In this age of iTunes and MP3 players, radio as a broadcast medium is often forgotten or brushed aside as ancient history. Music lovers immerse themselves in a world of their own music, many forgoing the opportunity to expand their horizons and explore the unique programs that can be offered through radio.
But is radio dead, as some would say? The staff and supporters at the University of Wisconsin’s student radio station, WSUM, say radio is far from waning. WSUM is a freeform radio station, a station without a designated genre of music or talk, in which disc jockeys have full reign over what is aired during their show as long as it complies with Federal Communications Commission regulations.
Madison student radio became WSUM in ’96, and started on-air broadcasting Feb. 22, 2002.
“We went on the Internet in 1996 [before we broadcast on the radio], so that was helpful,” said Dave Black, WSUM’s general manager. “We had some kind of transmission … It kept people enthused and doing shows.”
WSUM broadcasts online at wsum.org, as well as on FM radio in the Madison area on 91.7 FM. Black estimates that listening rates for WSUM hover around 14,000 to 15,000 listeners per year on the Internet and about 60,000 to 70,000 listeners per year on the radio.
“We have 24/7 live programming, so that means someone is on the air every hour,” said Y Mae Sussman, WSUM’s station manager.
This time is filled with up to 140 unique programs — including 16 talk shows — with each program lasting one or two hours.
With so many opportunities for different tastes in music, the assortment of genres played on WSUM is endless. Sussman, a UW junior with majors in communication arts and French, hosts “Scandalous!” a weekly show aired Fridays 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
“My show features] mostly Scandinavian pop, electronic, folk and rock,” Sussman said. “A lot of [Scandinavian music] is really good.”
Another distinctive program on WSUM is “Mario Bandstand,” hosted by Trevor Masse Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. In his show, the UW junior features video game music, offering yet another unique repertoire.
“The first thing I decide is if I want to do a theme show, like maybe I’ll do [Mario Bros.] Boss Battle music or something like that,” Masse explained. “Sometimes if there’ll be a new video game, I’ll try and find music from that and then I’ll kind of do my show like based around that new video game music. A lot of times I’ll just do kind of random video game music.”
But those who aren’t familiar with the wide variety of game music available, Masse has 300 hours — about 12 days — of video game music to choose from for his program.
“For one video game there might be three hours of music,” Masse said. “So there’s a lot more variety [than a typical performing artist’s repertoire] and so it’s not as easy to get repetitive.”
But WSUM isn’t devoted to music alone. Nisse Lovendahl, a senior majoring in international studies, is WSUM’s news director and hosts “Show Yourself,” a program on the American lifestyle. Primarily, Lovendahl’s show, which airs from 1 to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays, focuses on local affairs and occasional national issues, such as the ’08 primary presidential election.
“I do a sort of current affairs, news, human interest show with music,” Lovendahl said. “I go through the week’s news stories, sort of sum up what’s happened in the last week, go through the day’s news and … have an interview with someone on campus or someone related to a current event.”
Aside from filling the airwaves with music and news, WSUM is also active in bringing live events to the community. WSUM has sponsored and organized Madison’s annual Snake on the Lake Fest (formerly the Party in the Park) since 1999. The music festival, which last year moved to the Memorial Union Terrace from James Madison Park, welcomed Pale Young Gentlemen, The German Art Students and The Ponys, among other performers in 2007. This year’s Snake on the Lake Fest is projected for late September.
Despite WSUM’s involvement in Madison and the extensive array of musical genres and talk shows, many students pay little attention to — or aren’t even aware of — the radio station’s existence on the UW campus. Yet, WSUM still manages to attract a multitude of students at any experience level and area of study who have an interest in becoming a DJ.
“We’re open to … any student willing to complete training,” Sussman explained, “[Training usually] lasts a little over a month to two months, and after that if they submit a program proposal to our programming director and … if that’s all good, then they can get a show, either talk or music.”
Furthermore, involvement in WSUM’s broadcast is not limited to students who anticipate a future in broadcasting.
“Ninety-five percent of the people who come to work at WSUM, or any other college radio station, are not going to work in radio as a profession,” Black said.
Black added that working with mass media production makes individuals more educated about the media that incessantly surround us. “Once you see how media are made, then you know how to be critical of the media that you see, and you demand better.”
According to the 2006 U.S. census, radio still plays a large role in our lives. In fact, the census indicated that the average American adolescent and adult spends about 41 days per year listening to the radio, compared to 64 days watching television and seven days on the Internet.
Additionally, Clear Channel Communications, which encompasses about 1,200 radio stations nationwide, stated in 2007 they have approximately 110 million listeners who tune into their radio stations per week.
So, despite Americans’ somewhat ambivalent attitude toward this medium, it seems radio is here to stay.
“It may be that music radio will decline, but I think talk radio and the informational, conversation kind of thing will continue, either broadcast or online audio, but the basic function of the companion will always be with us,” said Jack Mitchell, a UW journalism and mass communications professor.
Mitchell added that because radio is so versatile and accessible, it will not be replaced by portable music players or the similar.
“I think radio will always be with us,” Mitchell continued. “Live audio will be with us for a long time because, if television didn’t kill it, I don’t think anything will.”
Listen to your fellow students at WSUM on the radio at 91.7 FM or online at wsum.org.