Commercial college radio provided me with my first experiences in sales. As an advertising sales “rep” for WPRB-FM, Princeton’s student-run radio station, I had to pitch ideas, produce ads, write copy, frequently voice the ads myself, manage our cash stream and do demand generation. It was a great way to finance my growing record collection. There are only a handful of commercial college stations; most are either financed by the affiliated institution or through listeners, much like the Public Broadcasting System (“supported by viewers like you”).
But WPRB-FM has a long and technologically illustrative Tiger tale. As the first FM college station, it received a broadcast frequency of 103.5 FM, later swapped for cash and the equally useful 103.3 FM. Most student-run stations are banished to the lower end of the frequency spectrum, where they’re less likely to be found by “dial twiddling”, something that worked in favor of listeners in the Trenton-Princeton-New Brunswick Route 1 corridor who let go of the tuning knob when something on the radio make them tune in a bit more closely. A broadcast format that included classical and jazz provided an advertising platform for local businesses: jewelers, travel companies, the University Store, and some higher end eateries. The station was, and is, self-supporting without any assistance from Princeton University aside from the use of space in a dormitory basement, and (at the time) a spot for the broadcast antenna on top of the same building.
Afternoons and evenings featured WPRB’s “progressive” format, today probably known as alternative, eclectic, or just fun. It included everything from truly obscure local bands (like Regressive Aid and their conjoined one-show band with The Groceries, the aptly named Lunchmeat 2000) to bands that nobody had heard of (at the time) like REM. Our listeners were as varied as our on-air programming; I’m sure that most of my classmates who frequently voiced “WPRB plays crap” as we spun U2’s Boy now own copies of Bono vox and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. We had shows that featured reggae, art rock (think Yes, Genesis and King Crimson), metal and alternative, and during one weekend when we were moving a wall, all 20-minute plus tracks so that we could swing hammers and not just bass lines. Our varied programming after lunchtime let us pick up “punk clubs” (King Tut City Gardens) and various other counter-cultural havens as advertisers who had no other routes to listeners.
College radio, powered by a desire to disrupt convention, and expose listeners to something new, is the epitome of a long tail. Only through college radio could my friend P hear Alaskan punk band (don’t ask) “The Anemic Boyfriends” on WFMU-FM and declare them high art. The essence of Chris Anderson’s long tail economics is to drive more overall volume by first expanding the “tail” of a distribution curve, and then moving demand from the head of the curve (smash hits) to the tail (future micro-smashes). The problem in the 80s was distribution — as desperate as P was to find the 45 RPM single of The Anemic Boyfriends, it took nearly a year and a trip to the ferro-ciously good used record store in Ithaca, New York, to find the vinyl.
No matter how long the tail, at the end of the distribution curve, there’s another distribution curve of even more refined, more obscure listeners. It’s what led Dave, one of my managers who knows I have a penchant for being a Yes-man, to point me at Porcupine Tree as the Yes of this generation. He’s right, and I spent $45 on content I would have never found through any other channel. And at the transitive closure of those distribution and demand curves, you’ll find Indie Rock Pete from Diesel Sweeties, afraid to like anything with a positive listener count.
In the mid-80s, WPRB went through a financial change brought about by the confluence of an expanding New York radio market making our 103.3 FM frequency more of an impediment to our neighbors on the dial who wanted to go bigger. Through several years of negotiations, FCC filings and long meetings, WPRB was able to expand its broadcast area and received a cash infusion at the same time. Numerous exhaustive and exhausting discussions ensured about the financial models that would govern how and where the money would be spent in future years. We debated the risks of investment strategies, regulatory issues and continuity of student leadership, and yet it was forces exogenous to the broadcast industry that reshaped WPRB 20 years later.
When you mix podcasting, blogging, and social networks as ways for students to share their musical likes and dislikes, the on-air pulpit is less appealing. Running a commercial station with a unique value proposition is much harder when that same value-through-unique programming can be obtained with a combination of Google and iTunes. WPRB has switched from a commercial format to a listener supported financial model, still maintaining the quasi-independence of Princeton’s direct sponsorship and the fiercely independent creativity in its programming. College radio is far from dead. It does, however, rely on direct support of listeners who delight in hearing something new, finding a reference to it on a web site, and monetizing that interest almost immediately, without intervening ads for unrelated products.