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Music Programming in College Radio in the USA July 19, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in Music Radio.

Here I present a case study of three East-coast US ‘college radio’ stations as examples of alternative approach to music programming.

I visited these stations in the summer of 2005, speaking to the head of music (or equivalent) in each station as well as presentation staff. I also analysed the output of the station, and the music programming procedures as they were organised by key station staff and implemented by the presenters. Finally, I undertook some analysis of the station’s geo-social location, its listenership, and perceived audience. I’ll be doing an update on what they are currently doing over the next few weeks, because some of the stations have changed how they work. I’ll post that when it’s finished.

I’ve provided links to each station’s live stream so you can hear them for yourself.

Here, I explore these stations in terms of the sense of alternativeness they offer when compared to mainstream commercial music radio; and the different ways they achieve that. I also comment on how they relate to the university’s student body and the community they are based within.
The three stations I studied are:
WFUV based at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York one of 13 college stations out of 71 licenced over-the-air stations in all, for a city population of 8,085,742 (approximately 1 station for every 100, 000 potential listeners)
WERS based at Emerson College, Boston; and
WZBC based at Boston College, Boston two of nine college stations out of 75 licenced over-the-air stations radio stations in all, for a population of 589,141 (approximately 1 station for every 6,600 potential listeners)

By comparison Birmingham, UK where I live has 1 station for every 66,000 potential listeners.

On a continuum of the degree of central control from 100% to none. The overwhelming majority of US stations would be places at the 100% pole, all three would be at the other pole:

100% 0%

WZBC in Boston would be called a freeform station in the US radio system; with no centralised music programming. But there is some centralised control. By presenting itself as a ‘freeform’ station it is working to a format. You do not get any sort of music on WFUV, and presenters are chosen because they play a certain range of music, broadly based in alternative and indie rock with some dance, electronica and dance influences. In addition there is centralised programme scheduling at the station.

The station is entirely run by students or Boston College graduates.

However, staff at the station felt that most Boston College students were not interested in the station’s output, and anecdotal straw polls of students suggested few listened (or even knew it existed). Instead staff believed it had a very committed listenership in the Boston area, though, and felt they provided a form of radio that could not be heard elsewhere. It championed rock-based music forms that the station staff perceived to be ‘alternative’ and ‘underground’.

Music was selected by the presenters on a track-by-track basis – as the show progressed – from a combination of records they brought in or from the station’s extensive library. Although a long-term listener would have a good idea of the breadth of music they would listen to, and they may begin to know the styles of selection of individual presenters, there was little predictability in the selections beyond that. However small the listenership, there was clearly some commitment to the music among listeners, and an interest in surprise as a listener value because almost every track played was accompanied by a phone call enquiring about details of artists, album name, and record company.

The identity of the station seemed to be continued through the induction of new staff into the strong ethos of the station and the presence of former students who broadcast over a greater number of years than undergraduates are based at BC.

WZBC is part of the public radio network, although this does not heavily determine the majority of its programming. The main ordering of this affiliation is to be found in a daily mid-day broadcast segment ‘Democracy Now’. This is a speech-based news and current affairs service funded by listener subscriptions, and liberal/left in stance. You can find details at http://www.democracynow.org .

You can listen to WZBC, and find more about the schedule and its public image at http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/svp/st_org/wzbc/

By contrast WERS in Boston has a far greater range of shows. Weekday, daytime to night time goes:
Folk/Indie; Jazz; World music; Reggae; Hip Hop; Rock.
The weekends feature:
women artists; show tunes; acappella; children’s; Punk; Metal; Blues.

Very little of the music played on WERS would be played on WZBC even though the latter sees itself as a freeform station with no restrictions on what was played. So, while WERS covers a wider variety of music, aside from the automated night time broadcasts music is highly ordered, and very differentiated, at the level of the programme schedule. The programmes, rather than a specific format, determine the music played on this station.

WERS is also student-run. However, while WZBC has no developed organisational structure or hierarchy, WERS has a very clear, if a-typical (in US radio terms) structure. There’s a station General Manager (a paid post) and an Assistant GM, a Programme Director, a Music Director, a News Director, a Productions Director, a Sports Director, PR and promotions team and 17 Programme Co-ordinators.

There is no central programming, but the station does produce playlists for all weekday shows. These are produced by the Music Director and Programme Co-ordinators. The shows themselves are presented each day by different presenters. These playlists are made available to the stations presenters through a series of boxes within the studios. Presenters are meant to play some of the tracks from some of the CDs within the box during their shows. The actual quantity seemed to vary considerably from presenter to presenter. The remaining tracks were selected by the show presenters. Presenters seemed to select tracks as the show proceeded, although as they often trailed what they would play in any period of the show, they clearly selected sections of the show at a time.

Station staff felt they broadcast to the greater Boston area, although they felt that a sizable proportion of their listeners wee students, and the station used the name of the college frequently in their on-air talk and in the pre-produced idents.

Long term listeners would know exactly what to expect at different time of the day because the programmes have remained fairly consistent over the years, and the identity of the single programmes orders the way that the presenters choose their music (and present their shows).

You can listen to WERS, and find more about the schedule and its public image at http://www.wers.org

Finally WFUV in New York is much closer to the approach of format stations elsewhere in the US industry, although its format is quite distinctive. The staff and many listeners feel they offer a alternative to the majority of mainstream radio. The station proudly presents itself as an AAA station.

This format – Album Adult Alternative – is relatively new in US radio, although it has antecedents in Adult Oriented Rock (AOR) and Adult Contemporary (AC) formats. As the name suggests all three are aimed at adult (aged 25+) listeners. The AOR format grew out of FM radio in the 1970s playing LP-based music to middleclass white college students who could afford FM radio receivers. These stations were central to the development of the new musical form of Rock, and the Rock culture which sustained the music (see Keith 1997). AC stations offer an adult-targeted version of CHR pop radio.

AAA stations perceive themselves to be offering an alternative to the Rock-clichés and Rock-lite formula of AOR, and the pop sensibilities of AC, by playing music at the margins of American rock with a strong folk/acoustic and world music flavour. There’s an AAA top 5 at http://www.radioandrecords.com/Formats/Triplea.asp which will give you a sense of the artists covered by this format.

Most WFUV shows are conventionally formatted with a programme schedule, clocks, and playlists. The WFUV schedule eschews the usual breakfast/mid-morning/afternoon/drive time format. Weekday from 5 am to 10 pm is branded as ‘City Folk’, and the website doesn’t give prominence to the presenters, although on air they have regular daily programmes and offer distinctive presenter identities. The shows themselves do contain conventional rise and shine/drive time elements. Late evening, night time and weekends feature more specialist folk, world music and jazz/folk music which isn’t centrally formatted. The City Folk programmes feature conventional clocks, the other programmes are programmed in a more freeform manner by their specialist presenters.

As you’d guess the more traditional approach to programming is reflected in a more conventional organisational structure and a professional, rather than student, workforce. There’s a General manager, Program Director and Music Director, all of whom have been at the station for some time. All the presenters are professionals, mostly well known on New York radio, and with a high recognition factor, gained at other stations which served the listeners when they were younger.

The Music Director works with a basic three-list structure:
‘Hots and Heavies’, ‘Medium’, and ‘Lites’. The terms refer to the degree of rotation. ‘heavy’ would have 7 to 9 rotations in a week, a ‘medium’ 3 to 5 and a ‘lite’ 2 plays. Turnover is quite low with four or five being dropped out and being adding each week. The heavies list of 16 tracks included Wilco, Jamie Cullum, Pattie Smith, Toots and the Maytals and David Byrne. The medium 30 tracks featured Badly Drawn Boy, Gomez, Crosby and Nash and JJ Cale. The Lites contained 25 artists less well know, or establishing a name.

Many are on independent and boutique labels. Only four were on the main label of a major corporation.
These currents are supported by a massive lists of older records which get very low rotations but would be well known to listeners.

The station is part of National Public Radio and takes its national and regional news from NPR. They also have a significant news team which makes quite imaginative news items. There is no rip and read at WFUV.

WFUV certainly doesn’t serve its local geographic area in the central Bronx. The university is an affluent Gothic oasis in the bustling, but less affluent, commercial streets of the multicultural borough of New York City. Nor is aimed at the Fordham students (they are too young for its target audience), and few work at the station unless they are an intern in the news team or involved in back room administration. The station carries fairly well in the greater NYC area, although the signal isn’t universally good. The listener figures and more importantly the listener subscriptions are quite high. Unlike WZBC, but on the same lines as WERS, WFUV takes supporter messages as well. This is a form of advertising that is heavily circumscribed by the station’s licence to ensure it is not in competition with advertising-funded stations.



1. Laurie Orozco - May 28, 2010

Wow I am actually the only comment to this awesome read?!

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