR, but also wanted to do something unconventional. Something other student clubs don’t really offer.” In a small school of artists and designers, most students like Britt find the majority of Pratt’s student activities neglected by what New York City has to offer. Yet, today’s roll for college radio is becoming more important. The improved technical capability has allowed for more stations to run with less technical experience. With more competition, smaller Internet stations like WPIR-Pratt Radio are turning to more unique methods of college radio, such as live web video broadcasting and site-specific DJing. Though the secret weapon seems to lie outside the campus parameters in the concrete jungle of Brooklyn, NY: The world’s most popular music scene.

THE FUTURE OF COLLEGE RADIO

Things for the little guys today aren’t looking as bad as they were before. Recent reforms in congress have now made it easier for the public to buy small FM transmitters. The changes seem to be a last effort to preserve traditional radio. But the change is already here. Places like stickam.com have created a Facebook-styled network of webcasters that stream live audio and video. With an easy format and a tailored audience, it’s no wonder why some shows already have thousands of viewers per show. The group has been around for only 6 years and is believed to have popularized web radio by putting faces and visuals to radio.

WPIR live performance 2010

Though, there’s a more important role for college radio stations these days. Not just as a music sanctuary or place to get heard, but a place still very much involved in its college music community. Ex-college radio station, WFMU knows this best. They’re one of the longest running free-form radio stations around and were once owned by Upsala College. After Upsala went bankrupt in 1995, WFMU staff formed a nonprofit corporation, Auricle Communications, rendering the station completely independent. What set’s WFMU as a roll-model is there ‘college-themed’ commercial-free radio that encourages experimentation and humor. Their events, such as their massive annual record sale of around 4,000 records that happens in Manhattan every October, can bring large crowds of music enthusiasts that dwell for hours.

With strong independent stations like WFMU, then perhaps struggling college radio stations today have a chance at becoming better suited for a faster, more digitized world of broadcasting on the web. The trick that most radio hosts can tell you is simply more promotions. Yet with the current situation college stations face, a change is underway not just technically and economically, but culturally and ever bending to the international community that the Internet has created for students everywhere.

CLICK HERE to view more photos <    

SAVE KUSF! <

> WPIR- Pratt Radio Photos <

Credits: Article and photographs by- Nick Childers, Editor and Supervising Professor- Eleanor Bade.  Special thanks to WNYU, WSIA, WPIRKUSF and all interviewed.  This was part of an independent study class at Pratt Institute. Copyright 2011.

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