The Potential Futures of USIU Radio

By Jade-Candice Wambui

There is a lot that can be said about life two years after the COVID-19 pandemic. A lifetime’s worth of stories, books, movies, and more will be written and created to chronicle one of the wildest, life-altering moments in global human history. One thing that the pandemic individually and collectively resulted in for many of us is the opportunity for pause, questioning, reflection, and the chance to “begin again” amid this worldwide limbo. Holding these two contradicting realities simultaneously can be difficult, but they are truths many are navigating. I would like to think that at this point, USIU Radio is an entity that also has the unique opportunity to be re-imagined and re-invented to meet its listeners where they are. So, what exactly could this look like?

Potential Future #1: The Commercialization of USIU Radio
Commercialization has been a hot topic and route taken by many university campus radio stations in recent years. Commercialization in this case entails turning USIU Radio into a profit-making entity to make the radio station financially independent and self-sustaining. This is where the work of the USIU Radio Taskforce steps in, along with student input, to deliberate and decide on the best way forward.

Another goal with the station’s commercialization would be to bring it to par with technological advancements currently shaping the global media landscape. On this, Wilfred Kidula commented, “In terms of radio, currently the trend is converged media. So, it is not just audio. We’re currently transmitting analog, so we’re thinking of [having] a digital studio that is commercial and is converged, meaning you don’t have to get a transistor radio (the ones we have for FM stations). You can still listen to us via online radio, you can still have us on Facebook and Twitter. With the model we have in mind, we’re thinking about what Vybez FM and NRG are doing. We are thinking along those lines.”

On the one hand, USIU Radio’s commercialization can be argued to have certain benefits. In time, it will enable USIU Radio to generate revenue that can be used in financially sustaining and growing the radio station. Another major gain would be, as a commercially licensed station, it will be able to reach a much larger nationwide and even international audience. On the other hand, it does carry its fair share of certain drawbacks; one of the most significant being the impact and influence of commercial and investor interests. This will likely result in significant hindrances in students’ abilities to express themselves, especially if their perspectives go against these larger interests. Advertisements will probably need to take precedence over radio conversations and music to generate more revenue. Plus, the radio station’s management structure will likely look very different. On this, Professor Cherutich said, “It would mean removing it a little bit from the student management [system] because it means we’ll have to hire a full-time manager and possibly a few staff members who would professionally run the station.” Could this spell the end of USIU Radio, the community radio station, as we know it?

Not likely. With going commercial, the goal would be to have USIU Radio ‘the national radio station’ while still holding on to the community station. Mr. Kidula highlighted that the university would apply for a national radio license while still keeping its current community radio license, “Initially we were thinking we just move to this other one, but we felt like we would disadvantage some of the students. Because some students just want to explore and see what will happen. Now if someone is just interested in seeing what will happen, we won’t take them to the commercial one because there will of course be costs involved. We’d rather maintain the community station for all the ‘newbies,’ so to speak. Once you’ve found yourself, then we can take you to the commercial one,” he notes.

Moreover, USIU Radio is first and foremost a training facility for students, therefore, it would only make sense to keep the community radio station for training purposes rather than throwing students into the deep end of professional radio where mistakes made could have some serious financial consequences. All students deserve the opportunity to learn in an environment where the risk of failure does not come with a literal high price. Additionally, community radio is a powerful and supportive platform for independent artists and students for self-expression and collaboration, without the interference of financial and advertiser interests and obligations.

Potential Future #2: Remote Recording and Broadcasting
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many radio stations such as WLOY of Loyola University Maryland went the remote recording route. This enabled their presenters to either pre-record their shows with equipment such as microphones provided by the station or to do their entire shows remotely. For them and other campus radio stations, this is something that might become a mainstay of their broadcasting practice. It is also something that seems to be in the USIU Radio pipeline.

As a result of the pandemic, broadcast decentralization is something that has somewhat become the norm in many media spaces, such as remote broadcasts and interviews being done in people’s homes. It has become a reality in various commercial radio stations and could be it as well with USIU Radio in the future. Mr. Kidula aptly described it as the decentralization of USIU Radio’s broadcasting. “Do the students have to come to this specific studio? Can they try something from wherever they are, or can we make some ‘satellite places’? Because there is this set-up; a mobile kit for podcasts. We [now] have podcast kits. You don’t have to be physically in the studio because you can decide to be somewhere else. This pandemic pushed the technology aspect so much, and we’re exploring ways of leveraging the technology benefit of radio, “he said. Necessity in this case seems to have become the mother of decentralization.

Ultimately, the future will likely look like a combination of the two. It will take multiple minds, experiences, perspectives, and tries to come up with the formula that works best for USIU Radio. There is also no denying that it will take time. Probably lots of it. One thing is for certain though: USIU Radio will probably never look the same again, and if done right, that will not be a bad thing at all. As long as it is true to students, listeners, and its capacity for greatness. If there is anything that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is to prepare for the unexpected. This process and USIU Radio’s future are no exception to the rule.

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