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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 21.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Will WSUM make the most of its newfound wealth?
$400,000 can't buy a great radio station
Programming needs an upgrade, too.
Programming needs an upgrade, too.
Credit:Charlie Baker

Can $400,000 buy UW-Madison a better campus radio station?

Former chancellor John Wiley thought so. Last year he earmarked an unrestricted grant to help WSUM move from its former location in the Towers on State Street. The station's posh new studio is inside the newly constructed University Square multipurpose monolith.

Last week WSUM began broadcasting from University Square. When I met up with station general manager Dave Black for a tour, I asked him how the luxurious new space will translate into higher-quality radio.

"It gives us the capacity to broadcast much more live bands and programming," said Black. "The other place had no acoustics. You couldn't keep sound from bleeding out across rooms."

That advantage was easy to see along my tour.

Volunteer DJs at the controls in Studio A can look through a soundproof window into Studio B, a room built to host live performances.

Black also said that WSUM's new location puts it at the hub of UW-Madison's student activities center. The mammoth building houses student apartments and retail stores. It's also home to University Health Services and the offices of 173 student organizations.

"College radio depends on a community of volunteers and students," said Black. "Our old location wasn't conducive to community. It didn't have that flow."

My tour didn't end at Studio B. Further north along a hallway, we peeked in on two production studios. We looked at the sleek, if not yet fully assembled, office space for Black and student staff. We visited the music library and the newsroom.

It's a stunning facility that squashes the idea of student radio as a low-budget broadcast underdog.

Years ago, college radio was the stuff of dorm basements and a handful of dedicated student engineers. Now, UW-Madison is arguably the keeper of the most technically advanced radio studio in Dane County.

It's a testament, too, to how much the old media paradigm has changed.

Commercial radio has become populated with syndicated and voice-tracked shows. Live, local broadcasts have been largely trimmed out of the corporate budget. And now, student radio, once a broadcast stepchild, is stacked with expensive resources.

The question is, what will WSUM do with its newfound wealth? Will its programming grow to reflect the quality of its facility? Or will it squander this amazing opportunity?

The station is uniquely positioned to deliver on the Wisconsin Idea - the principle that UW's resources should contribute to the quality of community life. During rush hours every day, WSUM has the ear of much of the community.

But it's quite possible that the station won't deliver on the promise of one of Wiley's last earmarks. WSUM's programming is notoriously uneven, and not something a new studio can fix.

I'm an active listener, and I know that when WSUM shines, it can be brilliant.

DJ Renton's "Sum of All Parts" (Thursdays, 6-8 a.m.) is the best indie-rock show in Madison. Last semester, Y Mae Sussman served up an innovative hour of Scandinavian folk-rock every Friday afternoon.

Tara Wilson's Wednesday afternoon retro '80s hour is way better than the prepackaged nostalgia of her commercial counterparts.

A now defunct talk show about books and writers, "The Literary Literal," was one of the very best shows on Madison radio.

I know, too, that WSUM can disappoint. Too often, I've tuned in during drive-time, only to be greeted with auto-programmed canned jazz. One morning, a DJ announced he had to go get breakfast before class. He walked away from his shift 15 minutes before its apparent end, letting the airwaves go dead.

The challenge for WSUM is molding a disparate and transient staff into a unified whole that has continuity. WSUM should strive for an identity that's appealing to the community, even if the station is an educational laboratory first and foremost.

At the close of my studio tour with Black, I asked him if WSUM's student staff felt a sense of having to live up to their impressive new digs. He said, "I hope so - they should."

I second that emotion. Four hundred grand can't make WSUM sound great. Only the students can.

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