A recent article in The New York Times, click here (free, but registration may be required), claimed that college radio stations were losing their administration support and funding for a variety of reasons. The major ones were tighter budgets, of course, but also major technology changes—increasingly, students now get their music from non-radio sources such as the web, iTunes (or similar legal and bootleg sites), and other venues. Certainly, even if all or most of the labor at such stations is "free", there are still very real costs for equipment and studio space, and those transmitters can run up some serious electric bills.
[A caveat here: I am always skeptical of such "trend" articles, since the eager author usually takes one or two data points or facts, and then conveniently extrapolates them to a desired endpoint. [There's even a saying that when journalists count, they go "one, two, trend" and that to some journalists, the plural of "anecdote" is "trend." I won't argue here about how pronounced or genuine this particular trend actually is.]
The article focused on the impact on music of having fewer such stations, as there would be a reduced number of outlets and potential audiences for new and independent musicians, performers, and bands. My concern is in a different direction than the effect on new music and aspiring artists. College radio stations are a good place to get solid engineering experience, spanning power, audio, and even RF. A staffer—usually a student volunteer—is exposed to:
- installation, setup, and wiring of AC and AC/DC power;
- power supplies and distribution;
- audio control and mixing;
- microphones, preamplifiers and amplifiers;
- a wide variety of interfaces;
- working and fixing problems under real-time, on-air pressure;
- and transmitter and antenna issues.
Many stations also have web sites and software-driven equipment and even programming, so there's an opportunity to learn about modifications and enhancements there, as well. In addition, staffers often work on setting up live-music performances with all that they require, including last-minute crises and problems. Further, it's a chance to work with those who have a non-engineering perspective on things, for better and worse.
Best of all, students get to work on that most challenging of engineering disciplines, and one for which there is absolutely no substitute for experience, namely, real-world troubleshooting, debugging, and improvisation (and very often, under pressure).
What's your view? Are college radio stations an asset to the engineering-student experience? Or are they a fading relic, developing outdated skills and habits that engineers either no longer need as much, or can get elsewhere? ?