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“Ten watts of fury,” screams current WBCN nighttime deejay Deek, as he sits in his Boylston street studio. Ten watts, which is low by today’s radio standards, certainly doesn’t describe the Infinity-owned rock station that hands him his bi-weekly paycheck. However, it does describe the place where he, along with so many other deejays, got their start on the road to a professional radio career -- college radio.
Less than two miles away from WBCN stands the center of Deek’s on-air jokes. “Ten watts of fury,” WRBB, is Northeastern’s student and community radio station. The community half of that description is often left out, but it clearly shouldn’t be.
College radio has always been an outlet for students to learn about industry, while also using it as a tool to voice their opinion.
“It’s a chance to vent, plain and simple,” said Evan “Slippy” Schneider, a WRBB deejay. “Where else can college kids speak to large crowds and (whine) and moan about the runarounds NU gives us?”
The large crowds Schneider speaks of don’t accurately reflect the typical college radio audience. “We realize there are only so many people you can reach with a two-mile signal,” said current WRBB Station manager Kristen Aldrich. "That’s why we make a conscious effort to involve the community.”
With increasing restrictions in rules and regulations of college stations, any type of involvement of outside university members would seen beneficial.
“I think we’re one of the few stations who allow ‘community members’ to have their own show,” says Aldrich. “It’s great to get on-air personalities with a different perspective. Another reason to listen to WRBB.”
The Boston radio scene has changed a great deal since WRBB’s inception in 1968. Amid all of the corporate turnover and company buyouts, college radio in Boston is often left out of the important radio history of the ninth-largest media market in the country.
Like any medium, there have been numerous changes to the sound of Boston radio over the years. According to some, the digital revolution, involving modern technology, has become the largest change the radio industry has had to deal with. As difficult as it may be for stations to adjust to these changes, it is even harder for college stations. For years lack of funding and state-of-the-art equipment has become the largest obstacle for college stations. Recently the state of college radio has been influx due to programming and copyright issues that have affected the sound of local programming.
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“There was a period there where it seemed everything was just being thrown at us all at once,” said Dan Hillsdon, former promotions director at WTBU, Boston University’s student radio station. “I had been there two-and-a-half years and we never had any problems with rules. Then all of a sudden we get hit with all these regulations that we had no say in. It greatly effected how we ran our station.”
Most of the problems that started developing in 2001 surrounded the growing concern over copyright infringement. While the controversy began with the development of the file sharing service Napster, by former NU student Shawn Fanning, it didn’t stop there. As far as radio stations were concerned, the major development came from meetings involving committee members from the Copyright Royalty Arbitration Panel (CARP) and the Librarian of Congress.
CARP meets once every two years to decide on royalty fees for web radio broadcasters. During their 2001 meeting, it was decided that with the growing popularity of the Internet, rates for broadcasting would increase dramatically. After CARP drew up the proposal in February, the rate decisions were decided in July. This move hurt local college stations’ pockets and popularity.
“The Internet radio deal really hurt us two-fold,” said Hillsdon. “First it hurt because we now had to pay royalties for the songs we broadcast over the Internet. Second, it limited what we could play over the Internet. This was a problem because we generated so much listenership from the web.”
The development of the CARP hurt WTBU maybe more than most college radio stations. Unlike WRBB, WTBU is not a FCC regulated station, meaning they do not have a signal that reaches beyond their campus. Because they have a “campus signal,” WTBU depends on the Internet more than most stations.
“We had e-mails from people listening in Russia, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, it was great,” recalled Hillsdon.
In reaction to the controversial rates, U.S. Reps. Jay Inslee (D- WA), George Nethercutt (R-WA), and Rick Boucher (D-VA) created new legislation to change the web radio laws created by CARP. The product of these changes was the Internet Radio Fairness Act (IRFA), which called for more fairness in the charges related to copyright royalty arbitration.
On July 8, 2002, the IRFA was passed in Congress. The act helped college stations on several levels. Most importantly it called for smaller stations to “be exempted from (the previous weeks) web radio royalty decision by the Librarian of Congress, and will be rolled into the next CARP decision.”
The second part of the act also helped smaller stations, especially on the financial side. According to the act, “All future CARPs must change the royalty rate standard from the ‘willing-buyer/willing-seller’ to the "traditional" standard that was enacted by the 1976 Copyright Act.” The change in rates allowed stations like WTBU to recalculate their monthly fees, allowing them to remain streaming.
Many college stations rely on the web to bring in audiences and promote their station. With the addition of streaming audio, Northeastern’s WRBB, developed a greater audience over the last couple of years. With limited wattage, the importance of effectively utilizing the station’s web site has increased.
“It allows us to do so much more with our station,” said Aldrich. “We have the ability to reach an audience that we previously wouldn’t have. With the website listeners can tune in from out of the area, but also become interactive with a lot of our shows.”
The interactive part of the WRBB website, wrbbradio.org, allows fans to make song requests, contact deejays, read deejay biographies and post comments on the message board. The hope of putting together such a website is to get students and out of area listeners to log on and listen to the webcast. Such hopes were tough when the webcast element was in doubt.
“If the live audio element is taken away from our site, what incentive is there for listeners? to log on?” asks Aldrich. “The purpose of putting all those interactive links on the site is to peak the interest of the audience as they listen to our station.”
According to Hillsdon, the way for college stations to distinguish themselves from commercial stations is to make their target audience feel as involved in the broadcast as possible. “One of the major developments that occurred when I arrived at TBU was the insertion of a webcam in studio. We felt it was a great complement to our live audio.”
The college radio scene in Boston cannot be discussed without the mention of the Hub’s premiere student station, WERS. Property of Emerson College, WERS became Boston’s first non-commercial radio station when it first went on-air in 1949. While college stations like WTBU and WRBB struggle with listenership because of their signal, WERS doesn’t share the same worries.
"They have it easy over there,” said former WRBB Station Manager John Sullivan. “Because of the power of their signal, smaller restrictions that effect (WRBB) don’t have the same effect on them.”
“That’s the luxury of having 200 times the power of any other college station in the city,” says Hillsdon, jokingly. “It must be nice.”
It’s also a luxury that involves having lots of money. “When you’re a student station and have a annual budget of $45,000, that’s not enough to compete, streaming audio or no streaming audio,” said Sullivan. “It’s not like a regular college station like ours can put all that money into new equipment. A great deal of that goes to paying acts for our spring concert. For a station like ERS...that’s nothing.”
Amazingly, 200 times the amount of power, doesn’t even do justice to the discrepancy between college stations here in Boston. WERS has a power output of 4,000 watts, which is strong enough to reach five of the sixstates in New England.
With such a powerful output, WERS relies on listener backing for funding and support. When a station has 400 times the power of a typical college station, like WRBB, it comes as so surprise that they don’t stream over the Internet.
“They have a mentality of a commercial station, even though they are affiliated with Emerson,” said former WRBB Station Manager, Blake Jensen. “A lot of rules which seem like hardships to us, don’t really appear that way to them."
Part of those hardships surround the monthly fees payed by radio stations to ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. ASCAP is a group which seeks licensing and distribution royalties to individuals who are ASCAP members. Performers such as, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, Alicia Keys, Lyle Lovett, Madonna and Garth Brooks all belong to ASCAP.
When groups like ACAP began cracking down on the public use of their members work, there were heavy restrictions on what could be played over the air.
“We were sent a packet of artists and albums which couldn’t be played under the current guidelines,” said Hillsdon. “On top of that, there were restrictions on how many times we were allowed to play certain artists per hour. It was getting to a point where having your own show was becoming more work than fun.”
According to ASCAP’s website, they collect royalties from over 11, 500 commercial radio stations. Not included in that number are the 2,000 non-commercial stations from college to public radio stations.
Thanks to the IRFA, those royalties now come at a manageable rate. While local college stations can now afford the monthly rates, that doesn’t mean things are back to way they used to be.
“To me, college radio is meant to be free from the professional side,” said Schneider. “It’s amazing to see what’s happened over the past couple years. Definitely a lot of politics behind it.”
Politics aside, the bottom line remains that local college radio has overcome all of the copyright madness, and remained a part of the Boston radio landscape. There was a time from mid-2001, to late-2002, where these stations weren’t sure about their future. In the end, the help of some U.S. Reps wound up saving local college stations their licenses, not to mention lots and lots of money.
“I think I speak for everyone at WTBU when I say we’re happy that a lot of the original restrictions were reduced,” said Hillsdon. “Still, college radio doesn’t seem to be the same. I know it’s always about money, but isn’t the financial stuff supposed to be what separates college from commercial stations?”
As the calendar heads to 2004, the state of college radio in Boston is very much alive. However, much like the radio industry in general, things can change quickly. The difference between the changes issued in 2001, and those that might occur in the future, is that now the college radio industry is ready for any punches that are thrown their way.