College radio stations declare “moment of silence” to mark the “death” of independent student voices on the airwaves

Critics sometimes bemoan the “sameness” of programming across the over-the-air radio dial, but for one minute on Thursday, listeners truly will hear exactly the same thing whether they are in Missouri or Maryland or Michigan: The sound of silence.

Not the Simon and Garfunkel classic, either. No, the actual sound of silence.

To mark the “demise” of Rice University’s KTRU-FM, a student-run station that was sold in 2010 to the University of Houston, campus radio stations across America will “go dark” for one minute starting at 12 noon Central, 1 p.m. Eastern, on Thursday.

It is the creative brainstorm of the organization College Broadcasters, Inc., and its president, Candace Walton, as a dramatic way of calling the listening public’s attention to the fragility of the student-run, locally programmed stations they enjoy.

The economic squeeze on colleges has caused some to look at scarce FCC licenses and dial positions as assets that can fetch millions. KTRU sold for a reported $9.5 million in a deal approved April 15 by the FCC, over the opposition of a feisty group of student listeners who petitioned the Commission to deny the transfer.

According to CBI, stations at Texas Tech University, Johns Hopkins University, Barry College, Augustana College and others been transferred to non-student use in recent years, with sales known to be in the works at the University of San Francisco and Vanderbilt University.

Colleges that want to close their over-the-air broadcast operations have been able to rationalize the decision by claiming that less-costly online-only radio provides an adequate replacement. But as reporter James Heggen wrote in this cover story for the SPLC’s Report magazine, some broadcast educators believe that webcasting by itself is inadequate preparation for a radio career (for instance, students do not learn the intricacies of the FCC compliance regime, because Internet broadcasting is not FCC-licensed).

Colleges have at times been the acquirers rather than the acquired — witness Northern Kentucky University’s acquisition binge, which culminated in the January 2011 purchase of two commercial FM stations in neighboring communities to expand NKU’s broadcast footprint. But even then, the deals have been questioned for imposing centrally programmed content over hometown news and sports coverage.

Radio programmed by and for local students is part of what makes a college campus a community. Adventurous college DJs have been responsible for bringing hundreds of not-yet-famous artists to a mass audience. The loss of student broadcasting opportunities is worth taking note of — even if it is just a quiet minute’s thought.