Thursday, May 21, 2009

College Radio in Sin City: BEA Conference Report by Kyle Barnett

Vegas at Night
Photo by Alex Koch

One of my frustrations as a blogger is that I can't be everywhere that I want to be. Recently, I've missed a bunch of college radio and indie music-related conferences that I'm sure would have been both fun and full of fodder for Spinning Indie.

So, I'm grateful to my friend Kyle Barnett for being my eyes and ears at last month's Broadcast Education Association (BEA) conference in Las Vegas. Kyle and I met in Bowling Green, Ohio back in the late 1990s when we were both grad students and college radio DJs at WBGU. I'm always drawn to people who are not only music fans, but also enjoy theorizing about it, so we were fast friends. And now, Kyle's got one of the coolest jobs in the world. Not only is he a bona fide academic, but he's also the faculty advisor of the college radio station, Bellarmine Radio, at Bellarmine University in Kentucky.

Thanks to Kyle and his crew for sharing their tales from Sin City!

Bellarmine Radio Folks Alex and Nick and NAB
Photo by Kyle Barnett

BEA Conference Report
by Kyle Barnett

I arrived in Las Vegas from Louisville for the Broadcast Education Association (BEA) conference in late April, with two undergraduates from Bellarmine University, where I teach media studies classes and serve faculty advisor of Bellarmine Radio. With me was Nick Mattingly, the station’s incoming station manager and Alex Koch, program director. I had wanted to attend BEA for a few years; in part to expose my students to what else is happening in college radio, and in part to find out what those stations were doing on the Internet. Like many newer campus stations, Bellarmine Radio is an Internet-only operation, for now (more on that later). We started from the premise that college courses should introduce you to new ideas and that college radio should do the same. You start reading different books at college, why shouldn’t you start listening to different songs? We headed to BEA in hopes of hearing from others about their experiences with college radio, particularly those also on the Internet.

Photo by Alex Koch

The BEA conference is part of a series of events tied to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) annual convention, itself a flurry of activity, with panels and exhibitors from the around the world. For the first few days, the “NAB show” overlaps with the BEA conference. The choice of the word “show” is no accident. The event is designed to dazzle. Exhibitors entice attendees with the latest this-or-that, from radio automation software to ultra high definition television to 3D images and sounds. Students from James Madison University created this video while at the conference.

Photo by Alex Koch

The Broadcast Education Association conference, the academic wing of an otherwise big-money industry event, seems modest in comparison. Though most know Las Vegas as Sin City, it is also Conference City. Each year, Las Vegas is at or near the top of the list for cities with the greatest convention business. However, it doesn’t follow that conferences in Las Vegas are necessarily robust or vibrant. The problem at BEA – and countless other conferences, I’m sure – is that the call of the Vegas strip is too great for most people to stay put. We too hit the casinos; don’t get me wrong. But for too many the week’s recipe was: Go to your panel, give your paper, and forget the conference.

Photo by Kyle Barnett

Despite this, BEA did have its stalwarts – and interesting presentations. “The Benefits and Potential of Internet Radio” panel led to an interesting discussion, centered on varying opinions about whether web radio should retain or jettison a sense of localism (my answer is a resounding yes, which is why I find satellite radio’s lack of place so bothersome). For some on the panel they found a perceived “death of localism” as freeing, while I enjoy experiencing “local” radio from near and far, via the web. For me, localism still defines radio, even in the digital age).

Harrah's Mens Room
Photo by Kyle Barnett

At the “Convergence on a Dime: Student Media Migration to the Web” panel, there was also a lot of talk about using the Internet to promote radio stations and to aggregate content between student media forms (radio, television, print). Like many Internet college radio stations, we’ve experienced the strange fact that we have listeners from St. Louis to Shanghai but are still largely unknown in the city of Louisville. The web can potentially solve that, but we also left the conference aware that we’re just one needle in an ever-expanding haystack.

Surprisingly, there was little discussion of musical content, genres, or formats. Most of those presenting at BEA were faculty advisors, whom seemed more teaching technological skills and encouraging professionalization. I’m sure a college radio conference (preferably one where students were better represented in the conversation) would have had much more discussion on music. The topic of format rarely came up, though there were some interesting exceptions. We learned that Belmont University’s cable radio station, The Voice, only features musical content from its music students (!). What was perhaps most troubling was that when format was considered, it was often in the service of appealing to alumni, whose dollars are more important to universities than ever, in an era of dwindling federal funding and tighter purse strings.

Bellarmine Radio Folks in Las Vegas
Photo by Kyle Barnett

As for my students, they came away from BEA energized and feeling good about what we were doing. Since arriving at Bellarmine in 2006, the students and I dismantled a classic rock format inherited from my predecessor, partnered with a low-power FM station that carried our signal, and is now investigating the possibilities of our signal being carried via HD Radio – a move that other college radio stations are considering with a mix of excitement and trepidation.

We came away feeling ahead of the curve in terms of college radio on the web. On the other hand, we had a vague sense of concern, too – over growing pressures to “professionalize” college radio, to take it out of the hands of students, reducing radio to an exercise in job training or public relations. The people who understand the importance of college radio, its larger educative and democratic promise, know how much more it can be. After our trip to BEA, we left with a stronger sense that we in college radio will need to work harder at protecting what we’ve created.

Thanks Kyle for a great report!

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