From the outside, student radio seems like quite a weird thing to be involved with. I mean, why would a group of students waste their time pretending to be DJs? With so much to do at university, what could possess any eighteen-year-old to wander into a beer-soaked studio and talk in between the songs? Oh, and we all know nobody’s really listening – right?
Four years ago, that was pretty much my take on student radio. But four years ago, I hadn’t signed up to produce a news programme every week on URN. I hadn’t met people who could teach me about journalism, audio production and broadcast technology. I hadn’t discovered the buzz of working on a live radio programme. I hadn’t stayed up until 4am editing a documentary about taxis. I hadn’t helped put the Radio 1 breakfast show on-air from my university. I hadn’t managed a team of over a hundred volunteers.
I hadn’t yet discovered how exciting it was to be involved in student radio.
It turns out the studios are a lot nicer than I thought, not everyone pretends to be a DJ and, actually, there are people listening. A lot more than you’d think. Student radio turned out to be the single best experience of my time at university. There’s no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the time I spent learning, working, and sometimes even living, in student radio.
What’s really so great about student radio?
1. It’s an opportunity to be creative
There are a lot of creative people at university. Take a random sample of students and you’re sure to find someone who’s into writing, someone who’s good at drawing, another who’s keen on photography, someone who loves acting, and the list goes on. The problem is, there aren’t many opportunities to be creative in our day-to-day lives. And for many students (myself included) there isn’t much creativity to be found on a degree course either.
Enter student radio. Leaving aside the skills required to actually put a radio programme on-air, a radio station needs people who can write, people who can tell a story, people who are good at marketing and people who can work with technology. Creative people. And so, by joining a student radio station, you’ve instantly got an outlet for creativity. You’ve got a reason to write, to act, to take photos, whatever it may be; you’ve got a reason to be creative.
Personally, student radio gave me a reason to become a better web developer, to hone my design skills and to learn about audio production. If I hadn’t come across student radio, then I’d have had no reason to get better and no opportunity to be creative.
2. It’s full of motivated people
It’s possible to go through three or four years of university doing nothing but your degree. A lot of my friends have done it, and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It just wasn’t for me.
Unless you’re the type of student who locks themselves away in the library for the whole year (and I’m yet to meet one of these people, by the way), chances are you’ve got some free time on your hands. I can tell you from experience, there are far easier ways to spend that time than working in a student radio station. It doesn’t pay, and the perks aren’t great. But, the people in student radio are there because they want to be.
It’s quite a simple observation, but I’m convinced that it’s a big part of what makes student radio so great. The people in student radio are ‘doers’. They’re motivated and they’re pro-active. They have to be right? Otherwise they’d be sat at home doing nothing.
I’ve seen people at URN working ridiculous hours for days on end, with very little sleep, to create something that might only be broadcast once and last no more than fifteen minutes. Contrast that with your average paid employee who clocks off not a minute later than 5pm.
I’ve always been fascinated by where that kind of motivation comes from. If 90% of it is down to doing something that you love, then I think the other 10% comes from being around people who are just as passionate and motivated as you are. Student radio is full of these people.
3. Things move quickly
I’ve only had a few jobs, but one thing I’ve learnt about large companies is that things move slowly. Change is risk, and there are always plenty of people invested in the thing you want to change. The result is a decision making process that can take time and tends to filter out the most drastic changes.
In student radio, change is instant. With an annual turnaround of students, there’s no time for feasibility studies, month-long fact-finding exercises or six-month trials. Want to change the brand image? Do it. Want to switch the schedule around? Why not? Want to drop a song from the playlist? Everyone hated Call Me Maybe after a while. There’s no red tape, no restrictions, no reason not to make a change whenever you like.
This is a really liberating thing. There’s a reason why so many people see student radio as the cutting edge of radio. There are no shareholders to please, no advertisers to keep on side and no executives’ egos to massage. If an idea doesn’t work, you learn from it. If it’s a success, then you’ve done it months before any of the big stations can catch up.
It’s more than just radio
The more I think about it, student radio didn’t just teach me how to make radio. It didn’t even mostly teach me how to make radio. As I got more involved with URN and eventually found myself managing the station last year, I learnt skills that were much more general and wide reaching.
I learnt how to get things done in a complex organisation. I learnt how to persuade people and how to sell an idea. I learnt how to manage my time, and not just in a line-on-the-CV ‘managing my time’ kind of way, I mean actually balancing a degree course with a near-on full time job. More than anything, I learnt how to work with a wide range of people - people I would never have met if I hadn’t signed up to produce a radio show four years ago.
Student radio isn’t perfect. There’s a whole raft of problems that come with it, and probably always will. Managing volunteers is a challenging task, and a huge amount of the work can often fall to a small group of people. It’s also worryingly easy to get hung up on perfecting the tiny details and lose sight of the bigger picture.
But the great thing is, student radio isn’t meant to be perfect. It’s not Radio 1 and it’s definitely not commercial radio. It’s got a unique audience and a unique purpose. A graduate of student radio himself, James Stodd put it best when he said:
Student Radio can be about making the station sound the best it can be. It can be about being the best presenter. But what it really offers is the opportunity that you may never get in a professional radio career; to experiment and fail.
It took me a while to really get this; to stop worrying about the details. But if you take some risks, and do the things that really matter to your audience - students - then you can’t help but make good radio. It’s an attitude that I’m proud to say is at the heart of everything URN does.
My experiences at URN have left me with no doubt that some of the most creative people out there are the ones making student radio. It’s an exciting thing to be part of, and it’s full of motivated people. If there’s just one thing that I’ve realised since leaving, it’s that I owe so much of what I’ve learnt over the past four years not just to my time at university, but to my adventures in student radio.