20 Watts

Tuned Out: College Radio Struggles to Stay Afloat in the iPod Era (Pt. 5)

But travel just 55 miles south of S.U., and you’ll find a very different outlook on college radio. 92 WICB, the student-run station at Ithaca College, is not only bucking the trend of college radio’s decline, but has achieved some of its greatest success in recent years. The station won an mtvU Woodie Award for Best College Radio Station in 2008 and topped the Princeton Review’s rankings of 371 college radio sta­tions this year.

How does WICB make it all happen?

It starts with money. The station has a yearly budget of $175,000, 95 percent of which is funded by Ithaca College. In comparison, SU’s entire University Union was granted $375,000 for next semester, and WERW received just a tiny fraction of that figure. The station’s largest budget to date was $12,000.

With its money, WICB forgoes free-format broadcasting for the sake of a more listener-friendly system that has made the station popular not just on campus, but throughout a broadcast area that ranges from Pennsylvania to Lake Ontario. General Manager Chris Wheatley says that a big reason for the success is that WICB is the region’s only station with a Modern Rock format.

“While free-format radio is a beautiful idea, there’s really no way to have consisten­cy,” Wheatley says. “Most stations are in it for the DJ. We’re in it for the on-air product.”

WICB creates a balance by offering a vari­ety of programming that falls outside of the modern rock realm. For starters, the station covers Ithaca College football, basketball, baseball and other sports. But there’s even some diversity in its musical programming, as WICB also features independent programs like “Jazz Impressions” or “Homebrew,” a show that focuses on local Ithaca artists. At SU, WAER, and Z89 follow a similar format: WAER is an NPR-affiliate operated by SU, and Z89 is a chiefly Top-40 station owned and operated by students.

“We assume our listeners are smar ter than Top 40,” says Station Manager Evan Schapiro. “We do experiments with rotations and we try and play as diverse a schedule of music as possible within cer tain constraints.”

The constraints play a big role. Instead of making DJs responsible for their playl­ists, WICB uses computers to assign songs based on their genres. The computers pull from the station’s enormous database of music files and use a selector program to create the playlists. While DJs do control what goes into the database, their only on-air responsibility is to provide interest­ing and stimulating dialogue between songs to draw in listeners. Schapiro says that while this system can make WICB predictable at times, it also makes it more reliable for listeners.

The listeners certainly respond. The station’s frequent giveaways and contests generate enormous buzz and calls from listeners, and Wheatley and Schapiro say that the WICB Web site can often reach 1,000 hits per day. DJs are usually treated like celebrities when they travel into the city to promote.

WNYO is another successful student-run station – but unlike WICB, it is also free-for­mat. The station broadcasts from the State University of New York at Oswego with an annual budget of $30,000 to $40,000 and an online listenership of several hundred for some shows. Despite the station’s success, however, General Manager Justin Laird sees little hope for college radio.

“Really, who needs college radio any­more?” he says. “Say you want to listen to the new Superchunk record, you don’t turn on your college radio station. You can go to Mergerecords.com and stream it, or you can go to KCRW or KEXP or you can podcast it or you can listen to NPR music. You don’t need the college radio station – it’s not cutting-edge. The Internet killed college radio.”


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