College radio A Whole Lot More than Practical Media Training

College radios – the radio staff are generally students.
College radios – the radio staff are generally students. | Photo (detail): © dmitrimaruta -

The oldest college radio station has been around for over 60 years, others have just been launched: but with their tighter curricula nowadays, college students have less time to enjoy journalistic forays onto the airwaves.

They take a critical look at the new university car park and report live from the start-of-term party. They don’t shrink from hours-long political debates, they review plays and present regional pop bands. College radio stations cover just about everything of interest to students. They are, in the truest sense of the word, campus stations: the funding usually goes through the university administration; the studios are set up in cafeterias, seminar rooms or the basements of halls of residence. And the radio staff are generally students volunteering or working for a little pocket money on the side, with various motives. Some produce reports to hone their journalistic skills, covering stories and issues that interest them. Others hold posts in specific departments to gain experience in public relations or marketing. A number of them dream of making it into the media later on and are grateful for the opportunity to make their very first broadcasts.

Reaching listeners and getting feedback

“We have a place for everyone, which is why our station sounds a little different every evening,” says Rebecca Röhrich, summing up in a nutshell what’s so special about Radio Dauerwelle in Frankfurt am Main. Röhrich has already graduated from Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe University. But she was around when the college station was started up in 2012 and now coordinates the operation. Radio Dauerwelle,being a newcomer to the airwaves, only broadcasts in the evening, and only over the Internet. “The Rhine-Main region is packed with radio stations, and it’s nearly impossible to get a VHF frequency. We couldn’t afford it either,” explains Röhrich. But the Internet is a rewarding medium: “Professional radio stations like DRadio Wissen go to show that the Internet offers plenty of opportunity for radio, even though it’s a medium that’s been written off so many times: anyone can stream on their smartphonesor at home, and in the long run we’re looking to operate cross-media.”The importance of the Internet should not be underestimated for established college radio stationseither: “We do broadcast on VHF but we’ve got a really small range,” explains Sylvie Möller at a student radio station in Ilmenau, a small town in Thuringia. “Even on the outskirts of Ilmenau, you get better reception online. And communicating with listeners works better online too.” Möller is studying media management and has been doing college radio for a year and a half now. The station was started up way back in 1950, which makes it the doyen of college radiobroadcasting in Germany. Today there are about 70 college stations nationwide.

Mainstream appeal versus experimental licence

College radio stations don’t see themselves as competing with public and private broadcasters. But many teams fail to see eye to eye on the question of how far to cater for mass appeal: “Some staffers want to reach as many listeners as possible, others want to stay completely autonomous and just do their thing – regardless whether anyone wants to hear it or not. We’ve got to find a way that doesn’t turn anyone off to doing radio,”says Röhrich.Christoph Flach, who works as a radiotrainer for ARD public radio and various campus stations as well as serving on a campus radio awardpanel, has a clear-cut opinion on the matter: “I find it a shame when people model themselves on established broadcasters and try to be the better mass radio station. Because college radiooffers great opportunities to leave the usual beaten paths of mass media and try something completely new: again and again, when big events in university politics or major anniversaries come up, for example, you get in-depth coverage that can easily go on for 24 hours. And many music departments get to delve deeper into specific genres than you can in mainstream radio. I’m particularly partial to the satirical formats, for example.”Campusradio, argues Flach,should be based on the special freedoms it has and on a strong sense of community between radio staff and their audience: “In the best-case scenario, it turns out people who are unspoiled, who’ve learned a lot about the media and breathe new life even into professional stations.”

Remaining light-hearted

In an age of digital music platforms and audio editing software, it’s easier now to learn the ropes of radio broadcasting. But college radio is up against new problems these days: “The Bologna Reform has made college more strenuous, and all the student clubs have a hard time recruiting new members,” observes Sylvie Möller from Ilmenau. Rebecca Röhrich stresses that the best way for Radio Dauerwelle to attract students is to offer practical and professional experience.Flach has heard similar comments from other stations, but he finds it a shame that college radio stations should be reduced to their pragmatic function as training centres for media careers:“It would be nice if more people were to remain light-hearted about it, not absolutely having to make it a career. Through radio you can reach people, help them along content-wise* and change the world a little bit. Above all, it should be fun!”