One of higher education’s signature student programs, the college radio station, is facing the prospect of dramatic change.
Several colleges recently began evaluating the longevity and practicality of student radio, prompting some to consider selling off their ability to broadcast over the air.
Rice University in Houston sold its radio station’s FM broadcast license and radio tower in mid-October, citing a lack of listeners and the financial benefits. The sale, which had a price tag of $9.5 million, is still awaiting FCC approval, and student staffers at the station have hired legal counsel to fight it.
The student station associated with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., also announced plans to consider a similar deal. Although managers said the announcement was not meant as a definitive plan for the station, it was met with public outcry. The board governing student media at Vanderbilt announced at an October meeting it would not be making any decisions about the radio station until spring semester, at the earliest.
But even as the future of traditional stations grows uncertain, some schools are looking at other avenues to broadcast their signals in non-traditional ways.
The HD option
Warren Kozireski, general manager of WBSU at the College of Brockport and president of College Broadcasters, Inc., said there is a trend, especially in larger markets, to find ways to broadcast stations in ways other than terrestrial radio.
“Especially the larger markets, there aren’t any radio frequencies available — or if there are, they’re going to cost you a few million dollars, which is out of the realm for a lot of college operations,” he said.
Kozireski said several years ago, stations began turning to Internet-only broadcasting. In the last couple years, many stations have also been turning to another option: high definition radio.
HD radio is similar to HD television. It provides a higher quality signal, but is not available to everyone with a terrestrial radio. The stations are in-between the traditional frequencies, much like HD channels on television. For example, a standard radio station might be at 90.5 FM, while the HD channel could be at 90.5-2. In order to pick up the HD signal, a listener needs to have an HD receiver.
“It’s still, for the most part, in its infancy in terms of the number of radio receivers out there,” he said.
However, the medium continues to grow, with more and more new cars including the HD receiver. And as the receivers become more common, the potential audience continues to grow.
“Internet radio is a nice option for a lot of operations…[but] it’s hard to generate any kind of audience consistently on that stuff, just because there’s so many options,” Kozireski said.
According to the HD Radio Alliance, there are currently more than 3 million HD Radio receivers in the marketplace and nearly 2,000 stations broadcasting in HD.
“It’s hard to say [the potential audience is] larger, because the Internet is worldwide, but the incidence of people listening to terrestrial is still greater than Internet radio,” he said.
HD stations give several new avenues to those in markets that are already crowded. Kozireski said he has heard technicians say a station could have as many as five HD stations, although he’s never seen a college with more than three.
Brett Farrar, station manager for Bulls Radio, the campus station at the University of South Florida, said his station entered into a three-year HD contract with WMNF about a year ago. The station has three different HD signals, and Bulls Radio occupies the second one. The station is splitting the cost with WMNF for the HD station.
The station had an FM signal in 1998 but only broadcast in the residence halls. It switched to AM in 1999, but only “reaches the corners” of the South Florida campus, Farrar said. The station streams online and is accessible on mobile devices. Bulls Radio is also on the WMNF iPhone app and is working to become part of the South Florida iPhone app.
Farrar said station officials saw the HD contract as a chance to expand the audience. The station gives Bulls Radio a 30-mile radius in the Tampa area. By January, there are plans to double that signal radius.
“It gave us the ability to reach more people,” he said.
In addition to the extra exposure from partnering with WMNF as well as extra training from personnel at the station, the price tag is much cheaper compared with buying an over-the-air broadcast license. The contract with WMNF costs Bulls Radio about $35,000 a year.
“The price of FM — not only the limited amount of channels, but just the price of getting an FM signal that reaches anywhere here — isn’t going to be in our student radio budget,” he said.
The new HD signal has brought an increase to audience numbers for the students working at Bulls Radio. Farrar said the station has seen an increase in the number of applications, too. It has also legitimized the station’s status, and Farrar said his staff has seen an increase in internship opportunities.
“It’s increased our fan base size and our followings,” he said.
Kozireski said he isn’t sure what is going to happen in the future with college radio. He said he didn’t think the HD trend would “skyrocket.”
“I think it will be a steady rise as more people come aware of it,” he said.
The other challenge, he said, is that the word “radio” has an “old-media connotation,” which is why schools can justify selling their stations. However, he said radio’s demise has been forecast wrongly several times before.
Kozireski said it’s hard to tell which option is the more popular in trying to find new avenues for radio content. However, he did say the Internet has been the more popular option for new stations.
“But as the HD radios become more common place… terrestrial radio always moves in and takes over,” he said.
Kozireski said 94 percent of Americans listens to terrestrial radio at least once a week. With numbers like that, Internet radio will have a hard time taking over.
“There’s no way the Internet will ever trump that,” he said.
WLOY, the student radio station at Loyola University, went “on air” in 2003 — but not with an FM signal.
Operations Manager John Devecka said the university had a student radio station from 1975 until the mid-1990s, when it went off the air. Talks for starting a new station began in 2001, the station was built in 2002, and it has been on the air since March 2003.
The station is designed to work like any other type of professional radio station, Devecka said, except that it does not broadcast on FM. The station streams online as well as on a low-power AM frequency.
Devecka said he tried to find an FM frequency for the station, but because of the size of the market in Baltimore, none were available.
“For us, it’s gone reasonably well,” he said.
One of the challenges he said the station has faced is with audience. He said the station does a lot of community events and sometimes people don’t grasp the concept of a radio station that is not on FM.
He added that they also miss a key target audience: the in-car listener.
“It can sometimes be a bit of a turnoff for people to have to do something kind of non-traditional to listen to radio,” he said.
But the audience continues to grow. Devecka said the listeners for the online stream have been increasing; the station is seeing more followers on Facebook and Twitter. WLOY is also listed on iTunes and is available as an iPhone app.
“I’d trade it all if you could hand me an FM license,” he said, explaining that FM continues to be the most popular way to listen to radio.
“The biggest disadvantage is you are not instantly recognizable as a quote-unquote ‘real station’ by a typical listener,” he said.
But there are also some advantages. “The advantage is probably all financial and legal,” Devecka said.
Because Internet radio is not subject to the indecency regulations of the Federal Communications Commission, student broadcasters have more flexibility with content, and are not subject to fines when they make mistakes.
Devecka said he recently spoke with someone from another college radio station that had an FM signal. The station’s electric bill for the transmitter site alone is equal to the entire operational costs of WLOY, he said.
“In terms of operational costs, it’s pennies to millions,” he said.
Holding on to FM
The sale of Rice’s KTRU to the University of Houston is still pending FCC approval. If the sale does go through, KTRU would be forced to broadcast exclusively online.
“We’d lose a good portion of our listening audience, to be sure,” said Joey Yang, a student and station manager for KTRU.
Yang cited a recent study that examined the listening habits of the age group that makes up the audience of stations like KTRU, showing terrestrial radio is still relevant.
“It showed that the way that most people find out about new music is through the radio,” he said. “So radio isn’t dead.”
Yang conceded HD radio and Internet radio may be the future, but for now, FM is still important. He said losing the FM signal would result in a loss of influence as well.
“Over the Internet, it’s not as easy to become as widely available,” he said. “I mean you are widely available, but whether or not you’re easy to find is an entirely different matter.”
When it comes to FCC compliance, Yang said the general manager — a non-student Rice staff member — handles most of the legal issues with the station’s FCC license. However, he said students are expected to do things such as compile on-air reports. He said working at an FCC-compliant station looks better on a resume when students are trying to get jobs and internships.
Yang added the station has a very strong connection to the community being on FM, exemplified by the support it has received when talks of the sale began.
“The Internet doesn’t have that same strong association with the local community,” he said.
By James Heggen, SPLC staff writer