Word reached me the other day that my college alma mater’s radio station, WMHD at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, is permanently shutting down its transmitter and will only stream on the Internet from now on. I guess it was inevitable. I don’t think college kids really listen to the radio anymore.
That wasn’t true a quarter century ago when I was a student. The iPod and Pandora were way off in the future – and more importantly, so was industry deregulation, which led to big companies gobbling up stations and watering down their programming so much that there’s no compelling reason to listen.
Radio was once a strong drive among Rose-Hulman students. It started in 1969 when students built a carrier-current AM station they called WRTR. The signal ran through the campus’s electrical system; you had to plug your radio into the wall to pick it up. But students dreamed of over-the-air broadcasting on FM. In 1981, after completing a bunch of engineering studies and filling out a pile of FCC paperwork, they got their license.
By the time I reached Rose-Hulman in 1985, WMHD was an active, thriving station. I joined the dozens of students who did weekly two-hour air shifts. There were enough of us that we were on the air from 7 am to 1 am on weekdays, and 24 hours a day on the weekends. We were a free-format station – you always heard whatever music the student on the air wanted to play. We hardly sounded professional, but none of us cared much. Listeners could hear the fun we were having.
Unfortunately, that listenership was small, thanks largely to our weak signal. At 160 watts, WMHD could be heard only within about two miles of campus. (We did get request-line calls from inmates at the federal penitentiary way across town, though. I never figured out how they heard us!) We yearned for a signal that covered the city.
It happened in 2003 when a religious broadcaster wanted to build a station that would interfere with WMHD’s signal. They paid to move the station to a new frequency and increase power to 1,400 watts. At last, you could hear WMHD all over Terre Haute!
But it was for nothing. Every time since then that I’ve visited Terre Haute and tuned to WMHD, I heard nothing but music, with no DJs ever. I don’t know why they didn’t fully staff the broadcast day, but I do know that they increasingly relied on some software that a student wrote to automate the station. Meanwhile, the station started streaming on the Internet. You can hear it here, if you want, but I wouldn’t bother. What’s the point of a radio station that’s just an iPod full of somebody else’s favorite music?
Because I found work in Terre Haute after I graduated in 1989, I kept doing weekly air shifts at WMHD into the early 1990s. Here’s 45 minutes of one of my last shifts, from January, 1992. You’ll hear my favorite music at the time, which was heavily influenced by 1970s progressive rock. Even if you aren’t a prog-rock fan, I think you’ll find this to be very listenable – because I took great care to mix the songs well, creating good transitions based on mood, key, and tempo; and because I came on the air from time to talk to you, which made it personal.
A lot of things have to happen to make a radio station viable, including a good signal and strong promotions to attract listeners. But once you get listeners to tune in, what keeps them there is compelling programming. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think that the magic formula has never changed: it’s about the people on the air as much as or more than the music that is played. It’s people that make radio fun and interesting. When a station forgets that, it quickly slides into obscurity and irrelevancy. That’s what happened at WMHD. That’s what much of the industry is doing to itself. It’s no wonder kids today don’t listen to the radio.
I did the morning show on WMHD for a couple years. Hear it here.