Earlier this year, the FCC OK’d the sale of the KUSF college radio frequency to USC’s classical radio station. A woman named Brenda Barnes approached universities with the idea of making quick cash by selling off their college radio frequencies to classical music stations, which, GUYS, great strategy for student recruitment and professional development. Everyone brags about how awesome their college’s traditional classical station was, and, oh, is that Pachelbel FUCKING AGAIN! No, really, your strategy is despicable and short sighted, and you’re depriving your student body of valuable real-world experience and the ability to develop a passion for community activism and art or for any music that wasn’t composed more than a hundred years ago by a white man.
Anyhow, it’s National College Radio Station Week, and to show appreciation to the basements and studios where many of us in the music industry got our start, we’re talking with program director Kevin Yelvington of my alma mater, 89.1 WIDR-FM Kalamazoo, from lovely Western Michigan University. This sixty-year-old station was much more instrumental on my future than my actual undergraduate degree, so take note, colleges and universities across the country: We only went to your shitty school because of the radio station. Do not take it away. Also, WIDR taught me how to beer bong through a laundry chute with Bob Log III, so there’s that valuable lesson, as well.
VICE: Describe what you do at the station and take us through a typical workday.
Kevin Yelvington: I grew up near The Impact (88.9 WDBM-FM) and used to go in to the studios sometimes with some friends that DJ'd there, particularly on a program called “The Cultural Vibe,” which is what really got me interested in college/community radio in the first place. Program director is my second position within WIDR, I was the Music Director for about two years. Right now, I am in charge of recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and training our DJs. I have to make sure they're doing their jobs and that they're happy, while helping them develop their shows if necessary. I'm also in charge of ticket giveaways or interviews and maintaining our event calendar. Then I have shared responsibilities with the rest of the board of directors, which generally includes planning and executing events, or developing and maintaining strategies.
A typical day for me almost always begins with me checking on the new music. The nice thing about being program director vs. music director is that now I get to pick and choose what I like and want to listen to. I always pick out a few albums or download some of the digitally serviced records and check what's being serviced in the next few weeks, and then I blare them in my office and look over the transmitter logs to make sure that all of the transmitter readings were taken correctly. After that I check my email/voicemail—the DJs might need a sub, a new idea for a program, a special guest, or something like that. Throughout the day, I'm looking for pretty much any opportunity to do promotions or gain visibility in the community or on campus. Ideally, we send both listeners (via giveaways) and WIDR employees to every show that might be attended by a potential listener.
Other than that there's not really a typical day. Currently we're facing huge budget cuts and the challenge of trying to get the university to implement a student media fee, so we can continue to get the funding to survive. Because that's such a big thing for the future of WIDR, my schedule is filled with meetings and all of our minds are constantly thinking of ways that we can become stronger to prove we're worth supporting.
The station has provided a valuable means for students and the community to gain experience in professional media for sixty years, yet the university has continually threatened to pull the fucking funding. Have you heard about what happened with KUSF in San Francisco? How does that threat affect you when you're, say, gearing up to attend the college radio mecca of CMJ?
Oh man the KUSF story was scary for all of us. I actually was able to attend the CMJ conference last year and went to a panel about college radio stations being sold off, and a former KUSF director was on the panel and told his story of how it happened, which I remember finding more terrifying than the articles I read. It affects me everyday, because it was the first thing that really drove home the fact that college and community radio stations are in decline. Before the KUSF story, I had never even considered the possibility of such a thing happening. Obviously WIDR and KUSF are two different stations in different situations, but it's still pretty scary.
Will you be going to CMJ again this year, or is that a luxury? How important is it to network with other college radio stations?
Unfortunately, I will not be attending CMJ this year. Due to budget cuts it became a luxury quite a while ago. I was only able to go last year because I won my badge in a contest and had a place to stay at a former WIDR GM's place. It is unfortunate because I think it's extremely important to network with other college radio stations. I learned a lot of really valuable things at CMJ and met some great people who I still talk to. After CMJ last year I went to some other college radio stations in Michigan to see how they ran things and how they were funded, which has been incredibly beneficial to us. The problems that WIDR is having aren't nearly as unique to us as I had thought, even much larger stations with much more funding are facing similar problems, so it makes a lot of sense to network and talk to them.
I noticed that WIDR moved to streaming in addition to the broadcast. Was there any resistance to moving to a streaming format combination, or was it embraced?
The streaming format was embraced, for a few reasons. First of all, it allows you to listen to WIDR on your smartphone or computer, and as much as some people like to pretend it isn't true, that's where most people are listening to music these days. Secondly, it is really seen as supplemental to our radio broadcasts. If we were to move to a purely online format, I'm sure there would be plenty of resistance, because, after all, what is radio without a radio broadcast? However, if we do move to a streaming format only, I'm sure it will be out of necessity, like KUSF, and there won't really be anything we can do about it.
Can we ask how much you make?
We had six paid positions earlier this year. Business and Promotions were cut, so now we're offering internship credits for those guys. I am paid about minimum wage (<$8). However, I love it. I always half-joke about how I will probably never in my life have a job that I like as much as working at WIDR. Plus I never have to spend money on music or concerts.
WIDR week happens every March. In 2004, we ended up pulling in nearly $20,000 to cover the cost of the station operations in a single week, and I know the numbers since have been hovering somewhere around $16,000 in pledges from members of the community. Is $16,000 still enough to run a radio station?
We can still rely on donations. In fact, most of our donations are pulled in by DJs who were on air when you were here, so I'd be willing to bet that many of the donors are the same as well. A lot of people seem to think that our famous WIDR alumni like Jack Clifford
[Food Network founder], Tim Allen [grunting guy from the 90s], Terry Crews, or Greg Jennings [football dudes and actors on Old Spice commercials] are going to swoop down and save us by providing funding, but I have my doubts. If you know how to get in contact with any of those people, let me know. People always ask me why I haven't called Mr. Clifford like I'm somehow supposed to have his number on file from 1953 or something. We could probably run our station on donations, and other college stations certainly could, but for us it'd be an all-volunteer staff and it would only take one thing like a fine or a broken soundboard to end us. Currently we're on schedule to be “self-sufficient” in two years, which is what we're trying to avoid by implementing a student media fee.
What’s the “student media fee,” and is this where college radio is heading?
The proposed student media fee is basically a way to get funding for not only WIDR, but other student-run media organizations like the Western Herald. The details are still being worked out, but essentially this fee would result in an extremely small increase in student tuition specifically to help fund student media organizations. The fee would probably be refundable upon request. Many other college radio stations have some version of this that they rely on for funding.
Many WIDR alums have gone on to work for major national and international media outlets, the station being a confidence builder and jumping-off point for a career in media. What are your plans for the future? Is your education at the WIDR offices more important than your college education?
It's funny you should mention that, because I say that all the time. It's not that my education isn't important, but I've learned so much here that's applicable to the real world, because it's in the real world and we're facing very real problems here. In fact, if it weren't for WIDR, I probably wouldn't be doing as well in school as I am now, and maybe wouldn't be going to school altogether. I really want to get in to licensing, advertising, or promoting, really any job where I can still blare music at my desk. I haven't quite figured out exactly what yet, which is a bummer because that time is fast approaching. It's true, though, WIDR is a pretty small station, but our people are everywhere.
You said earlier that you don't have to pay for much music anymore, because that's a major perk of working at the station. Do you think your friends still pay for all their music and the shows they go to?
Haha, no. Shows probably, but concert venues generally have bouncers to make sure of that.
You dang kids [shaking fist]. No, seriously. Tell your friends to fucking pay for music. I'm spreading the word. Do you think the music industry is dying?
I don't think the music industry is dying at all. I know a lot of people that will actually insist on paying for music even if it's readily available illegally. I think the traditional business model of the music industry is going to change quite a bit though until someone figures out what really works. Take Lil B, for example. He simultaneously released "I'm Gay" for sale and for free download, and honestly that may have generated more sales for him. Plus, things like music festivals are more popular than ever. Illegal downloading and file sharing might be a problem for the music industry, but eventually people will figure out how to solve it in a way that satisfies consumers.
Another interviewee for this column (and WIDR alum) said that musicians have forgotten how to put a value on what they create. For his label, he said he'd sell a limited edition vinyl for $100 if an artist wanted, as long as that's the value they placed on it. His fear is that if you don't value what you create, then nobody else will. What's your favorite band, and how much would you pay for one of their records?
My favorite two artists are Flying Lotus and Samiyam. Flying Lotus actually released an album yesterday, which I would certainly be willing to pay full retail price for, more for vinyl. However, the two of them have a little project together called FLYamSAM that I would be willing to pay pretty much anything for if they would ever put it out. Also it's important to keep in mind that I make about minimum wage. If I had a lot of disposable income I would certainly be willing to pay much more.
So probably not $100 for a single, then, huh. Maybe someone will hire you and pay you a bunch of money to listen to music. Crazier things have happened.
When I was at the station, the music director put a little-known release in rotation by a hip-hop group called The Black-Eyed Peas. Two years later, their shit blew up, albeit, their sound clearly changed drastically. But this is just one example of many times when the station took a chance on putting something in the rotation, even though nobody had heard anything about it (in retrospect, this could have been a mistake), and the next year, the band had a big-label deal. Do you think it's still possible for college radio to have that impact on the big picture of the music industry, like actually launching the careers of megastars, when so many digital sharing sites have new and obscure music readily available for listening already?
If there are any potential employers who ever read this and are looking to pay someone a bunch of money to listen to music, I certainly hope they contact me.That kind of thing with the Black-Eyed Peas happens fairly frequently, the two most recent examples are Fun. and Gotye, but I also remembering hearing M.I.A. on my local college radio station back in high school. I think college radio can definitely have an impact on launching a career, particularly since a lot of college DJs are running music blogs and sharing their favorite music via social networks. Students usually take to college radio as a way to express themselves and share their favorite music, so they're going to be doing the same things on the internet. If something is blowing up on the CMJ charts, it's probably going to be enough for other people to take notice, but at the same time I'd say that college radio plays an important part in a much larger picture.
In five years, what will have happened to college radio?
That's kind of a crazy question, and I'm sure there are people out there who are much more qualified to attempt to speculate on the subject than me, but I'll give it a shot. There a lot of people out there who believe that either college radio will be dead in five years, or it will never die. For some reason I rarely meet someone who puts things into a reasonable timeline. There are college stations that will not exist in five years, or have gone the way of KUSF to an all-streaming format, but there are college stations that will be around for much longer than that as well. There are also going to be stations that find alternate sources of revenue like concerts or something more creative to fund their radio broadcasting. It won't be the end, though, not by a long shot.