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.
Knox Class 1995