KCOU asserting individuality, independence

Monday, May 24, 2010 | 6:26 p.m. CDT; updated 2:56 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 28, 2010
Hip-hop artist Brother Ali performs at KCOU radio station April 29. KCOU is a student-owned and operated radio station that has been broadcasting at MU since 1963.

COLUMBIA — MU junior William Toney, who has listened exclusively to KCOU/88.1 FM on a daily basis since his freshman year, can pinpoint the college radio station’s appeal.

The Dial Goes Digital: A Timeline of KCOU

1961: KLOP broadcasts out of a broom closet in Cramer Hall. Eventually KLOP becomes KCCS.

1973: KCCS re-launches as KCOU on Halloween night with an all-student executive staff, marking the first FCC license ever issued to a student group, rather than a university administration.

1980: KCOU cements its niche by playing the latest in alternative and out-of-the-mainstream music.

1989: College Music Journal names KCOU “Best College Radio Station of the Year.”

1993: The Residence Halls Association shuts down KCOU and fires the entire staff following accusations of financial mismanagement. Now renamed KEJJ “The Edge,” the station switches to a Top 40 format. When listenership plunges, KCOU returns to its original format. 

1997: RHA attempts to merge KCOU with KBIA, a National Public Radio affiliate, and broadcast classical music. Negotiations stall amid protests by students and Columbia residents.   

1998: Missouri Students Association purchases KCOU from RHA for $80,000. KCOU approves the deal with the stipulation that its general manager is selected by KCOU staff and granted artistic control.

2008: KCOU begins streaming online at The station receives two Communicator awards for its 2008 presidential election night coverage.

2009: KCOU goes off the air in January to allow for renovations at Hudson Hall, home to the station’s tower and antenna. After some debate, MSA agrees to purchase a $30,000 transmitter atop Schurz Hall. Broadcasting resumes in July.    

2010: KCOU expands to Jefferson City and Kingdom City. The station is slated to move into the new MU Student Center in December. 

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“It’s the essence of audible stimulation,” Toney said. “From soul to world to hip-hop, they play all the music I listen to.”

Claiming “Spit Fresh Midwest” as his favorite KCOU program, he noted disc jockey Macy Pruitt’s penchant for persuading musicians to drop by for live studio appearances and spit out lyrics on the spot, or freestyle, as beats hum in the background. 

“You get to hear something that happens only once,” Toney said. “After I graduate, I might still listen to KCOU online.”

Adjusting the FM dial for any sort of stimulation, however, is no longer the cultural frame of reference it held for previous generations that could call out their favorite DJs by name.

“You look at playlists on commercial stations and feel insulted,” said Rev. Moose, vice president of content for CMJ Network, formerly College Music Journal, in New York. “College radio is still 1,000 percent more varied than anything you’ll find anywhere.”

As MU’s all-student, all-volunteer run station, KCOU prides itself on its eclectic rotation of tunes, as evidenced by the cartons of CDs and vinyl LPs lining the walls inside its studio in the basement of Pershing Hall.

“Most major radio stations are completely automated," Vinny Manning, KCOU production director, said. "They literally tell you they don’t care what you want them to play. College radio is the opposite. We care about people’s input. We feel we have an obligation to give back.”

In an ocean of podcasts, RSS feeds, digital playlists and media conglomerates, KCOU finds itself in the same boat as nearly every station — searching for a harbor of relevance and original content that a loyal audience can’t do without.   

Judging by trends in mid-Missouri, the task isn’t easy. Cumulus Media, which owns seven stations in the region, has steadily thinned the ranks of its on-air personalities as part of across-the-board cuts in the past few years. Dan Claxton was laid off from his job as news director at KFRU/1400 AM, one of Cumulus Media's stations, and Fred Parry's contract wasn't renewed. Parry had hosted "The Morning Meeting" with Simon Rose. 

Despite the market downwind, however, Rev. Moose says the digital age is rife with opportunity now that stations can broadcast over the Internet and be heard anywhere in the world. The only wild card is whether radio promoters can do what it takes to bring in listeners.  

“All of the excuses are out the window," he said. "You can be a kid with an iPod and get followers.”

Off and on the air

When KCOU announced in January 2009 that it was taking a hiatus, originally slated to last only through spring break, then-general manager John Dobson predicted the station would bounce back bigger than ever. Because of renovations at Hudson Hall, where KCOU transmitted its signal at the time, the station was forced to rely on its website to broadcast until a new tower could be secured.  

Then months came and went. Media reports detailed a clash between KCOU and MU’s Missouri Students Association, which helps secures the lion’s share of KCOU’s operating budget through the Student Fee Capital Improvement Committee. Some began to wonder whether the station was finished for good.  

To KCOU staff, the challenge was “convincing the school that we were important enough to fund,” said freshman Matt Brown, host of “The Kitchen Sink,” who joined KCOU within his first month of arriving at MU. “Money is always an issue for a noncommercial station on a college campus. But I think people are always willing to listen to a friendly DJ talk about music rather than just play songs or stick something in their face.”

If anything, the off-air publicity was a boon for the station, which saw a surge in student and community support. “Save KCOU” fliers and stickers began to circulate. The Blue Note joined in to help promotions. Fundraising efforts reached a record level of about $39,000 for the year. KCOU's Facebook page, "KCOU 88.1 FM" soon boasted 1,200 fans. (It now has 1,910 followers.)

Ultimately, the Missouri Students Association purchased a $30,000 tower for KCOU atop Schurz Hall — on the condition that KCOU reach financial self-sufficiency within five years. A previous Missourian article stated that MSA would decrease its contribution to KCOU by about 20 percent each year.

In July, KCOU finally returned to its normal frequency, 88.1 FM. MSA has allotted KCOU a proposed budget of $32,493 for the 2009-10 school year. Although dollars might have to be stretched, Hutcheson is confident that KCOU will be fiscally solvent through sponsorships, underwriting, private donations and funding provided by on-campus organizations at MU.

“It was a hard-fought battle but definitely makes what I feel is a success that much sweeter. Our relationship is great now,” said Jonathan Hutcheson, KCOU’s general manager and chief engineer. “I think we’re stronger as a group and better as a station than we’ve ever been.”

2010 and beyond

Now taglined “The Pulse,” taken from its weekday news program by the same name, KCOU has extended its reach on the dial to Jefferson City and Kingdom City. More than 4,000 listeners from eight countries including Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan tune in on the Web. Two KCOU course-credit internships per semester are offered through the MU department of communication. A potential iPhone application is being discussed by KCOU's executive staff

“We’re always at the forefront of breaking new music, mixed in with excellent news and sports coverage,” Hutcheson said. “If you want to catch a (live) women’s softball game, KCOU is where you go. The content mix is what sets us apart. I don’t think anyone out there does it quite like that.”

Key to KCOU’s rebound is promoting itself as a full-service brand, down to the free T-shirts and Frisbees handed out during giveaways at MU’s Speakers Circle.  

KCOU also has stepped up efforts to sponsor live entertainment, from residence hall dances and spring break after-parties to last week’s appearance of underground hip-hop artist Brother Ali. Before taking the stage at Mojo’s with fellow rappers Fashawn and BK-One, Ali paid the KCOU studio a visit for an interview and freestyle session.    

“Everything we get is sent by small, independent labels that don’t get the kind of marketing with EMI or SONY,” Manning said. “There’s no corporate or commercial oversight, so we get to decide. The vision is to be a truly independent force within the community of Columbia.”

Because of another round of campus renovations, KCOU will move to the new MU student center in December, a venture that will cost more than $140,000. Thanks to a combination of fundraising and grants, Hutcheson said that funds for the project have been secured, with more than $100,000 secured during his tenure.

And as with any college station, holding on to the talent amid a transient student population remains a perennial challenge. 

“I’m a walking advocate of getting involved in college radio," Hutcheson said. "You end up with friends for life, great stories and experiences. At the very least, you’ll end up with better musical tastes.”

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Glenn Rice May 25, 2010 | 8:36 a.m.

"This is Walter Johnson reminding you that the demand for good radio should be as inelastic as a glass rod."

Viva KCOU!

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