Discourse / Letters / September 26, 2013

Radio killed the radio star: Trouble ahead for WVKC

News was afire around the Knox community recently because the school had entered into a contract with NPR (National Public Radio) for WVKC-FM 90.7’s analog 24-hour programming to be fed, while claiming to still afford students interested in broadcasting or hosting radio shows a feed on a separate digital channel, which citizens of Galesburg could access provided they had HD radio.

Galesburg, being a small, cloistered town with a relatively low socio-economic status, it is unlikely too many townspeople will be able to access the college’s radio station via HD, when their analog feed barely extends beyond a 10-mile radius of the campus. Finally, Knox said they would consider providing student DJ’s an Internet stream for radio shows, which, at press time, had not been verified.

What does all of this mean to the alumni who put countless hours into volunteering to operate, jockey and manage WVKC over the years? What does it mean for musicians who relied heavily on college radio airplay to “make it” in the music business? Seeking out the opinions of many of the WVKC-FM alumni, as well as that of three-time Grammy winner Steven Drozd of the legendary alternative rock band, The Flaming Lips, the conclusive echo was that most were vehemently against NPR taking over the radio station.

It was not until multi-instrumentalist Drozd moved from small towns to Houston that he would first be exposed to independent music via college radio stations. That experience was very positive. Drozd said,

“I was thankful for having a source of new stuff right when it was happening, instead of waiting until much later.”

WVKC-FM’s chief objective was to allow burgeoning new artists gain airplay and sell records. Between bringing in little-known alternative artists to play in concert through Union Board to the station having a core set of management-selected artists to feature, new bands thrived and depended on college radio to help them succeed in a hugely competitive market. Drozd was quick to point out that “[The Flaming Lips] definitely played many college/university shows. We wouldn’t have evolved without college radio interest and support. That gave us a kind of credibility helping us to move to another level of success.” The band would eventually be signed to Warner Brothers Records and be inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records.

When asked why he felt it was important that college radio remain independent for and by the students and community Drozd felt that “something major is lost” relating to the “energy and curiosity of students.” He said,

“Truly indie radio happens when individuals get together locally and create interest organically, without being monitored or controlled by a larger presence.” Many alumni former disc jockeys and station managers agree with what Drozd conveyed. From behind the microphone high atop George Davis Hall, many students who were otherwise shy or introverted found their niches working at WVKC.

Anne Gavin Rago ’95 feels that if NPR takes over, Knox is “taking away opportunities for students in ways they never imagined.” The same rings true for musicians whose music would otherwise not be distributed. Uniformly, alumni agree that some of the most valuable knowledge and education was taught via WVKC as opposed to that learned in the classrooms, and it was generally concluded that the radio shows provided benefits far outweighing that of pure entertainment. Agreeing, Cory Landon ’95 said that WVKC “helped young men and women establish their own voices and identities,” which influenced the listening community as a whole.

Alumni are curious as to why this crossover happened during the summer as opposed to during the school year, and how well-represented the current students’ opinions on the matter might have been. Information regarding the current students’ reactions has been scant, if not ignored altogether.

Further, if the college was seeking additional funding in order to maintain the station, alumni don’t understand why a greater fundraising effort was not put forth in order to save the station for the students.

When I was the station’s Program Director in the mid 1990’s, one of my jobs was to schedule the students’ shows. The eclecticism and flavor of the different students’ musical tastes or “Talk radio” banter was astounding. I purposely tried to schedule shows that were as diverse as possible in order to have the station remain as varied as possible. NPR cannot and will not accomplish that.

Rather than an overall feeling of bitterness toward the college’s decision, the general temperament of the alumni with whom I spoke was that of great sadness; and, while we understand the industry and dissemination of music has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, many of us cringe at the thought that if student involvement is reduced or eliminated, WVKC will cease to exist as a vital media entity in the Galesburg community.

Drozd’s final thought on the matter was the following:

“One thing unique about Knox is the students and locals there. Keeping your college radio station alive will help Knox continue to have its own scene, vibe or flavor. This seems to be as important as ever, to save anything which promotes diversity.”

As I understand it, today WVKC and Knox College are essentially doing the opposite of what CHIRP is hoping to accomplish.  Having had an FM broadcast signal of 1000 watts for years (I was there when the signal changed from 90.5 to 90.7), WVKC will now cede its broadcast signal to an Iowa-based affiliate of National Public Radio (NPR).  In exchange for that, this public radio station will provide the college with Internet streaming infrastructure, underwrite streaming costs and provide WVKC with the ability to transmit via HD Radio. Hence there will still be original music programming emanating from WVKC, but it will not be available on the broadcast signal. In addition, the public radio station is planning to open a bureau in Galesburg and provide the opportunity for interns from the Knox Journalism department to work for their organization.

I am a fan of public radio and NPR programming.  I am also a fan and strong advocate for college radio. I’m sure it’s apparent that in recent years, I’ve become a big advocate for community radio as well. One of the primary reasons I chose to attend Knox College was the ample opportunity to become involved with the Voice of Knox College, WVKC.  At the time, there weren’t any “classes” required aside from an orientation and hands-on training, and Knox didn’t have a Journalism department either. I could tell stories about playing Screaming Trees records all night and ducking to avoid bats in the record library, but this isn’t really the forum for that.

I do not believe that giving up a 1000 watt radio broadcast signal in exchange for Internet streaming abilities and HD radio broadcast capability is a good deal for WVKC, Knox College or the Galesburg community. I believe that the Knox administration saw a way to save money and took advantage of what may have been the naivete of the student general managers to get their endorsement. HD radio technology has not been successfully adopted by most, and although ways to listen on the Internet are increasingly ubiquitous with the popularity of smartphone technology, there is still a digital divide that excludes people in their cars and those who live on the poorer side of the tracks.

Make no mistake, I know that streaming costs on the Internet are a significant expense, and the technology is also expensive, so to have an outside organization “swoop in” and take care of that for you is no small matter. Everyone involved with radio understands that having a reliable streaming service is a real asset nowadays.

But when I tell people about this great new radio station I represent, CHIRP Radio, the number one question is still, “What’s the frequency?” CHIRP has been campaigning for the opportunity to broadcast via Low Power FM for about 10 years now, so that our local Chicago community has the opportunity to hear new and underrepresented music on the radio.

It saddens and upsets me that Knox College, Galesburg and WVKC, without finding alternatives or putting up much of a fight, would surrender a signal 10 times as powerful as the 100 watts we hope to have, especially when they’re “selling out” to an entity based outside the state that is apparently doing little more than rebroadcasting nationally syndicated programs.

Bechtel said, “This leads me to wonder if the NPRs of the world are adopting this approach nationwide, and if this will lead to further homogenization and decreased programming creativity throughout the radio landscape. If so, the students and local communities may lose the opportunity to have their ears challenged and their imaginations expanded, and that will be the greatest loss.”

Bechtel’s sentiments are succinct. Rumor has it that as of fall term 2013, fewer and fewer current students are signing up for shows, for fear of not being heard whatsoever. This saddens the Knox alumni WVKC comrades, and, I should hope, give something upon which administration can chew. The station was created on the premise of “by the students, for the students,” and to see it sold out to a national feed you can most likely pick up in Peoria, as opposed to fostering burgeoning bands and artists is just wrong.

Respectfully,

Andrea Miklasz

Knox Class 1995

Andrea Miklasz

Tags:  alternative college radio Drozd Flaming Lips Galesburg Guiness Book HD radio Knox College radio show wvkc

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  • Eric

    I really don’t understand why it has to be all or nothing.

    KCRW-FM is an NPR-affiliated station out of Santa Monica College, and it is the benchmark for all college/NPR stations.

    In the mornings and in the evenings, it broadcasts local, in-studio DJs playing their own hand-picked music. During the mid-morning/mid-day hours, it’s NPR programming.

    It’s a great mix. I listen to it daily via their iPhone app or on my laptop.

    If WVKC and Knox College followed the KCRW model, they would be offering something that Bloomington/Normal, Peoria and Macomb don’t offer with a lot more listeners.

    • Trevor Sorenson

      Eric,

      Jane is correct; a similar agreement had been in place for some time, making this deal even more incomprehensible. For some time WVKC also aired Democracy Now! and similar nationally syndicated programs.

      For what it’s worth, the change that added the NPR programming in the first place was warmly received by staff members as well because those were time slots that were more difficult to fill / supervise.

  • Jane

    Eric, I believe WVKC has been operating on this model since 2007 or 2008. NPR airs in Galesburg on the campus station during the early morning hours. For what it’s worth, many Galesburg residents unaffiliated with the college were quite happy about that addition.

  • Andrea Miklasz

    As I said on an earlier thread by Trevor towards GM Samantha, part of the “magic” of leading the WVKC charge was being in management and leaving your radio on all night to check for “Dead Air,” and, if that happened, hauling up to GDH to fill in the FCC gaps in programming. (Dead air was fine-worthy.) There were a great many of us who lived and breathed listening to WVKC at all hours, not just to get the national news early in the morning from an NPR affiliate we could pick up on other stations.

    • Samantha

      We still do have to check for dead air, and it still is something I live and breathe. In fact, I am streaming WVKC as I write this comment.

  • John Lane

    nicely said. it is sad and confusing to see knox complicit in the homogenization of the media landscape in our area when so many faculty and students work to nurture diversity in their fields. the arguments offered by those defending this deal just don’t stand up to the points raised by andrea and trevor’s letters. now we get to wait and see whether those in charge have to grace to reverse themselves, or whether they just wait until it blows over and everyone who remembers it being different graduates.

  • todd smith

    I continue to be baffled by the people who are not here, and are not tuning in as loyal alums, because they don’t live in Galesburg, who have such mis-informed negative opinions about this whole thing.

    Guess what negative Nellies? Now you can actually listen to WVKC, an irony which seems to be lost on you.

    For the record, Knox NEVER said they would “consider providing student DJ’s an Internet stream for radio shows”. From day one, it was a deal breaker. No stream, no deal. As far as “not being confirmed at press time” I’m at a loss. I guess if I was just making stuff up, I also wouldn’t ask anyone to confirm it. As the full time staff member actually working with the station, the administration, the students and Tri-States Radio, I’m astonished at how few people have had the amazing insight to just actually ask me a question. When the administration needs to know the status of something radio related, they just ask me. I guess they could go and write uninformed letters, but that seems a little pointless.

    Up until this change occured, the streaming capacity of WVKC ranged between 25-40. Yes that’s right, 40 listeners at the most. That’s not even a party, just a gathering. Now we have virtually unlimited streaming. That means globally.

    Instead of asking DJs from 20 years ago what they think, why not ask the actual players.

    A few things. There is no less student involvement. There is NO entity watching over the station, other than the FCC. The students don’t have to answer to anyone they didn’t already have to answer to. They have an involved advisor and staff tech person, both of whom (myself) come from non-conformist, free thinking, music and theatre backgrounds. Both of whom have lobbied on behalf of the students from day one.

    This deal does not save Knox any money. It does shift the cost of a major upgrade away from Knox, but the internal operating budget remains the same.

    I too was exposed to all kinds of amazing diverse music through a college station in the 80s and 90s. I would note that it was because of student enthusiasm as DJs, and basic availability. That it so say, the medium of that time was analog radio. As a young adult, I did not have a laptop or a smartphone. I had a radio in my car, and I PURCHASED a radio for my home stereo. I challenge any of you to find a single “home stereo” being employed by a Knox student. Quite simply, WVKC now has the power to actually reach people through today’s mediums. HD is a not the answer, streaming is. Laptops, tablets, smartphones, and desktops are how the world is moving. Since we are so small and have such a small reach, we’ve always been constrained in the size of our audience. What’s bad about changing that completely? The phones already in the hand’s of a vast majority of the students can now give them WVKC. How is that bad? A student from Vietnam can now do a show in their native language for a listening audience back home. How is that bad? For the few listeners we’re losing, we’re gaining an immense audience, even here amongst the students. Go hang out at Target and see how many Knox students are showing up to buy analog radios.

    I was at a meeting yesterday with the student GM and the GM of Tri-States Radio (that evil “Iowa-based affiliate of National Public Radio”). It was nothing but positive, with the Knox student staff needing to make decisions about how to best manage all the new opportunities.

    Andrea, thanks so much for quoting a famous musician not affiliated with Knox radio. Everything he said is true. I’m a musician from a small town, and while my own touring and band days did not garner the same level of fame, I too was dependent on college radio. The great news is that none of that has changed. I’m talking about the reality of being on campus today, involved with the radio today, not the post apocalyptic imagined scenarios of DJs from the 90s. The incoming student staff and DJs are actually poised to do more recordings, more diverse shows with less dead air than perhaps ever before. They have lots of big ideas, formed before this change. They were nervous and hesitant at first that this would kill their ideas, now they seem to be just forging ahead. They’re still planning on bringing in bands, doing events, just like before.

    As for when it happened, come on. Really? OK simple question. If you need to do a big remodel of a building do you:

    a) do it while the building is scheduled to be empty?
    b) do it while the building is constantly in use?
    c) do a really tiny bit every day for 10 years?

    John, I think the real question will be if the people involved will have the grace not to say “I told you so”. Andrea and Trevor have voiced their opinions with some articulation. Do not mistake “points” and opinions with wrong information with actual facts and answers from people actually involved and affected. Presumably you, like many other letter writers are Knox Alum. Well I’m not a Knox Alum, but I am a college grad., and one of the things I learned was critical thinking. I suggest that some of you revert back to that. Instead of taking the word of remote uninformed Alums, dare to seek the truth. Ask questions, find the answers, and make your own decisions.

    Andrea, glad to hear you were hauling up to GDH in the middle of the night to take care of dead air. Apparently that type of selfless heroism died with your generation. Also, now WVKC will not have any of that “national news early in the morning from an NPR affiliate we could pick up on other stations”. While I’m not sure what stations you’re referring to, especially today, you can rest assured that WVKC HD2 is now 24/7 on the students to fill. You’re point about “the digital divide that excludes people in their cars and those who live on the poorer side of the tracks” is worth consideration. However, to my knowledge, there is/were no (at least not recent) programming or outreach specifically designed to reach that other side of the tracks.

    For the record, Knox college cannot do a low power FM, as we’re already the license holder of another station, and that is forbidden. I’m not sure what you’re point about CHIRP is. Why would you spend 10 years campaigning for something? Why not just do it? Are you unable, or did I misunderstand? Low power FM is an awesome thing, but it’s very small. The idea that Knox will “surrender a signal 10 times as powerful” as a low power FM is actually the naivete you insultingly referred to earlier. Who exactly do you imagine the analog audience is? You seem to be part of a group of folks focusing intently on what we lose, and dismissively, casually acknowledging what we’re gaining.

    Guess what Alum from the 90s, nobody has a radio anymore. Sure a few people do, they also have VCRs. We want people to hear the station. We want students to listen, so that all that great stuff you said about how the radio shaped you and informed you and educated you can be true again. You think that’s happening with the students sitting up there doing shows they can’t even listen to themselves? The challenge on the students now is to do quality programming, so that people want to listen. In the 90s, WVKC was an alternative to the 3 or 4 crappy local stations, but there was no other choices. Now they take their place in a global setting with thousands of choices. This should have happened years ago, so that Knox would’ve led their audience to the digital sphere, instead of following them to it. Let’s hope they can win them back.

    Lastly, Andrea, I have to stop myself from further dissecting your letter. You should know better, however, than to quote rumor. “Rumor has it” that unicorns exist, that cats have 9 lives, that politicians are real people, etc. Your credibility falls down the last little bit when you start quoting rumors. Did you come to the campus, mingle with the students and pick up that buzz? Did you get an “off the record” comment from one of the two GMs, who would actually know how many people signed up for shows? Do you even know who they are? Have you spoken directly with anyone actually involved with this whole thing? Do you understand how NPR stations work? You know the “N” stands for “National” right? Of course regional stations rebroadcast national programming. That’s as surprising as learning that the radio is playing pre-recorded music. There’s not always a band in the studio playing the music.

    For any of you brave enough, here is my contact info. I’m the AV coordinator, and I was asked by the dean to become involved in the station, along with a proactive advisor, to help us to get it out of the dregs, where it had slowly eroded to. Our intent from the beginning has been to help the station achieve what we’ve believed was untapped potential. That process started when the license nearly lapsed, and we were making great strides, thanks also to the great student staff, before this NPR opportunity ever happened. I have been the point person between Knox and Tri-States Public Radio. I have been directly and indirectly involved in all phases of this process, from policy to equipment. I welcome genuine interest and questions, and from what I’ve seen so far, please feel free to contact me to debunk misinformation.

    Todd Smith
    309.341.7541
    tsmith@knox.edu

  • Samantha

    Andrea, if you had bothered to reach out to current staff members of WVKC instead of relying on ill-informed alumni and a member of an alternative rock band you would have had answers to many of your “questions.” I feel personally attacked in many of your points, saying my co-manager and I had to have been naive to have accepted this offer, or the implication that we no longer care about diversity or the opportunity for students to have their voice on the radio.
    I am a bit sad that I can’t hear WVKC on any of my radios, as they are all analog, but our streaming is amazing and reliable now, which was very rare even last year.
    We also have plenty of students who have signed up for radio show, many of them First Years, which I happen to be very proud of. We also are working extremely hard to get many more small, independent bands to play at Knox as well as collaborating with other clubs on campus in order to keep our presence known and respected.

    Which is getting harder and harder when articles like this continue to be published.

    If you really cared about Knox radio you would have considered the implications this story has on the hard-working staff members and the students who still care deeply about the station.

    • Ramerman

      As a member of the current Knox College student body, I would just like to take a moment to ask the alum that have commented thus far to take a step back and remember that there are new students and new ideas at work here, and even though things aren’t going the way they did when you went to school here, that’s okay, because change is pretty natural. If Knox did everything the way it did 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, we’d become pretty stagnant. And that’s not a school I want to go to. It’s the nature of college, I’m graduating this year and within four years I will not know a single person that will be attending Knox. And that sucks in its own way because I love this place, but I certainly won’t be expecting them to be doing things the way I did and I certainly won’t be attacking them when they don’t. These is how ideas evolve, this is how things change and become new and fresh.

      I think it’s surprising and sad that you guys apparently haven’t taken the time to actually talk to any current radio staff/students about what is happening. Instead all you’ve done is be condescending and insulting to the students who are working hard at the radio to make it the best and make it what THEY want. Not what you want, what THEY want. I can personally vouch for Samantha and say that she’s pretty kick butt and would never do anything to sacrifice the integrity of the radio station.

      So alumni, if all you’re gonna do is come around and complain and be snarky about how things aren’t the way you want them to be, or aren’t the way you used to do them, well, we don’t need you coming around at all then.



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