Though it is difficult to generalize the characteristics of the approximately 400 noncommercial radio stations licensed to colleges, universities and schools, one word stands out: SMALL.
These stations most often operate with small budgets, reach a small number of listeners and have only small impact on their markets. Many college stations are “clubs and cliques” – a circle of like-minded young folks into their social scene.
Every year, sometimes every semester, there are newbies at the door anxious to play their favorite tunes for their friends. This is an enjoyable but temporary experience because the ticking of the clock means some will leave and some will carry on when the semester or academic year ends.
The mission of the stations is also small: Serving the campus, avoiding F-bombs on the air, cranking the volume to “11” and getting prepped for the party after your shift. I’ve been there. Occasionally someone flunks out of school because they majored in radio.
Some college stations provide valuable training and useful hands-on experience. But the focus remains inward – not serving listeners.
Small is the best way to describe the operating budgets for college stations. It is unusual to find a college station where the annual operating budget tops $50,000. Frequently the funding comes from student activity fees paid at the start of each semester. The college radio station competes for activity fees with the Anthropology Club, Black Student Union and the campus newspaper.
Reliable budget information is often hard to find. Through my own research here are the top 20 college stations, ranked by budget size:
Data Sources: IRS 990 filings, institution budgets, student government files and news coverage of student activity fees
“CMJ Rock” refers to stations that play music featured on the College Media Journal charts [link]
DISCLOSURE: I have worked as paid consultant for KUOM, aka Radio K. KUOM differs from other stations on the list above because for many years it operated as a CPB-funded public radio station. KUOM lost their CPB support several years ago because their listening failed to meet CPB’s audience size criteria. The University of Minnesota kept the half-dozen full-time employees. These salaries inflate their Total Station Revenue above most other college stations.
THE BEST COLLEGE RADIO STATION IN AMERICA: WSUM AT THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN IN MADISON
In my opinion WSUM [link] excels in all the basics of good broadcasting. It provides a model others should follow. If you have three minutes take a look at their Station Tour video:
WSUM knows their listeners are people who live in Madison, not just Badgers around the campus. Here is how WSUM describes its audience in its excellent underwriting brochure:
WSUM operates like a nonprofit business where sustainability is the goal. They have a very active “friends” 501c3 and use it to diversity their revenue sources. WSUM’s pledge drives are money-makers and their underwriting plans are more sophisticated than some CPB-funded pubic radio stations. Here is part of WSUM’s rate card:
SNAKE ON THE LAKE
WSUM is a co-sponsor the Snake on the Lake music festival that starts each new academic year in September. Snake on the Lake is an essential Madison experience and WSUM takes full advantage of opportunities to monetize the event:
The architect of WSUM’s game plan is faculty adviser David Black. The students run the place and Black provides coaching and the template for continued success. WSUM matters in Madison.