High Ideals for Student Radio

Today I was part of a panel entitled “Low Power, High Ideals for Noncommercial Broadcasting” at the 2007 convention of the Broadcast Education Association (BEA). Every April, the BEA meets at the National Association of Broadcasters annual mega-convention in Las Vegas, Nevada. My talk was entitled “Low Power, High Ideals for Student Radio: Enhancing the Electronic Sandbox in an iPod World.” Below is the text of my presentation.

Dr. Thompsen presents at BEA 2007 It is always a pleasure to gather annually in this Mecca of conspicuous consumption to extol the high ideals of public service broadcasting. I’ve spent most of my career seeking to foster those high ideals at low power student radio stations. From carrier current to Class D FM, from leaky cable to closed-circuit public address systems, from webcasting to podcasting, student radio has employed a wide and fascinating diversity of technologies to pursue high ideals on a shoestring. I’m confident the future will bring even more innovations for student radio.

But the future can be tricky to predict without a firm grasp of where we’re coming from. So in keeping with the theme of this year’s conference, “Creating the Future by Understanding the Past,” I think it’s appropriate for those of us who advise student media to try to learn from our past, as we try to help students create an even better future for college radio. My goal for the next few minutes is to revisit some high ideals for student radio that I articulated at this conference fifteen years ago. Some of you may still recall that paper, as it was soon published in Feedback, was responded to a few times in subsequent issues of Feedback, and it has since become my most widely cited work on student media advising.

The paper was entitled “Enhancing the Electronic Sandbox.” To be honest, when I first presented that paper at BEA, I had no idea that it would generate such an immediate and long-lasting reaction from my colleagues. I remember Louisa Nielsen commenting to me that what I had said was something that needed to be said, and that I should keep saying it loudly and often. I remember the week after the paper appeared in Feedback, I fielded over a dozen phone calls from advisors all over the country wanting to talk about the article. In particular, I remember an advisor from Fairbanks, Alaska, who said that my article crossed his desk “just at the right moment” in his struggle to work through some of the major issues I had pointed out in that paper. And I remember the response that paper received in a friendly but pointed critique from Rob McKenzie, how we eventually became good friends, and how he convinced me to serve as chair of the Student Media Advisors division.

I guess that my use of the phrase “electronic sandbox” to describe student radio struck a resonant chord with many advisors. Stated simply, my thesis was that student stations have a tendency to become “sandboxes” where students play radio. Keeping with the sandbox metaphor, I then identified three “sand castles,” which I felt were the primary reasons, if you will, for the sand in the sandbox. They were three issues that I had found in my own experience over 15 years of working in student radio. So now that another 15 years has passed, have these “sand castles” withstood the test of time or have they been washed out with the tide? I will argue that they still have some relevancy, although I think my original arguments could benefit from some judicious sand blasting.

The first sand castle I identified was summed up with the phrase, “We wanna play our music!” Students have consistently seen college radio as an outlet for “their music,” and while that music has changed over the years, what hasn’t changed, at least not by much, is the significance music plays in the lives of nearly all college students. Underestimating the extent of this preoccupation is, in my opinion, one of the more serious errors an advisor can make.

Now I want to make clear that I’m not saying that students’ love of music is a bad thing; on the contrary, I have long argued that advisors can and should seek ways to help students channel this natural passion for music to learn essential principles of audience-centered radio. Advisors can help students see music as both artistic expression and audience magnet. I think it’s great that students want to play “their music.” Heck, I want to play my music, and I do, during my weekly air shift on our college radio station. I call it the “Moldy Oldies Show,” and it’s an opportunity not only for me to play music I enjoy, but to model for students how to use music to contribute to the ultimate goal of attracting, maintaining and communicating to an audience. It helps demonstrate for students that music and radio share an important goal: a desire to be listened to.

Helping students learn how to make their station more “listenable” doesn’t have to mean resorting to restrictive formats; I’ve never been a big fan of college stations that overanalyze their market in an effort to position their station for maximum audience. It’s been my experience that students can be highly creative in finding ways to get more people to listen to “their music.” And I think advisors can help, not by imposing formats, but by gently and persistently reminding students that the ultimate goal you all share is not simply to get people to listen to “my music,” but rather, to listen to “our station.”

The second sand castle I identified is one of the clarion calls of student radio: “We must provide an alternative!” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that sentiment expressed, by students and advisors alike. That student radio must be an alternative is often taken as a given, rather than something that can, and I would argue should, be regularly scrutinized and defended. Even if we grant that student radio should provide an alternative, this begs the question: an alternative to what, and for what reasons?

I think this kind of sand in the sandbox is particularly evident when students blithely use the banner of alternative as a rationale for expressing a youthful rejection of dominant social norms. This almost always includes a disdain for commercially popular music, sometimes to the point of knee-jerking reactionism. And left unquestioned, it can lead to an open acceptance of crude language that can and sometimes does bring on the wrath of the content police. One of the biggest fears of advisors is getting a call from an irate listener who heard the “f-bomb” or some other indecent transgression with potentially license-threatening implications.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just as advisors can help students channel their passion for music, advisors can help students think more deeply about the reasons why college radio means alternative radio. A good place to start is to look at the programming philosophy of other noncommercial media. Students can learn a lot from the historical struggle for noncommercial, public service broadcasting in this country, and advisors can help them, by pointing out the high ideals behind the alternative philosophy, and the pros and cons of various models for implementing those ideals. We can help students embrace alternative ideals, but with more than simply a shallow desire to do “whatever the hell we want, just because we can.”

The last sand castle I identified was expressed in the cry “We demand our freedom!” It’s not uncommon for students at some college stations to view their advisor as an institutionally-imposed challenger of their First Amendment rights. If an advisor isn’t careful, seemingly innocent interventions can be seen as acts of censorship. Students can and often do rally together to avoid any attempt to be told how to run their station, because, after all, it’s “their station.”

This is a sand trap that advisors would do well to avoid. And most advisors learn, often the hard way, that one of their most valuable assets is the trust and respect of their students. Earning that can take time, and sometimes new advisors just have to wait until the “old guard” graduates, especially if the previous advisor left behind a legacy of “us vs. them.” But it can be done. I know, I’ve done it quite a few times in my career, and it really isn’t that hard. The trick is to learn to work with your students, not against them, to seek a relationship of co-worker, not co-ercer.

That’s why I’ve always believed that an advisor should regularly get in the trenches with the students by contributing something tangible. Whether that be working an air shift or maintaining the public file or serving as the designated chief operator, or as in my case, all of the above, every advisor should find a niche that lets them be part of the team. Not directing the show, but being part of a team that keeps the station moving in the right direction. Because that way, the advisor can be seen by the students not as an impediment to their freedom, but as an advocate for it.

So what do you think? Are these three “sand castles” that I identified 15 years ago still relevant for today’s student media? Is music still a passion in fashion? Does alternative still ring a bell? Is freedom still a rallying cry? In my experience, yes. Your mileage may vary. But for me, these three sand castles can still provide useful metaphors for understanding how to help students aspire to high ideals in the electronic sandbox. I’ve been told that they’ve helped a few advisors in the years since I first suggested them. Perhaps they can still help advisors help students build a better sandbox in the future.

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