College radio in an Internet world

Is your campus radio station threatened? A couple of high-profile cases lately have spotlighted what some college radio supporters call a trend of universities selling their FM licenses and moving their campus stations online. The most recent case involves Duquesne, which sold the license for WDUQ to a community radio station in Pittsburgh and laid off 20 staffers last week. Earlier this month, Vanderbilt sold WRVU’s license to a Nashville public radio station for $3.3 million. As a commentary in the New York Times notes,

The sale added Vanderbilt to a growing list of colleges and universities, including Rice University in Houston and the University of San Francisco, where college radio licenses are being sold off, backed by the assertion that today’s well-wired students no longer tune in to the medium. But that misses the point: college radio is not only a vital part of the communities it serves, but it is even more essential in the Internet era.

Is former WRVU host Freddie O’Connell right? Are college radio stations still relevant and valuable in an online world?

I admit, I’m biased in favor of campus radio stations. I helped to start one as a college student back in the late 1960s. It was a “carrier current” station at first, meaning the AM signal traveled around campus through the electrical wiring. But it was as real a radio station as we could make it and it taught us plenty–not just about broadcasting but about professionalism and responsibility.

College stations that can be heard off campus can give students even more valuable experience connecting with a diverse audience. But many stations licensed to universities don’t let students do much of anything. They have paid, professional staffs and high standards. Inexperienced undergrads need not apply. I’ve always thought that was a shame. And if those are the kinds of stations universities are selling off, I don’t think their loss would be felt as deeply.

But many other college stations are still student-driven, bastions of creativity and barrels of fun. And there’s a growing effort to support them, with plans for the first-ever “college radio day” on October 11 to celebrate their “unique and fearless” programming. If you’re passionate about campus radio, you just might want to get involved.