Tonight, the management team at my college radio station, WSUP in Platteville, Wisconsin, will vote whether to start airing Wisconsin Public Radio and NPR programming from 5AM til 5PM each day, moving student-produced programming to online only before returning it to the air in evening and overnight hours.
I attended the University of Wisconsin-Platteville from 1978 to 1982. I served three semesters as program director of WSUP in 1980 and 1981, and I won the Paul Gauger Service Award for my contributions. The hours I spent at WSUP are the most valuable of my life. (I met my wife there.) So this news is important to me.
I learned about the impending decision only last night when a friend added me to a Facebook group that’s discussing the change. I have read a few of the posts, but I still don’t know all the details. As best I can tell, WSUP has been struggling to staff the daytime hours and to produce public-affairs programming—but a broader issue seems to be that the station has gotten lost in the many restructurings of the university in recent years. Its advisor is no longer a broadcasting professor, apparently—it’s somebody from the English department.
Struggling to staff daytime hours isn’t a new phenomenon. We had the same problem during my term as program director. (I cannot tell you how many times I skipped a class to be on the air.) We, too, sometimes struggled with public affairs programming. Everybody wants to do a music show; not as many people want to interview the director of the food bank. Compounding the problem today is that there are simply fewer students in the broadcasting program then there used to be.
Something else that isn’t new, and is apparently a factor in the current situation, is that a vocal minority within the university community would prefer WSUP to be a Wisconsin Public Radio/NPR affiliate. Some want it for practical reasons: the current WPR signal isn’t very good in southwestern Wisconsin. Others are put off by student-run programming (specifically, that old devil rock ‘n’ roll), and they would be more comfortable with classical music and news. Such a minority existed at the turn of the 80s, but what also existed was a strong belief within what was then the College of Business, Industry, and Communication that the station should be exclusively student-run. (I suspect that part of the problem now is the lack of a strong advocate for WSUP within the university community.) Although there were rumblings—and there had been a serious effort earlier in the 70s to force classical music onto all campus stations in the University of Wisconsin System at the expense of student-run programming—WPR and/or NPR was never a legitimate threat to us.
Several alumni, from the early oughts and still further back in time, have posted their prescriptions for “saving” WSUP on the Facebook group. All of them boil down to “do it the way we did back in the day”—work harder, work smarter, recruit good people, train them, critique them, encourage them to be creative, maintain a strong focus on the campus community and southwestern Wisconsin, be local, be local, be local.
What I know comes from a cursory reading of a single Facebook group, but it sounds as though that ship sailed a long time ago. WSUP finds itself in this position as a result of factors that were falling into place when the current management team was still in grade school—hell, before they were born—and there’s no way to turn back the clock.
There’s an argument that the online vs. broadcast dichotomy matters less to the current generation of students than it does to elderly alumni, and that to them, WSUP online will still be WSUP. Students who burn for a career in the industry can still learn it even if their work isn’t disturbing the ether on a carrier wave. But turning daytime programming over to Wisconsin Public Radio and NPR homogenizes what has been a local voice for the university community. As such, it’s a blow to diversity on the dial. In addition, it’s a profound change to the station’s mission after nearly 52 years on the air.
I do not envy the members of the management team the meeting they’re having tonight. My suspicion is that it will be long, contentious, and emotional. Friendships will be tested, and some will be broken. It’s what happens when something you love is in trouble, and you disagree about how it should be saved.