Of transmission and transition: KCOU prepares for its future

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 | 6:49 p.m. CST; updated 11:31 a.m. CST, Thursday, November 20, 2008
MU freshmen Lisa Grelle and Aaron Casias work as announcers at the KCOU/88.1 FM Thursday morning show from 6 - 8 a.m. KCOU is a student owned and operated radio station that broadcasts a variety of content, including news coverage and an eclectic mix of music genres.

COLUMBIA – When Jonathan Hutcheson moved to Columbia, he didn’t want to have anything to do with college radio.

“I had kind of intentionally stayed away from finding out anything about it,” said Hutcheson, who was station manager for Arizona State University’s college radio station when he was an undergraduate. “I was concerned that I might get pulled back in because it is a real passion of mine, and I love doing it. There’s nothing quite like it that I’ve been involved with so far.”

Informal KCOU survey

110 Listeners filled out a survey about listening habits and favorite music on KCOU's website Oct. 27–31.

In an average week respondents tune in:

2+ hours – 34%
1-2 hours – 15.5%
10-2 minutes – 13.6%
40-60 minutes – 12.6%
20-30 minutes – 12.6%
up to 10 minutes – 11.7%

Compared to other radio stations, respondents listen to KCOU:

More than other stations – 63.2%
Same as other stations – 22.6%
Less than other stations – 14.2%

Respondents tune into KCOU for
Music – 84%
Everything – 23%
Talk shows – 13%
News – 9%
Sports – 6%
Win tickets – 6%

Source: Jonathan Hutcheson

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Within a few weeks of discovering MU's student station KCOU, he became the station’s chief engineer. Hutcheson, a third-year law student, is also the program director for the station; he saw a lot of things he wanted to change at KCOU.

He moved KCOU to digital broadcasting and began streaming it online. He also made changes to the staff training program. His overall goal was to improve KCOU’s sound quality and listenership.

“It was obvious to me that a majority of people involved were suffering from the fact that they were never properly trained,” said Hutcheson “At some point in history, the ball got dropped. You could hear that on the airwaves.”

Established in 1963, KCOU-FM is not unusual among U.S. college radio stations It has a  non-commercial license, so it can't sell ads to generate revenue. Like other college radio stations, its 430-watt signal isn't strong enough to have a regional distribution. And like other college radio stations, it has predictable four-year turnover rates, which often leave it with little organization and stability.

The Missouri Students Association bought KCOU from the Residence Halls Association in 1998 for $80,000 and is still paying yearly installments for the station. But the big questions about KCOU's future came into focus in September, when KCOU came to the MSA senate requesting funds for a new tower. The request sparked questions concerning KCOU’s value to MU students.

In October, MSA executives expressed their support for the station and allocated funds to buy KCOU a new tower. But MSA’s executive staff also decided KCOU should stand on its own, leaving supporters of MU's student-run station with real challenges: strengthening the station's organization, attracting new listeners and finding new sources of revenue.

An amicable divorce

“(MSA) President Jim Kelley’s mindset right now, I think is a good one, is that the student government should be an advocate for the student body,” said John Dobson, KCOU general manager. “Their (MSA executives') core competency is advocacy, not running a radio station.”

With KCOU's separation from MSA, the next few years are especially crucial. The station currently receives about $36,000 a year from student fees, via MSA, to finance the station.

Under MSA, KCOU has a part-time faculty adviser, but that may change. Although the details haven’t been finalized, within the next five years MSA wants to completely rid itself of KCOU financially and otherwise by reducing the budget KCOU receives by about 20 percent each year.

The change leaves Dobson with worries about the station’s financial future.

“You know, if a bad year came around, we had a bad crop of students or something, and they didn’t raise enough money, then it could mean the end of the station,” he said.

Longtime announcer Scott Hanson, who has been with KCOU since 1999, said turnover is a problem.

“With college radio, unless you happen to have a graduate student as the general manager, you pretty much turn over the whole staff every three or four years,” Hanson said. “Most people don’t come in in their freshman year — they kind of discover KCOU later.”

Hutcheson said that at the end of the day, the station needs to be sustainable. The best way to deal with the “revolving door” of students is to have a path of advancement through which students start as freshman and earn management positions as seniors.

“By having that progression, waiting in the wings each year is another set of individuals who have put in time, have the experience, have new ideas, and are ready to take on that additional responsibility,” Hutcheson said. “That’s how we approached it [at ASU].”

An adviser would also minimize the impact student turnover has on KCOU, but that would require the budget for a full-time salary.

Adviser helps KU radio

At KU, student media fees pay the salary of the student radio station’s full-time adviser. But KJHK station manager Elise Stawarz said one of the station’s biggest challenges remains financing.

The station, which won 11 awards from the Kansas Association of Broadcasters last year, is owned by KU, but under Student Union Activities, similar to how KCOU is an auxiliary of MSA. Student media fees pay the salary of a full-time adviser.

The station is about to move to a new building, just as KCOU may move to Brady Commons when the new building opens. KJHK took out a loan to help with the move, but the station is also funded by underwriting and an endowment fund.

 “It is definitely coming from a lot of different places to make it work,” Stawarz said. “The nice thing is we have a lot of support from the campus community because people are excited about making this happen.”

KJHK raises $45,000 each year through underwriting. KCOU currently has no programs underwritten, though a new business staff has begun seeking out business owners to sponsor the station. KCOU works with local businesses. They promote places such as Ragtag and the Blue Note in exchange for free tickets to give away to listeners.

Dobson said with a full-time adviser KCOU could also be underwritten. But with a part-time adviser the most money the station can hope to raise through underwriting is $10,000 to $15,000.

KCOU has other options. Recently, the station started a mobile disc jockey service to work events to help raise funds and awareness for the station. The station also launched a "Save KCOU" campaign at the beginning of October, and served as disc jockeys at Shiloh Bar &Grill on Nov. 7. A portion of the proceeds went into KCOU’s gift account.

Financing and station awareness go hand-in-hand. To promote the station, KJHK throws a station birthday party, hosts events including battles of the bands and prints a CD compilation of local artists, which the station gives away for free.  

Hutcheson did similar marketing at ASU. One of the first events he put together was a showcase of local music talent in Phoenix. The success of the events is two-fold: they promotes the station and turns bands into steadfast supporters.

Is anyone listening?

But the question the MSA senate asked KCOU remains: Are enough people listening to the station to make it worth students' money? Two years ago, an Arbitron listenership survey showed KCOU had 3,000 listeners a week. But the survey did not include “transients,” a category that includes college students.

 KCOU's online listenership is 120 unique listeners per day and 320 total listeners per day, but there is no current research of the station's total. In an informal survey conducted between 2:15 and 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 14 in Brady Commons, 60 of 100 MU students queried said they had heard of KCOU. Of that number, 24 said they listen to the station.

In comparison, a KJHK listenership survey found that 292 of 993 KU students queried said they listen to the station, while 224 said they were not aware of the station.

The station's importance to the community deserves greater recognition, said Richard King, owner of the Blue Note. He said the Blue Note's relationship with KCOU, which began in the early 1980s, was one of the first and most important relationships the Blue Note formed. In the 1990s, KCOU didn’t show as much interest in being promotional partners with the Blue Note; now, King is thinking about underwriting KCOU shows again.

King said he has always kept KCOU on his dial. “I’ve noticed in the last month, in my opinion, a rejuvenation of sorts,” he said. “I think it is a huge resource in the community that I feel has been way underutilized.”

MP3 players and satellite radio have had an impact on radio. But a 2008 study by Paragon Media Strategies shows that college radio is still alive. Listenership among 14- to 24-year-olds is up from a year ago.

KCOU's Hanson said there is still a place for radio because stations fill different niches, and not everyone has an MP3player or satellite radio.

“The online environment is really starting to change how people listen to the radio,” Hanson said. “But radio is inexpensive, it can reach people.”

Hutcheson is optimistic about the changes the station is undergoing.

"There's a recognition for those who have given us another listen that it's an entirely different station than it was even just last semester," Hutcheson said.

"Even though there's been a lot of challenges over at KCOU, especially this year, I'm excited about what's going on inside and out of the station."

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Joe Lopez November 19, 2008 | 11:21 a.m.

KCOU has great music and is so much fun to listen to. Brady Commons and the MU Rec Center should broadcast KCOU over their speakers.

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