This week marked a frustrating setback for lovers of college radio, as a deal went into effect that splits the broadcast schedule of Georgia State University’s radio station, WRAS, handing over control to Georgia Public Broadcasting. Under the terms of the deal, GPB will control the 100,000 watt broadcast from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Friday and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekends, leaving GSU students with the remaining hours each day and 24 hour control of the station’s webcast. Additionally, GPB will be proving an undisclosed number of internships to GSU students, but this was little consolation for the loss of the precious terrestrial airtime.
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.
Say you’re a college radio DJ, and you play a cover of The Velvet Underground’s 1966 classic “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” performed by electro-art-pop duo YACHT. You might be surprised to learn that Lou Reed (the songwriter) gets paid when that song is broadcast, but YACHT, the performer, does not.
Unlike most countries, where performer, sound recording owner, songwriter, and publisher all get paid when a song is played on over-the-air radio, in the US, only the songwriter and publisher are compensated. You heard right: no matter how many times a song gets played on the radio, performing artists don’t get a dime. By contrast, internet radio — from Pandora to Sirius/XM and all the webcasters in-between — pays everybody: labels, performing artists, publishers and songwriters. (For more info on how this all works, check out our Public Performance Right fact sheet.)
This glitch in US law doesn’t just impact the Biebers and Britneys of the world. It also means that hard-working independent artists who are more likely to get played on college and noncommercial radio than corporate stations are missing out on a potential revenue stream.