Does anyone even care that we’re still live on air?

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WMUH's Production Studio in Walson Hall sits empty. Photo by Photo Editor Kira Bretsky '27.

In 2011, Vanderbilt’s college radio station, WRVU shut its doors. Over five decades of broadcasting over public airwaves were halted and WRVU was purchased by an NPR classical music station. I learned about last semester when Katherine Rye Jewell, Ph.D., a history professor at Fitchburg State University, visited Muhlenberg to talk about the history of college radio and mentioned the shuttering of Vanderbilt’s college radio station, her alma mater. It was shocking to hear that WRVU’s history as student DJ-curated, in the margin-style underground music was pushed to an online-only format. It felt like Jewell’s story was ringing alarm bells. For colleges, historical media formats like college radio are at risk. 

Muhlenberg College’s radio station, WMUH, is a beloved 24/7 freeform station run by students and community DJs. WMUH proudly houses approximately 29 student DJs and 25 community DJs on air. Many of these community DJs have hosted a show at WMUH for years. 

WMUH is living history. Its DJs contribute to a larger living memory of sharing music in a creative, experimental fashion. To its DJs, college radio feels a “public service” to curate shows for anyone interested. In its heyday, WMUH DJs were known as taste-makers, valued heavily by audiences and record labels to play newly released songs. College radio was the outlet the public turned to for new releases, alternative music and underground acts. Today, college DJs’ meaningful curation stands out within a world of commercialized, homogenized music. 

WMUH’s DJs showcase their voices and lesser-known artists to anyone who’s listening. The station hosts a plethora of live music to expand the palettes of students on campus and aims to uplift student artist voices, which receives high praise and attendance from the campus community. WMUH appears significant to the music community on campus as they’re a part of late-night concerts and hypno-cow stickers on students’ laptops. 

While students seem to know about WMUH, this does not necessarily mean that they actually listen. Even though WMUH feels alive to its DJs and to some regard, students, WMUH is lacking the draw it used to have. In 2017, about 20 percent of students responded to a survey saying they’ve listened to WMUH and 10 percent of students were unaware of WMUH’s existence. As a station that used to pull in up to an average of 10,000 listeners, it’s shocking to hear that only a few students are listening at any given time. 

College radio is an aging technology, dying out among streaming services. Music consumption habits have changed, with more than 616.2 million music streaming subscriptions in 2022. There is a draw to play on-demand, popular content that outweighs a college station’s dedication to introducing unknown music. People want to hear what they do know, rather than listening to new music. It is also less likely for someone to hear something for the first time on college radio, meaning college radio is no longer seen as a hub for discovering new, underground music. As a result, stations are losing funding or are bought out by corporations to play pre-programmed playlists. Radio exists within the confines of its historical upbringing. It uses tired technology and equipment which makes it hard to fit within the changing economy of tailored music consumption. With this, college radio has lost its initial sparkle and appeal.Despite the decline in listeners, I believe students should invest in the traditions and heart of radio. While college radio is a vulnerable medium, it is an important bridge between current and past DJs. WMUH DJs care about their station. WMUH fosters an unforgettable, inclusive community through community events like concerts and programming, even if WMUH’s reach is not as widespread as it used to be. Tuning into WMUH brings voices of DJs who are passionate about what they play —their curation and dedicated Lehigh Valley listeners are what helps WMUH stick around. However, the future of Muhlenberg radio feels uncertain after the recent downfall of the historic Muhlenberg’s Ciarla Yearbook in its traditional format. Our campus should be asking the question, what could we lose next?

4 COMMENTS

  1. 25 years later and WMUH still brings me back to Muhlenberg. It’s a beacon of the school and back 15 years ago the rumor miles spread of the school selling the license… alumni stopped the rumor.

    WMUH is streamed in my house and my car all the time… and it is well worth the schools investment!

    Be smart, Muhlenberg

  2. Thanks for a great piece on WMUH. As a long-ago ‘faculty’ advisor (I was actually on the staff in the College Relations Department in the 1970s), the only major struggle we had was our signal interfering with the TV antennae reception of several residents on and around Liberty Street. It seemed Channel 6 out of Philly got a little ‘wavy’ for them. So, the college paid for a cable subscription for those affected. Done! No bad PR!
    The radio industry has been changing since the advent of television. In fact, as one of America’s early Communications Arts majors in the late ’60s, we were often discussing the pending decline and fall of radio. We were the first generation to not know life without TV and were mesmerized by the introduction of color TV just a few years earlier. (Forget HD and 75″ sets. When married in 1973 my new bride and I moved to Allentown with a whopping 19-inch RCAer….made in America!).
    Soon after, FM stations known for specializing in elevator music began playing Top 40 formats…in stereo. The AM dial was heading to extinction…….until the explosion of the new news-talk format. Now, all terrestrial radio is threatened, not by creative forces, but by the plethora of ways we get information and entertainment. As one who has spent millions of advertising dollars over the past half-century (mostly other people’s/company’s money) in mass media, I can only hope that radio, including college radio, survives this latest shift in technology. Keep up the good fight.

  3. My wife (Muhlenberg ’75) showed me this article knowing how much I like to look for antennas on roofs and guess what they are for; and because I was the student general manager at another small college radio station ages ago. I agree with Chuck that one needs to be careful about predicting the demise of over-the-air broadcasting. We live in Seattle which is awash in public and community stations that range from newer low-power ones serving a few neighborhoods to college stations preserving the old “free form” mix to regional mammoths that manage to hold on to a balance of national and local but definitely professional programs. And even two non-profit classical stations. I don’t know all the forces that seem to make this a moment for public radio in the Northwest, and I know there have been darker days in the past when public stations closed. Some may be the geography – there are still many places where internet service is expensive and spotty. I think a big force is the amount of energy that people put into the arts and the time they are willing to devote to music. Maybe it is also because big, international Seattle still likes to think of itself as a place apart where ideas and trends get to start, sheltered from the relentless push to take on tastes developed elsewhere. Radio stations like WMUH play a vital role in creating opportunities to develop and spread new ideas and to bring new people into the creative process. They also serve people who can’t afford fast internet or unlimited phone data plans, who don’t want their tastes and identities tracked and targeted, or who realize how cut off from the world they are when AT&T or Comcast has a regional or national “outage.” College radio has a long history of adapting to changing technology, a changing media landscape, and the financial strains on educational institutions. But as vehicles to knit a campus with a community and to pull students into civic and communal life they have few equals. My wife’s 50th reunion is coming up – we’re wondering if in honor of the occasion we should donate an FM radio to every member of that year’s freshman class.

  4. WMUH 91.7! Listened in high school and when I came home college. Will have to put that on my FM choices. It’s a shame that college radio stations are being shut down!

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