Back in the late 60's/early 70's, when AM was still king, the WRCT station at Carnegie-Mellon was ALL student run. It went FM shortly after I graduated, but I think it was (and likely is) all student run.
I got a 1st class radiotelephone license as part of that experience, learned a lot about audio and wiring. Even though I never worked in radio/TV afterward, I still run the A/V crew for my church.
The problem with this "trend" (quotes deliberate) is that if no one is getting that kind of experience, where are the audio engineers for the future coming from? Someone has to do that kind of work whether it's good old KPOO down the street or XM in the sky. There will always be jobs for someone to run a recording session, after all.
(Old audio engineer)
I volunteered at a college radio station (KFJC in Los Altos Hills, CA) for a couple of years and helped teach the introduction class. At KFJC the DJs and support staff had the opportunity to learn about the 'hardware' but very few did (other than the front-end audio). Power supplies and antennas were for the experts (one or two people only). We did train everyone in the fundamentals however, and this did include some basic signal chain theory. It was a good intro for the non-engineers...
I tend to agree with Frank. Much of the value of the college radio station was for those training to become Radio DJ's (and those are not usually engineers). Much of the practical "EE type" experience Bill mentions can be had by becoming a Ham Radio operator - wiring, power supplies, building antennas, cabling, etc.
Bill, I'm not sure how much hands-on engineering opportunity is actually being lost here. Certainly student volunteers can learn how to be a DJ, put together a newscast, mix audio and gain other radio operations skills, but I never heard of a student volunteer at a college radio station being allowed to mess around with wiring, power supplies, transmitters or antennas. The stations generally employ a real engineer for such things, most likely for liability reasons.
I'm not too certain about the statement "students [perform] troubleshooting, debugging, and improvisation". In this everything-is-a-niche world, it is likely that liability-crazy bureaucrats don't even allow tools in the room, lest an "unqualified individual" makes some alteration to the equipment.
I remember listening to KCPR (Cal Poly Radio) and it was part of the university experience. We had Wierd Al back then and it was pre-CD so FM broadcasts were considered Hi-Fi. My kids (two in universities and two in high school) DON'T listen to radio (although they do listen to and watch Conan, Dave, and Jay periodically, depending on who's on.) It's true that the DVR's and iPod's have put us in much more control of when and how we watch and listen. Even with my 1 hour commute each way, I don't EVER listen to radio. I have to much media "in my control."
Now it's video productions--it's common to make your own little broadcast via youtube and distribute....
It's always sad to see a valued and valuable technology fading, but I think it's inevitable. Things don't mean the same that they did years ago. What percentage of college students listen to college radio for how many hours a week now vs. a couple of decades ago? I don't know, but I suspect that it's a pair of considerably smaller numbers.
Bill outlines a number of real values to engineering students, but I doubt that those specific advantages are enough to keep the programs going in their current form.
It brings to mind the "Conan vs. Leno" brouhaha over the "Tonight Show" recently. To those involved, it was as serious and important as ever. To many, many of those on the outside, it was a debate not even worth following. The younger generation doesn't watch TV based on network time schedules. Other generations are learning to not care about network time schedules. The "Tonight Show" is becoming less and less relevant all the time.
I see it as the same with college radio. I spent many nights watching Carson after the news. College radio served a very valuable purpose. But that purpose is fading away.