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College radio stations going off the air

BBO_019Student-run radio stations may be at risk of losing their airwaves as FM signals get sold off and stations are exiled to an online-only existence.

The last few years have seen several student-run radio stations shut down or sold, including Illinois-based Augustana College’s KAUR, which was initially slated to go online-only last May. But by September, the school had abandoned any idea to keep a station run by students and had put the station under control of Minnesota Public Radio. This year, two student-run stations have become what might be an increasing trend as they fight to keep their signals from getting sold off. For Houston-based Rice University’s KTRU-FM, it may already be too late.

KTRU’s student staff was shocked when they found out their school’s administration was looking to sell its signal several months ago. Since then, students appealed to the media for support and launched a “Save KTRU” website. Despite this, the school administration already finalized agreements to sell the station’s FM signal to the University of Houston and filed a petition to transfer the license with the FCC. KTRU station manager Joey Yang said the students will also file a petition to deny, and they hope that if the FCC sides with them, they will continue to operate normally. Otherwise, they will be kissing the airwaves goodbye.

According to Yang, the school’s administration decided to sell the signal because it believed the FCC license is a declining asset and radio is eventually going the way of online. “DJing for an Internet radio station is not quite the same thing as DJing over the air,” Yang said. “We don’t have that inherent sense of locality that you would on the air.” Indeed, the station’s big draw is it broadcasts all over Houston, noted Yang.

“For the immediate and near future, FM is still the most important form of radio,” he said. “I think we’re a long ways off to where Internet radio is truly viable, to where HD is truly viable. Until those both become more widespread, FM has to still be the most important broadcasting medium for radio.”

Much like the Rice University administration, Vanderbilt University’s Student Communications (VSC) department also believes radio is dying, noted Mallie Froehlich, a DJ for the student-run station, WRVU. “They believe is it best to sell while there is still value in the signal,” she said in an e-mail interview. Also like KTRU, WRVU staff appealed to the public and school via a website aimed at saving the station. For now, the VSC told the staff it will not entertain any serious offers until after Jan. 13.

Were the station’s signal to eventually sell, Froehlich said it would do more harm than good. “The majority of our listeners are people in the community as opposed to Vandy students. Most people tend to listen in their cars. Very few Vandy students go online to listen. We would lose a large base of supporters if we went strictly online,” she said. “Unfortunately, I do see this as a possible trend for college radio. There is a common thought that radio in general is a dying art, and we may be the first to go.” Not only would the loss of the station strip the students of their connection with the greater community, but it would also, according to Froehlich, deny students a great opportunity to run a functioning radio station that isn’t simulated.

Running an online station, however, may be a valuable learning opportunity for students poised to enter an increasingly online world, noted Robert Unmacht, partner with iN3 Partners Inc. and a veteran industry observer. “Theoretically, you are probably learning a better skill set when it comes to where the future is,” he said. “Radio hasn’t been in hiring mode in the last five years – a lot of college stations are running automated; I don’t see there’s that great a career path going into old fashioned AM and FM. It’s a world that has changed.” He believes eventually all radio is going to end up on the Web, with more penetration into cars and phones, he noted.

In the case of stations like Vanderbilt’s WRVU, which serves not only the school but the Nashville area, it doesn’t make sense to ditch the signal at the moment, he noted. “By the time you get to become a full-powered station, you’re giving up quite a bit – which is a full-market station,” Unmacht said. But the media world is quickly transforming. “We see television changing very rapidly, which means radio isn’t going to be too far behind it.”

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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