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With Empty Campuses, College Radio Stations Face Uphill Battle During Coronavirus

Like just about every business, broadcast radio is struggling through the coronavirus crisis -- and college radio has an even tougher challenge.

Darby Ottoson, student program director for the University of Minnesota’s Radio K, frantically called Julian Green, the DJ in the booth hosting his usual Sunday show. “When your shift ends in 12 minutes, you need to turn on overnight mix and go home,” she told him. The DJ for the next shift was walking into the building, and Ottoson instructed her to turn around. “It was hard,” she says.

Since that Sunday, March 14, a day before the college canceled all classes and campus activities, the 108-year-old Radio K has broadcast an elaborate playlist, with pre-recorded ads and public-service announcements, all programmed remotely by students from their homes. “We’re excited to return to video game tournaments in the parking lot of a record store,” Ottoson says. “But DJ safety and community well-being take preference. We operate using 17,000 CDs that DJs pick and play. It’d be pretty impossible to sanitize 17,000 CDs after every shift.”


Like just about every business, broadcast radio is struggling through the coronavirus crisis — iHeartRadio recently furloughed its employees and DJs are figuring out how to do shows from home. College radio has an even tougher challenge, as many of its listeners, students on campus, are suddenly out of range of its transmitters. Although they once broke indie-rock bands from R.E.M. to U2, college stations’ impact has dwindled in the streaming era, but their audience is still significant — Emerson College’s Boston-area WERS draws roughly 150,000 to 175,000 listeners a week, and the format remains crucial for smaller artists and labels.

For now, roughly two-thirds of college stations remain on the air, says Doug Blake of Pirate! Promotions, which markets new music to student programmers on behalf of indie labels. Resourceful student programmers have figured out ways to build playlists while isolating in their homes far from campus: “A lot of kids have figured out they can load shows and give USBs to the engineer, so it’s not live, but they can still do new music,” he says. Adds Ben Swanson, co-owner of Secretly Group, indie-label home of Bon Iver and Angel Olsen: “Those kids are still grinding it out and trying to make it work and they’re still passionate about music.”

Swanson calls college radio “our very heart and soul,” and many in the independent record business worry about the financial impact on student-run stations if the pandemic drags into the fall. “If everything did go dark, that would definitely be a huge blow,” says Oscar Zubia Jr., who handles promotions and accounts for Nettwerk Music Group, home of Old Sea Brigade and Jack River. “Without these stations, some of these artists might not otherwise be heard.”

Many college stations have adapted, using remote, pre-programmed broadcasts and stretching university funds to get them through this uniquely low-revenue period: Radio K has a “student-services-fee chunk of money that helps support us in emergencies like this,” Ottoson says.


But some student-radio programmers are worried now that restaurants, bars and concert promoters are no longer reliable advertisers and underwriters, and even the colleges themselves are questioning their financial futures. “I am concerned,” says Mark Maben, GM of WSOU, Seton Hall University’s campus metal station, which has 120 student employees and is temporarily airing a pre-programmed playlist. “The kinds of underwriters we’ve had for years are the people getting hammered right now.” In recent years, the University of Richmond has cut the budget for its longtime indie-rock station, WDCE, according to Gabby Kiser, a junior and the station’s GM. On March 19, the university’s student organization budget and appropriations committee e-mailed campus groups that a crucial $50,000 will go to “additional expenses the university is facing to help students in this difficult situation.” Says Kiser: “That pool was our only lifeline. I feel like it’s not going to bode well for our organization.”

“There’ll be a lot of reevaluation of cost. I’m guessing you’ll see an explosion of digital-only stations,” says Art Fredette, who runs indie station RadioRadioX, near Siena College in Albany, New York, and fears for college radio’s future. “A lot of stations are going to be able to go on for a long time on auto-pilot, but eventually you’ll really see this shake up the industry.”

Radio K’s Ottoson and many other college-radio stations are still upbeat about college radio, even in a disturbing period of zero on-site student employees and low student listenership. Many top stations, such as Ithaca College’s WICB and Emerson College’s WERS, are community-wide operations, competing with local corporate-funded stations for a wide pool of local listeners. At Siena College’s WVCR, in Loudonville, New York, non-student DJs who host popular polka and Spanish-language shows are still on the air and drawing sponsors. The station also gets funding from the college’s liberal-arts department, and a June fund-raiser provides an additional $10,000 to $15,000. “We have financially stabilized the station through at least the summer,” says Darrin Scott Kibbey, a non-student who is GM and administrator.


Other stations, like Radio K, have switched mostly to automated programming, including KUPS at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, which recently aired indie-rock and punk songs on a weekday morning as well as characteristically weird student ads like a man yelling, “I was told I could listen to KUPS! I was told I could burn the building down!” The university’s student government has committed to funding the station for the next year, says Nayra Halajian, the student GM: “DJs are home and some are here in Tacoma. People are away from their friends, the people they thought they would be with, so it’s, ‘How can we create some of the programming to foster a community?’ That’s all we have the power to do at this point.”

WASU, at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, is still “running strong,” mostly on automation, says Nate Saunders, a student station manager; Northwestern University’s WNUR has a depleted staff due to its 200 student employees departing campus, but a February fund-raising phone-a-thon will support the station through next school year, says student co-GM Somil Sanghvi; and 90% of the University of Colorado’s Radio 1190 comes from student-government and journalism-department funding, so “it’s been a little bit of a hit, but nothing that endangers us going forward,” says student media director Jared Bahir Browsh.

Over the past month, Emerson’s WERS, which landed atop the Princeton Review’s prestigious student ratings this year, has expanded its morning and afternoon shows (both hosted by non-students) and allowed a student local-show host to broadcast from his home studio. “We’re compensating,” says Jack Casey, the station’s GM, who has worked at WERS for 15 years. “We’re a student-run station without students on campus — so yeah, it’s challenging.”