In March this year I had the opportunity to travel to Chicago (one of Birmingham’s ‘sister’ cities) where I visited the student station WCRX Radio 88.1FM.The station broadcasts from Columbia College and is situated in the same building as the Radio Department of the School of Media Arts on East Congress Blvd – just a short taxi ride from my hotel and, conveniently, within walking distance of the superb Art Institute of Chicago. WCRX is an award winning station (their prize cabinet, right, is overflowing), which broadcasts a ‘Top 40’ format around the Columbia campus.
It also covers the Chicago Loop, South Loop, ChinaTown, Pilsen and Bridgeport neighbourhoods in South Chicago – from West to Oak Park – and in the North towards Lincoln Park.
The station operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and features specialist programming, such as: sports, news/talk, rock, alternative, R&B, hip-hop, world, and reggae.
I was kindly shown around the station by Carlos Mendez, who is a supervisor and trainer for WCRX and also teaches practicum classes at Columbia. In fact, Mendez grew up listening to the station as a teenager. We spoke in his office, where I recorded an audio interview with him, on a wide range of broadcasting issues. I spoke to Mendez about the evolution of digital radio broadcasting and how he sees this will potentially shape the future of radio in the States… His comments are transcribed below.
I’ve talked to commercial broadcasters who are still under the idea of… “well that digital stuff is all fine and good, but it doesn’t help my PPM” (Mendez is referring to ‘Portable People Meters’, used for radio ratings surveys in the Chicago area).
That’s fine, because I understand PPM is what you’re making the majority of your revenue off, but I do think we’re ten to 15 years away from a model where we’re all digital – and you’re going to have to find a way to monetise that. And that starts now. Because, (the industry) is where the Internet was in 1994 – people didn’t really know what to do with it. That’s where we are – and I think that if you at least acknowledge that we’re going to go somewhere with (online technology) then you have a fighting chance. If you’re still in the way of thinking of “I need to concentrate on my PPM and my terrestrial” and that’s it – nothing else – and I don’t have digital presence – then you have no chance.
This industry right now is not dying, it’s shrunk – (but) I think this is as much as it’s going to shrink. The cream will rise to the top. It’s kind of like TV in the direction that it’s going in. TV is not going to die. Radio is not going to die. You know why? Because, regardless of what your outlet is – you still need content. Content is always going to be king. That’s why now there are sitcoms that are exclusive to apps and there are people out there who are making a killing doing podcasts. Granted a lot of them are celebrities, but I’m still waiting and it’s going to happen. There’s going to be one person who’s going to become extremely famous off of podcasting who’s already doing it now. They probably have four listeners a week. But they’re somewhere out in the middle of nowhere – and 15 years from now – they’re going to be that person who became the podcaster who just became a celebrity by podcasting, instead of being the celebrity who’s podcasting. Content is kind. Content is always going to be important.
Right now, with little things like social media, you have to make yourself matter. When you post digital videos that supplement what you’re already doing, when you’re posting exclusive features online. Even if it’s just five people that are going to click the link to actually stream you – you’re growing. So if you’re putting yourself in the position to do those kinds of things and take chances – you have a chance. But, if you’re, kind of, doing things like it was 1999 again, which some people still are unfortunately, then you’re probably going to be done for in the industry within the next five years. It really is evolving.
You have to open yourself to social media – and if you’re not already planning to create a digital interface and make your web presence digital and mobile friendly, then again, you don’t have a fighting chance. So, it’s about evolution. It’s about adapting. It’s about accepting and embracing and then pimping the hell out of what it is. Making it your own, making it yours… Adapt or perish.”
In the edited 9-minute clip below, Carlos shares his thoughts on Chicago’s radio market, running institutional based radio, and how WCRX operates. He also talks about the station’s innovative ‘Holly-Jolly-Trolley’ community project, which Mendez describes as a radio initiative that “gives back to the community”
With thanks to Carlos Mendez,
Supervisor and Trainer
WCRX Radio 88.1FM,
Columbia College, School of Media Arts,