College Radio Stations Beloved but Struggling

By Nancy Ramsey

Mar 22, 2011 3:01pm

ABC News on Campus reporter Caitlin Kern blogs:  Casey Welsch was in the sixth grade when he first heard KRNU while shopping in a Lincoln, Neb., record store. The college radio station played all his favorites: Modest Mouse, Nine Inch Nails and Queen. “I asked the clerk what the station was,” said Welsch. “So when I got out to the car, I turned it on and fell in love with it.” Today Welsch, now 21, works at KRNU at the University of Nebraska. KRNU has been on the air since the 1970s and is still a viable learning tool for potential disc jockeys and journalism students at UNL. But for other students in the country, college radio is a dying institution. Schools have a hard time keeping up with Top 40 networks because they just don’t have the money to do it. Without necessary funding, schools nationwide have to sell their airspace to commercial stations, and use the extra cash for other expenses. Some choose to move their programs online, or get rid of them entirely. The University of San Francisco sold its 38-year old station, KUSF, to KDFC, a classical station for $3.75 million. At Vanderbilt, WRVU, the student-funded radio station, announced it would be moving exclusively online due to “changing student habits and evolving changes.” Schools have countless other ways to utilize their airspace. Texas Tech’s student-run station, KTXT, switched from student-run content to educational programming after the university no longer had the funds to keep the FM station. Augustana College in South Dakota believed its station was “underutilized” and not linked to the college’s mission statement. In 2009 it started to play Minnesota Public Radio instead of the student-run content. Rice University sold its station, but to another university. The University of Houston bought Rice’s broadcast tower, FM frequency and license for $9.5 million. Even when universities choose to include their campus stations as part of broadcasting curriculums, instead of relying on student-fees or donations, it doesn’t guarantee them an audience. KRNU encountered this problem a few years ago, so it created its own niche. In 2009, KRNU refocused its formatting to appeal to more alternative and indie music listeners. Its advertisement had new tag lines, “get INDIEd” and “where new music begins.” KRNU has the edge of being the only station in Lincoln that plays this type of music. Even if listeners do fall off, KRNU is still not in jeopardy of losing airspace since it’s run like a classroom lab. Chemistry students take labs with their classes, as well as other majors; at UNL, the broadcasting population is no exception. Only journalism students are allowed to run the programs at KRNU. The work is hands-on experience, it’s graded, and anyone in the Lincoln area can tune in. “Other internships I’ve done were less hands-on. I’ve probably learned more from the classes I’ve taken here than when I actually worked for a station,” said Ryan Penney, a senior broadcasting major at UNL. He does say that the beginning of the semester can be a little rough, since the DJs range from beginners to grad students, but everyone has to start somewhere. Students interested in radio careers after college need live on-air experience if they want to be contenders in the industry. Internships at local stations do help, but students often don’t get the chance to be on-air, and when they do, to write their own material. Without experienced DJs, where does that leave the future of radio? “Radio is magic. Radio is a medium that exists in the mind of whoever’s listening to it,” said Welsch. “When you listen to radio, all you get is that one sensory input. Other media require a person to devote their full attention to it. You have to sit down and read a newspaper. You have to stare directly at a television. You have to log onto the Internet. With radio, you flip a switch, turn up the volume and as long as you can hear it, you’re consuming it. You can do whatever else with your attention." Welsch also argues that radio is the most local of all media. It’s where listeners get traffic reports, weather alerts, community news, local sports, and people in the area can call in with opinions. Dustin Hunke, a senior broadcasting major at UNL, originally came to UNL as a journalism major with no intention of pursuing a career in radio. Presented with the opportunity of KRNU in his classes, he now has five years of radio experience. “My love of being an on-air personality and picking music to play to people has made me consider going into the field of broadcasting once I graduate,” said Hunke. He says that KRNU served as the first step in his career,  and made him realize what he wanted in the future after earning his degree.

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