WSUP’s Decision

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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.

6 thoughts on “WSUP’s Decision

  1. Charlie Gamble

    Anyone involved in college radio in the 70’s knows that what JB writes here is spot on.
    Back in the 70’s, automation systems were primitive and expensive. As a college radio station program director or station manager, you were often faced with the choice of A)go off the air or B)do the airshift yourself. I know grades in several of my classes suffered because of my dedication to WINO / WRFX at Central Michigan University. We were a 24 hour commercial college radio station when school was in session. Looking back, I don’t regret making the choice of keeping the station on the air and I would make the same decision today. To me, that is more REAL radio training than any class could teach. In today’s world, keeping the station on the air is easy to do with inexpensive computer equipment. The unavailability of live announcers during the day shouldn’t be a justification for programming NPR from 5am to 5pm. Lack of live announcers during the day may be a good reason to teach a “voice tracking” class at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

    Best wishes to the students at WSUP.

    Charlie Gamble

  2. Well-said, Charlie Gamble. I was involved in college radio in the 60’s and the problems were the same at WRST-FM, the UW-Oshkosh (then, Wisconsin State College – Oshkosh) radio station. As you said, learning by doing is far superior to reading about it in a book or having a teacher lecture you about the biz – although I do think all three elements are important. But actually DOING radio is the king. Also concur with your idea that maybe the time has come for a voice-tracking class at UW-P.

    I also wonder whatever happened to the son of the man who was my icon and principal teacher at UW-O back in the day – I thought Dr. Robert L. Snyder (whose dad, the late Doc Snyder, is a WBA Hall Of Fame member and legendary teacher who gave me my start in the biz) was running the broadcast department at UW-P these days. Sounds like there is no such department any more, at least from what I can glean from the Facebook posts.

    Sad situation, regardless, and as JB says, difficult decision.

  3. Yah Shure

    Sorry to hear of the issues WSUP is facing. Is the vocal minority overlooking the fact that the online vs. broadcast delivery argument applies just as equally to NPR, WPR and classical music programming, none of which would evidently be originating from a studio in Platteville?

    For that matter, since WPR already operates a Platteville-licensed class A classical signal, why isn’t the vocal minority on their case to address WSSW’s coverage issues?

    Whatever the decision may be, here’s hoping WUSP makes the right call.

  4. Hoping for a better result than at WGBW at UW-Green Bay in the summer of 1989. A friend was involved in that, and it went down badly. He writes:

    “WGBW was an incredible college radio station where all the DJs were allowed to program their own music with a great variety of genres being featured on the station. I worked there until the bitter end, when the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay decided to sell the radio station to Wisconsin Public Radio. This action by the university came out of the blue, and when students collected a petition to ask the university to reverse its decision, the chancellor at the time would not even look at it. The loss of this station still haunts Green Bay, and the damage done by losing this outlet has been a dark cloud on the city ever since.”

  5. You just can’t beat experience….and practice. The entire experience of being on an actual radio station with microphones, headphones, an audio console with audio inputs, scripts, sounders, and all the things you typically do on the radio really lends itself toward embarking on a career in broadcasting. Of course, years ago, there were a number of jobs (such as being a DJ) a person could chase after to begin their broadcasting career. Those jobs just don’t exist anymore. However, there are still opportunities for young people to enter a career in broadcasting. SOMEONE has to voice-track those airshifts and do some of them live…SOMEONE has to do news…SOMEONE has to do play-by-play and deliver the sports…SOMEONE has to write and produce those high priced commercials, etc. While you don’t see too many young people saying, “I want to be a DJ” anymore, I do hope the students involved at WSUP will have an opportunity to develop the skills they need to pursue a career in broadcasting, if they so choose. Their opportunity will be reduced if they turn over a good part of their broadcast day to NPR. Will their opportunity be reduced further if they place much of their local programming on the internet, where, if I understand correctly, royalty fees have skyrocketed for those playing music and have forced sites like Live365 to completely shut down? There are a lot of questions to ask, and a lot of answers will be needed.

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