Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Campus Radio Stations and Newspapers

Many colleges -- including many community colleges -- have their own radio stations and campus newspapers.  The newspapers almost always feature student writers and editors; the radio stations feature varying degrees of student involvement.  (Nothing against the more professionally-run ones, but I find something endearing about the stations in which students learn their craft on the air.)  Some campuses have their own television stations, often on public access cable.

Thirty years ago, these were burgeoning, vibrant industries.  Students were learning not just the “gen ed” skills of communication and organization, but also some actual job skills.  A student could put together a portfolio of articles, or an audition tape, and try to break in.  

Venues like those gave the verbally-inclined a playground.  

Now, of course, newspapers and radio have fallen on hard times.  Both are declining industries, and I wouldn’t suggest to a student that either makes a good target field.  (And yes, I’ll acknowledge that the same could be said for tenure-track jobs in liberal arts fields.)  Television is more of a mixed bag, but local news in smaller markets -- often the first gig a new graduate could get -- is increasingly struggling.  

The old liberal-arts arguments for campus radio stations and newspapers still apply.  But as college radio stations and newspapers start to look less like vocational prep and more like campus literary magazines or plays, I’m wondering if we’re missing an opportunity.

What’s the 2016 version of a college radio station or a newspaper?  

Or, to be more open-minded, what currently-relevant venues could colleges foster to give students the same kinds of benefits that the old newspapers and radio stations did?

At their best, newspapers and radio stations allow not only for the production of content, but for real camaraderie.  They allow individual autonomy and moments to shine, but they also require significant cooperation.  They have identities beyond the participants at any given moment.  That helps attract and keep audiences, and also provides parameters against which students can strain productively.  They’re organizations, with everything that entails.

Podcasting is one option, but podcasts tend to be relatively individual pursuits.  (Jesse Thorn, of Bullseye, does a nationally-respected one from his room.)  They offer the venue for expression, but not necessarily an organizational identity.  And because they’re recorded, they lack the serendipity of live radio.  

On the journalistic side, it’s even harder to say.  The entire field seems to be suffering: within just the last week or so, Mashable and Salon both announced layoffs.  The struggles of print are old news, but now even some well-known digital brands are downsizing.  Ideally, I’d love to give students a venue that’s both creative and vocationally relevant, but in journalism, the latter is getting harder to find.

We could just ignore those changes and go on our merry way, treating college media like, say, intramurals.  But I think we could do better.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a viable update for the campus radio station and newspaper?  Have you seen something that made sense?