Marginalized college radio: past, present, and future?

Not once but twice in the last century, major movements in radio policy marginalized a range of radio stations licensed to colleges and universities. In the 1920s, that marginalization was part of the disappearance of dozens of college radio stations. In the 1970s, college radio stations became divided into two broad segments: those who had the resources to become part of the new National Public Radio system with a professional staff and fundraising ties to local listeners, and those who remained independent, small, often run by students. The repeated marginalization of college radio stations raises important questions about the costs of systematization for small operations, and it tells us something about that for higher education in general, not just radio or broadcasting.

Radio’s Hidden Voice tells the story of the first generation of college radio stations, or rather, those who survived the first station extinction wave. In it, Hugh Slotten shows how (mostly) Midwestern public universities experimented with radio, among the first to broadcast for a local audience, committed to serving rural communities and partnering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and (for those who survived into the 1930s), trying to figure out what it meant for a university to operate a radio station. Was it for broad education of the public, or uplift? For publicity, and community connections such as broadcasting college sports? For creating a radio-correspondence hybrid for course credit?

One might be tempted to point to the federal government and the Radio Corporation of America as the villains in that early era, with a Federal Radio Commission in the late 1920s and early 1930s that bullied smaller stations into changing frequency assignments, making them negotiate with local commercial stations to share the same frequency at different times, and in general shoving noncommercial radio stations off the air through a combination of power and broadcast standards, by the federal government, and overwhelming resources on the part of the new commercial networks, NBC and CBS. But almost half a century later, something parallel happened in public radio, if not a set of actions that killed college radio stations outright: the creation of public broadcasting.

In the years after Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the newly-chartered Corporation for Public Broadcasting set up two parallel entities, the Public Broadcasting System that became the networking backbone for public television, and National Public Radio.1 PBS had a rough first few years with the attack by the Nixon administration on public television and especially public-affairs programming, while NPR flew under the political radar for the most part. But another key difference was the relationship of the entities to programming. PBS was not set up to produce programs; NPR was, with All Things Considered as the first (flagship) NPR program airing in 1971, a few months after the first NPR distribution of broadcasts: hearings on the Vietnam War.

NPR’s establishment as a true center of programming came with another initial move: not every noncommercial radio station could become an NPR affiliate. There were standards for the stations that wanted to join, including broadcast hours and a minimum of professional staff as well as the public mission. Unlike in the 1920s, this did not destroy any existing stations, but it did create a divide going forward between professionally-operated university radio stations that could join NPR, and student-run radio stations that were ineligible. Plenty of colleges and universities either joined NPR immediately or later (especially with the support of community grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), and the majority of NPR member stations today are licensed to colleges and universities.

But that move was not universal. I do not know how many college radio stations were unable to or decided not to join NPR in the early 1970s, but I have direct experience with one, as a breakfast-time DJ at my own college’s radio station, WHRC. As Jennifer Waits explains in her history of radio at Haverford College written for the alumni magazine, Haverford has the distinction of having had licensed radio stations marginalized at both ends of the twentieth century. The first radio station was sold by its student operators to a commercial entity (did the college know about this?). The most recent station remained a low-power carrier-current station until 2009, a method of using campus electrical lines to carry the signal — and, for many colleges, an important option because it did not (and still does not) require an FCC license. My first year at Haverford (when I was a DJ), WHRC couldn’t even broadcast on the college’s power lines, and the only students who could listen to it were those in the dining-center’s rooms, where the directly-wired loudspeakers were. I had a small audience for my classical preferences, and it was captive (and hungry, if not necessarily for my choices)!

But beyond my own college (not-quite-)radio experience, the divide between professionalizing NPR stations and student-run operations like WHRC points to the variety of purposes for radio stations operated by colleges and universities. How much are they in the realm of student activities? How much are they outreach to the community? And how did their mission shift over the years? And in an era when joining a national system of support meant meeting certain standards of professionalism, it suggests that the 1920s bloodbath for college radio stations was something more than the victory of the first commercial networks: there is something about creating a system that inherently marginalized some forms of broadcasting. To some extent, it didn’t matter whether the system creators were profit-seeking in the early 20th century or public broadcasters towards the end: in both cases the establishment of systems grew a certain type of professional radio, and the centrifugal effects of national programming. And in this, I mean centrifugal in its technical sense, for by emphasizing the pull of NPR, the creation of public radio more clearly separated the growth of professional radio operated by colleges and universities from those operations that remained underground, including WHRC, whose studio was literally in the basement of the dining center at Haverford College.

There is an additional lesson here about threshold effects of college size and systems: there are plenty of operations in higher education that require certain levels of resources. That’s why some community colleges have not made the effort for their students to be eligible for federal financial aid: you have to invest in a financial aid office that will allow a college to meet the requirements of Title IV eligibility. I work at one of the largest universities in the country, where in my time as an administrator, I never worried about size thresholds: of course we could do most things that I saw at any other university, and we can do some things that no one else can. But there are many small colleges, and threshold sizes matter in surprising ways.

One final thought: The growth of NPR member stations in the past half-century is not an inevitable trend. There are more than whisperings of colleges and universities that put their stations up for sale, because of the financial and institutional commitments that running a radio station involves at a time of uncertain finances for tuition-dependent colleges. How essential is a public radio station to the mission of a college or university?

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  1. The basic story for this is summarized in A History of Public Broadcasting. []