If you want a good story about the music industry, just call UW alum Bruce Ravid.
Ravid was an A&R rep for Capitol Records during the 1980s, when the music industry reached a new apex thanks to innovations like MTV. This was, of course, before the advent of the Internet weakened the major labels. Ravid was instrumental in the careers of artists such as Thomas Dolby, the Knack, the Motels, the Church and Iron Maiden, who would dominate radio playlists for much of the decade.
He can tell you about the time he played "Weird Al" Yankovic's "My Bologna" for the Knack while they were at the top of the charts with "My Sharona," the hit that inspired the lunchmeat-themed tune. That moment led him to sign the offbeat, accordion-playing Yankovic, who would go on to become a superstar of the burgeoning medium of music video.
He can also tell you about his time in Madison, working as music director at WSRM, the UW's radio station in the 1970s. The current student radio station, WSUM 91.7 FM, debuted in 2002.
"It was incredible," Ravid says of his time at the station. "Little did I realize that my experience at WSRM was going to launch my career in the music industry."
But that was then, and this is now. Video hadn't yet killed the radio star and the Internet didn't exist. Nowadays, smartphones hold thousands of songs, commercial-free satellite radio offers channels of every genre, and streaming services like Pandora and Spotify let listeners create their own stations. Meanwhile, commercial stations are slashing budgets and personnel in the face of decreasing ad revenue. Considering these developments, is there a place for college and community radio? Do small, independent stations staffed by volunteers, places like WSUM and WORT 89.9 FM, have a future? And can college radio still provide an entry into the music industry like it did for Ravid?
Breaking into the industry
Kelsey Brannan, a senior in the UW's communications program, is optimistic about radio's future. She says her past year as WSUM's program director has convinced her that radio is not on life support.
"I've been hearing for years that radio is going to die, and that it's an awful industry to get into. And for a while, I believed that," she says.
So what changed her mind?
For starters, WSUM has given Brannan a hands-on education about the music industry, which she hopes will offer her a job after graduation. Before working at WSUM, she didn't realize how important radio still is to artists and labels.
"Radio and the rest of the music industry is very codependent," she says. "We depend on music, mostly free music, to stay current and relevant to our listeners. On the other hand, we're just as important to these record labels and artists."
Though WSUM is student-focused, it allows both students and community members to volunteer for on-air roles. Of the station's 200 DJs, about 75% are students, Brannan says, noting that at least 100 volunteers come to WSUM for training each semester. Half of those volunteers are interested in pursuing a career in broadcasting or media, she says. The other half are simply doing it for fun.
Self-service vs. full-service
Tom Teuber served as program director at Madison's 105.5 "Triple M" FM for 11 years and now hosts "Breakfast in Cheesetopia" on WSUM from 6 to 8 a.m. on Mondays. He says radio is experiencing the same upheaval as most other types of media. But that doesn't mean people aren't listening.
"The latest statistics from Arbitron, the company that surveys radio listening, show that 92% of the U.S. population listens to radio in an average week," Teuber says. "That's 242 million people. Their time spent listening has been holding steady at about two hours and 26 minutes a day."
Teuber compares modern radio stations to gas stations.
"A guy who probably knew a lot of his customers' names would pump the gas, clean the windshield, check the oil and the tire pressure," he says. "Today, it's all self-service. We're still going to gas stations as much as we always did, but it's a different experience."
But college and community radio have the opportunity to be more relevant, especially in exposing listeners to new music, he notes.
"And there is no substitute in any kind of radio for being live and local," he adds. "Stations like WSUM can be adventurous in their programming because they don't have the financial pressure of having to deliver a specific audience to an advertiser."
A conduit to Hollywood
Ravid, who now lives in Los Angeles and promotes up-and-coming bands, says college radio is still an incredible training platform for students preparing to move into the industry. And the Internet offers more, not less, opportunity for those students.
"Now you can do a show on WSUM and [have] it be heard all over the world," he says.
Ravid argues that college and community radio are still an important part of his marketing strategy as a promoter. As bands get airplay in college towns, on university-affiliated stations, those markets become integral to tours, he says. And music supervisors keep an eye on college radio charts, using them to place songs in television shows, movies and more.
Ravid hosts a program called "Go Deep with Bruce Rave," which he produces in L.A. It is broadcast there on Indie1031, and it also airs on WSUM from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. on Mondays. The show focuses on emerging rock artists.
"As commercial radio becomes more and more rigid, college radio continues to be this avenue of exposure for different kinds of music and different kinds of programming you're not going to hear otherwise," he says.
'Something new and interesting'
Mike Bailey, chair of Madison Media Institute's Entertainment and Media Business Program, spent 12 years as an A&R and marketing representative for EMI Music. He contends that college and community radio could be more vital to the music industry than ever before.
"With more artists not signing to major labels, there are more independent artists doing it themselves or on an independent label. They need community radio to kind of become the next Wilcos or Avett Brothers," he says.
Community and college radio, he adds, have a different audience from mainstream radio and therefore don't face the same sorts of challenges.
"There's crossover there, but mainstream radio fans turn on the radio expecting to hear a handful of songs within 15 to 30 minutes," he explains. "They know what they want to hear and want to hear it now. Community listeners tend to listen with a different purpose. They don't want to hear the same thing all the time, and they're open to discovering new, left-of-center, not particularly mainstream stuff."
When Bailey talks to listeners who don't use services like Pandora or Spotify, he often notices that they don't want to be an active participant in selecting their music. They want a filter, which is what community and college radio provide.
And, like many blogs and tech startups, these stations know how to use nerdiness to their advantage.
"Community radio is still run by music geeks in some way. Being a trusted filter to people is still a big thing," Bailey says.
Adventures in interactivity
Sybil Augustine, WORT's music director, says stations like hers have to work to stay relevant.
"We're a content provider," she explains. "One of the mechanical ways people would get [our content] would be a radio. Then there's tune-in radio apps, the type of apps you have on your phone or computer to listen to radio stations. If we have to rely only on radios, that technology is dwindling."
But staying on top of the latest technology is not easy. Over the years, expansion onto the web has brought more work for WORT's staff. It has also cost the station more money, without providing a jump in revenue, Augustine notes.
"We're at a crucial juncture, but we just need to find the way to make money," she says.
In spite of the challenges, she insists that community radio is more vital than ever because now it's connected to the rest of the world. At the same time, it's completely accessible to its core audience. This combination provides numerous opportunities for interacting with the station and its content.
"If someone is listening, wherever they might be, and they have a question or a comment, they can call in and get on the air, or tweet, or post it [on the Internet]," she says.