Monday, February 29, 2016


My column on Thursday 2/24 about college radio [link] got a lot of response. Somehow it went viral and was clicked by over 1,100 unique visitors. Because of the level of interest, I would like to expand on the info and provide some useful comments from readers.

Before I get to specifics, I hope I haven’t given the impression that college radio isn’t providing listener enjoyment and valuable experience and training. I come from a college radio background – I was an advisor at KASR (now KASC, Arizona State University, Tempe) and KAUR (Augustana University, Sioux Falls) plus I’ve done consulting work for other stations such as Radio K.

I like Jennifer Waites’ profiles of college stations on Radio Survivor [link].  Jen excels at capturing the vibe at the stations she visits. She also provides important background and context about the diverse variety of college programs.

Here is where I am coming from: College radio's self-imposed smallness is a threat to its future. The key to long-term success in noncommercial media is independent financial sustainability. If there is no margin it is tough to fulfill the mission.

As a group, College stations are the smallest players in noncom radio. There are fewer and fewer stations each year.  Station licensees are increasingly focused on tangible results, not just feel-goods.

It doesn't have to be this way. College radio has a lot going for it. Students are adept at combining the radio platform with digital, mobile and social media. Students are doing excellent work -- check out the CBI National Student Electronic Media Convention awards at [link]. College rock music is one of the few growing segments of the music business. Students have a native feel for new sounds and trends. This intuition is contagious.
I wonder if a "Bill Kling" type leader will emerge within college radio. Kling was the founder of Minnesota Public Radio, American Public Radio and American Public Media. He inspired the public radio system to move beyond government subsidies. Public radio has become a successful noncom business that is an important part of American democracy.

So, college radio needs to become more significant or it will be increasingly be another bug that spats on the windshield on a hot July night.


I received some push back from Will Robedee, Executive Director of College Broadcasters, Inc.(CBI):

The data presented does offer an opportunity for stations to show how they are underfunded, but because of the problems with the data, anyone using it should scrutinize the data before quoting it. While I am not trying to find fault with the data presented, I want those who view it to understand the data in context. 

The “small” common denominator is also potentially misleading because it does not take into account audience size in any measureable way.  There are some student stations which have a large audience.

To show college radio's smallness, I decided to quantify two variables: Total Station Revenues (TSR) and audience estimates from reliable sources, not anecdotes.

I used budget data I have for 110 college stations. The average TSR for these stations is around $41,000 per station, per year. 

The chart of the left shows how college station TSR compares to other types of noncom radio.

To track audience sizes I reviewed the 900+ noncom stations listed in Fall 2015 Nielsen Audio Diary markets plus stations in PPM markets. There were only four college stations that subscribe to Nielsen, shown in the chart on the right. I challenge anyone to provide tangible proof of a "large" college radio audience.


David Black who runs WSUM at the university of Wisconsin, Madison wrote:

Thank you so, so much for the recognition of our sta6on and all the hard work we have done. The students are the bedrock; watching them take ownership while they are here and then passing along a station that is even better than what they found when they got here is very gratifying. 

David Black
 I should point out that most of our funding comes from student activity fees but we draw on as many resources as we can to keep the opera6on going at a high level. We were also fortunate to have…[well-constructed] studios and a digital backbone. All of those resources put the responsibility squarely on me to utilize them to the best of our ability.
[Your data] is important because I remind the student government every year that they should always be the top shareholder because that makes it the boss and insures that the station remains student-run. Thank you again for the recognition.

All the best, Dave Black, General Manager, WSUM Radio.

Even at what I consider the best college station in the nation, fees from students are essential for WSUM’s continued operation. Student fee funding is a mixed bag – What the students give they can also take away.

Here is an illustrative example from my own back pages about the downside of over-reliance on student money.

I was General Manager of KCSU at Colorado State in Fort Collins from 1985 – 1987.  At the time KCSU was CPB-supported and aired NPR News Magazines during the drive times, Classical between the tent poles, Jazz and Folk in the evening and CMJ Rock overnight. Typical for the era.
1986 News Coverage of a KCSU Format Fight

KCSU had an annual budget around $330,000. CPB put in around $60,000 a year and we brought in $70,000 or so from pledging and underwriting. Colorado State University put NO university funds into the station.   

Instead KCSU received roughly $200,000 per year in student activity fees administered by the Student Senate.

As you know, when a student registers for classes he/she pays tuition and a student activity fee.  As I recall, the activity fees were around $600 per semester per student, quite a bunch of dough.  If students didn’t like a certain fee item, they could make their case before the Student Senate. They often did.

Every semester a few CSU students felt the dough oing to KCSU should be used differently, because, as many students said:  

I don’t listen to the station. 

Every semester there was the possibility that student funds to KCSU would be cut. In the 1990s the students won the battle. KCSU dropped CPB funding, NPR, etc. and became a very good college station. This makes sense because KCSU could not compete with NPR News stations KCFR and KUNC. Maybe it should have always been a college station. 


From the CBI email list
By posting this in your blog, you are again posting information without context.  The quote you attribute to me is accurate, but does not contain the previous comments concerning budgets and more importantly the input from people who are not willing to share their data or not on the CBI email list (contact me for information on joining the listserv). 
I stand by my statement that the data is important and useful.  Many small stations can use this data to substantiate the need for increased funding.  The point was and is that the data is likely to not be accurate as was attested to in subsequent posts to the CBI list. 
You also quoted me saying that “The “small” common denominator is also potentially misleading because it does not take into account audience size in any measureable way.  There are some student stations which have a large audience.”
Your response to that was “There were only four college stations that subscribe to Nielsen, shown in the chart on the right. I challenge anyone to provide tangible proof of a "large" college radio audience.”  You identified four college stations which have subscribed to Nielsen.  Is four a valid sample?  Not in my book or likely any else’s book when the universe is over 1,200  and growing.  That is why I suggested stations view the data in context.
I will agree with you that in some, perhaps many, situations, the lack of an adequate budget is highly detrimental to growth of audience and also put the station at risk for putting fiscal resources elsewhere.  With respect to fiscal resources, the reverse is also possible.
I also agree with you that audience size can matter.  Nielsen is not the only measurement vehicle available.  Social media and streaming listeners are metrics not currently measured by Nielsen.  These are metrics which student stations can and should be recording data because audience size does come into consideration from those funding student stations and media outlets such as TV, video, blogs, social media, podcasts, etc. 
The bottom line is that I generally agree with many concepts in your post, but as I mentioned previously, those using the data posted should do so with caution as the data is useful (thanks for gathering it), but not to be taken as highly accurate.  The posts on the CBI list highlight some of the inaccuracies.  Yes, this is a new era for college media outlets and they need to pay attention to what is happening around them.  Further, despite the old school tradition of many student media outlets boasting that audience size does not matter, it does for the sources of funding in many (if not all) cases.  If not now, sometime in the future.  My problem (again) was with the legitimacy of the data, despite how useful it may be.  Posts to the CBI list show inaccuracies and lack of data concerning the size of audiences. 
I respect and appreciate your weighing in on this subject.  You should also consider whether this data, as reported is useful of detrimental.  Student station managers may view this one way, administrators another.   
Ken, this is a good topic for discussion and CBI is all about promoting student media and helping students develop, maintain and grow their operations.  That is why CBI exists, has listservs, conducts its awards program and holds its annual convention.  I expect the convention session proposal form to be on-line before the end of March and I invite you to propose a session on this topic. 
Will R


I was surprised to a get a grumpy note, from a person I won’t name, taking me to task for listing their station's format as “CMJ Rock.” I've republished the chart at the bottom of this column.

The note to me read:

We haven’t subscribed to CMJ for over 10 years. In fact we don’t report to any music charts.

This negative opinion about College Media Journal (CMJ) seems personal to this individual.

In 1984, REM credited college radio for its success.
I think this is a shame because CMJ is a terrific resource.  At the stations I advised CMJ was an important benefit for the students.  They loved feeling part of something bigger and groovy: free music by hot new artists; occasional comp passes to live shows. CMJ enhanced the experience for the students.  Sharing the music of the moment makes college radio contagious and is a good way to learn by doing something you love.

Sir, please reconsider CMJ affiliation. 

Here are the top 20 college stations, ranked by budget size:

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