Solid Advice On Saving College Radio

by Kevin Erickson, Communications Associate

In a broadcasting landscape increasingly characterized by homogenized playlists and consolidated corporate ownership, college radio has remained a breath of fresh air; a place on the dial where you can find wild sounds and fresh perspectives that commercial stations wouldn’t touch. At the same time, college radio is under new pressures, as short-sighted college administrators slash station budgets, sometimes even selling off licenses in an attempt to overcome financial shortfalls. And some college stations have drifted from their historic mission and closely emulate commercial radio, or aren’t even staffed by students.

But “saving” college radio isn’t just about keeping stations on the air and true to their mandate. It’s also about preserving the cultural and sonic artifacts associated with college radio, and keeping them safe from the ravages of time and neglect.

That’s the implicit argument made in “Saving College Radio: WMUC Past, Present & Future”, an exhibit of materials from the archives of WMUC at the University of Maryland. The beloved free-format 100-watt station experienced a close call in 2011 when student government cut their funding in half, and the exhibit movingly illustrates what’s at stake in these budget debates, while making a powerful case for the enduring relevance of college radio as a uniquely democratic medium.

From my own experience managing a college station years ago–shoutout to KWCW 90.5 in Walla Walla!–I know that access to historical materials helps the newest generations of student deejays understand what they’re doing as participation in an important and deeply-rooted cultural tradition. But I also know how easy it is in the chaos of day-to-day broadcasting to deprioritize archiving (what I wouldn’t give for copies of my old playlists!)

Thus, it was powerful (and a little guilt-inducing) to see the care and dedication that the college’s librarians & archivists invested in telling their station’s story. The U of MD library currently hosts an online tour of the exhibit, complete with audio clips from WMUC’s many decades of operation, but for any radio fans in the DC metro area, I strongly suggest stopping by the U of MD campus and checking out the exhibit in person.

Earlier this month, librarians, archivists, researchers, and radio fans gathered for a one-day symposium held in conjunction with the exhibit. (Jennifer Waits of Radio Survivor has a terrific recap of the event.)  In her closing remarks at the symposium, Laura Schnitker, sound archivist and ethnomusicologist at the University of Maryland libraries, provided some solid advice for anyone wishing to preserve their college station’s legacy. She has kindly agreed to let me excerpt these remarks here:

I think it’s obvious to all of us why college radio needs saving. The voices of the past comprise some of the most unique broadcast collections in the world. Every station has a different story, and every DJ come and gone has contributed a vital piece to that story. Their legacies are important. They can tell us a lot about the campus, the culture, the era and the people behind the microphones.

I have several goals for the outcome of this symposium. First, I want to strengthen the college radio community and encourage all of us to share our resources and ideas, and present a united front when one of us is threatened. I want to establish a space in academics for dialogue, not only because there is a great deal of scholarship waiting to be written on the subject of college radio, but also because colleges and universities need to take responsibility for preserving the histories of their campus stations.  I want to bring attention to the marvelous treasures of WMUC’s past in hopes that it will inspire present and future DJs at all college stations to take care in documenting their stories. And finally, I want college radio folks everywhere to know that saving your stations’ histories is a completely viable endeavor.

I am fortunate that the University of Maryland Libraries have recognized the value of WMUC’s history, and given me the resources to preserve it. But you don’t need a ton of money or fancy equipment to ensure your college station’s records survive. In the very spirit of college radio, a few people with some initiative can actually accomplish a great deal.

Let me give you some advice on where to start:

1.     First, get in touch with your university archivist and tell him or her that you’re interested in establishing a collection for the campus radio station. A good university archivist will understand why this is important.

2.     Identify historical materials at the station. Once you have the consent of the university archivist, move those materials to a more stable environment.

3.     Reach out to your station’s alumni, and ask them to consider donating what they’ve saved from their campus radio years.

4.     Create a plan for an ongoing archival process so that current materials, especially born-digital ones such as webstreams and playlists can be added to the historical collection.

5.     Once you have the university’s support, you may be able to secure funding to preserve the more fragile materials, particularly the audio materials.

At the very least, getting whatever historical records your station has into the safe, climate-controlled space of the university archives can slow their deterioration and prevent further damage.

There are untold treasures and stories from every campus radio station.  It is well worth the effort to ensure their survival for generations to come.

Submitted by kevin on April 28, 2014 - 7:34am

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