Jennifer Waits is the co-founder, College Radio and Culture Editor, and Social Media Director of Radio Survivor, a blog that advocates for the importance of FM, AM, Short-Wave, HD and satellite radio. She is also the founder of Spinning Indie, a blog that is dedicated solely to College Radio. She has visited over 100 college radio stations, and has been a DJ since 1986.
In this interview, she tells us about the importance of College Radio in an increasingly complex media landscape, and explains why the future of radio is more optimistic than it may seem.
In your experience, what distinguishes college radio from other public radio stations?
College radio is pretty diverse, with many different types of stations; but in general, it’s special because it provides opportunities to college students. At many college radio stations, students are completely in charge, running a radio station, training their peers, and creating programming.
How has the industry strengthened since you first went on air?
College radio is ever-changing, but differences in technology have meant that students have more ways to do radio than when I first started. Back then, it was mainly limited to licensed terrestrial radio (AM/FM), carrier current, cable, and very low power campus-only stations. In 2017, college radio stations still have AM, FM and cable, but also have opportunities to stream online, broadcast over LPFM, use HD radio channels, be heard over a few satellite radio stations, as well as through apps and streaming services. It’s a multi-media world now and one of the things that excites me about college radio is its embrace of video in order to augment the formerly audio-only broadcasts.
What have been the biggest setbacks?
The main challenges of college radio are as old as college radio itself: funding and an ever-changing student population. Beyond that, there’s the complex media landscape today, so some folks get the impression that radio is less relevant. In reality, radio is still one of the most consumed forms of media.
How has the demise of the College Music Journal affected college radio?
I don’t get the impression that CMJ’s troubles have had a major effect on college radio overall. It’s unfortunate that CMJ is no longer doing its annual music marathons, as that was a rite of passage for many of us former college radio Music Directors. I have fond memories of traveling to New York City to attend CMJ and I saw some great panel discussions and amazing live music over the years. CMJ’s college radio charts have been useful for many stations and when it started to become clear that CMJ was in trouble, a number of charting services appeared on the scene as alternatives.
Why is it important to keep college radio stations on air?
I believe that our airwaves should be full of a wide range of programming, including a breadth of non-commercial radio options, including high school, college, and community radio. Local radio is special and is increasingly lacking on the commercial side of the dial; which makes it even more important for college and community radio to step up and fill that void. Additionally, college radio stations can be voices for their campuses and places where students, faculty and administrators can share hyper-local stories, events, athletic competitions, concerts, and more.
How are college stations adapting to an increasingly difficult climate?
I’m not sure that it is an increasingly difficult climate. In fact, I’ve been inspired by the recent increase in low power FM (LPFM) radio stations, thanks to the Local Community Radio Act. College radio groups were among the recipients of new LPFM licenses, with more than 75 college radio stations obtaining construction permits following the 2013 application window. Additionally, online-only college radio stations are still being launched, which provides more evidence of the ongoing relevance of college radio in 2017.
What is lost what a station loses their signal?
Once a college radio station loses an FM or AM license, it’s very unlikely that it will get one again. Audiences for terrestrial AM/FM radio are much larger than for streaming-only radio stations, mainly because the radio dial is finite and the internet is flooded with audio options. In recent years a few stations that have lost full power licenses have returned to the airwaves over LPFM, including Rice University’s KTRU. Although students will say that they are most likely to tune in online, it’s also the case that having an FM or AM signal is perceived by many as a sign of legitimacy, of “real” radio.
What should communities do to help support their local college radio station?
Listen, donate, evangelize. College radio stations should also ensure that they are staying relevant to their campus and community. I think it’s important to document the good work that stations are doing and to share the positive impact of your college radio station with administrators. Invite them to tour the station, talk to them about why college radio is important to students, and make sure that they are on your side. Also, take pride in your station by telling your station’s story, including its history. Preserve artifacts, digitize vintage audio and ephemera, and reach out to alumni to hear their stories.
What can students gain from getting involved in their campus radio station?
For many of us, college radio was one of our most treasured experiences while in college. I’ve heard tales of people nearly flunking out of school because of their devotion to working at a college station. It can be one of those rare chances for students to be in charge, so it’s a powerful learning experience. Students gain leadership and communication skills in addition to all of the radio station-specific benefits. For some, it’s the place where they learn how to interact with the music industry (labels, venues, musicians, etc.), while for others it’s a chance to manage a website, control a social media feed, do sports play-by-play, or learn audio and video editing. In an increasingly multi-media world, college radio stations are the perfect place to experiment and learn.
By Jordan Smith