Meeting Students & Listeners Where They Are: The Innovation of WCRX Radio

Columbia College in Chicago. Image by Marco Verch

An Interview with Matt Cunningham

Columbia College is the only American institution to offer a degree in radio production. 

Assistant Professor of Instruction in the Radio Program of the Communication Department, Matthew Cunningham, mentions this fact early on when discussing his experience with the school.  He said a lot of students who apply for the program want to be on-air hosts, or have an interest in public radio/journalism.  The student-run station, WCRX, gives endless opportunities for real world experience.  Alongside his teaching role, Cunningham is the faculty advisor for WCRX, and is passionate about cultivating a creative spirit with young people drawn to broadcasting.  He is constantly evaluating how to innovate in a commercial world of fast-moving technology.  For him, that means creating unique content.

Radio is Real

Matthew Cunningham is used to having new students struggle with creating audio. Sometimes, they don’t listen to their own shows before turning them in.  Cunningham warns the students ahead of time, saying, “You haven’t listened to this, because right in the middle you cut it off.”  He cautions about background noise or a problem with music.  Occasionally, reminders go unheeded.  So, he allows the faulty piece to play on-air anyway.  Upon hearing their show on the radio, students panic.   Their mistakes are suddenly glaring, knowing a friend might be out there hearing them too.  Cunningham sees this as an interesting phenomenon, that even though he keeps asking students to review their work, it’s the reality of being on-air that drives the point home.

“I don’t want to put stuff on the air that will make [students] be seen as fools,” he said.  “But I also want the people that do well to be like, ‘Ah, I’m on this network now.  My pieces are being heard.’”

In our age of podcasts and streaming, it could be a surprise for younger generations that radio still reaches listeners. Cunningham wants to remind students that radio is very much alive, especially since WCRX has joined the Pacifica Affiliates Network this year, which allows new avenues for students to share content.

Making partnerships comes naturally to WCRX.  Before joining with Pacifica, Columbia College developed many relationships within and outside its own walls.

Columbia College: Innovation, Collaboration, Creativity

Tucked neatly beside the twinkling waters of Lake Michigan, Columbia College inhabits half the structures of the south loop in downtown Chicago. The building Cunningham works in used to be a bank, where he now teaches two classes and oversees the radio station.  In the basement below, the Audio Arts engineering crew turned the bank vault into a reverb room.  Both up and downstairs sections are part of the Communication department.

With Columbia College’s offering of a bachelor’s degree in radio production, eligible students choose a focus of on-air hosting (production), public radio/journalism documentaries (narrative), or voiceover.   Of the three programs, voiceover has the largest enrollment, with many theater majors/voiceover minors doing voiceover for video game design or free animation.

Beyond the cross alliance of the radio department with the theater department, Cunningham said radio majors also work with students in dance and journalism.  WCRX is open to working with any class that wants to use broadcast as a medium for expression.

“Everything we do is curriculum based,” said Cunningham.  “So, if a faculty member has a class that they want to do a podcast, I can come speak, and give them overall techniques and different things, and then they create essays, or they try to craft stuff.” 

The content is then shuffled over to Cunningham’s production team, including 3 students who hold paid positions: Public Affairs Coordinator, Production Director, and Music Director. 

Together they sift through the audio, deciding which ones are working and which ones have issues.  Ultimately the team gives technical support.  They offer skills for editing, but not expertise in content. 

Cunningham continued.  “I have faculty members that teach radio storytelling, which is essay based, and another does a documentary class.  At the end of the semester, he just dumps all the student work with me.  And then you know, over the breaks, I work with other faculty, other students to say, ‘Okay, let’s listen through these.  How can we air this on our station?  How can this be utilized best on Pacifica?’”

Unique Content Starts with Support

This year, WCRX received two awards from the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System.  One win was for best documentary entitled:  Covid and the Drag Queen; a close-up look at what happens when an epidemic threatens a livelihood in entertainment.  And a second win was for best podcast, called They Made It Out of Clay.

Both stories reflect Columbia’s support of artistry and innovation, values that Cunningham mentions often when talking about the school.  In a world where there’s been plenty of consolidation in commercial music radio, he keeps pushing for unique content.

“I’m a person that likes to say ‘yes,’” said Cunningham.  “I like to let the students be creative.  And you know, this is a time (for students) to make mistakes, or hopefully invent new things that we hadn’t thought of, because radio has sort of been the same for years.  So if there’s something we can do that’s innovative, we do so.”

For Cunningham, it begins with meeting students where they are. 

Students who come to Columbia for radio production have a broad range of backgrounds.  “That means you can have a privileged student that went to private school or had a really good foundation,” he said.  “And then you have other students that are, you know, public education, maybe from the city or whatever.  They don’t have the same support system.  The students who may not have all the privileges, they understand how to have a conversation and they understand what’s of value.  Whereas I have a lot of [privileged] students that can make anything sound pretty, but they don’t really understand how to tell a story.  So it’s just a really unique place where I’m at.”

Cunningham said something they do all share is a love of radio.  He has many stories about encouraging students to follow passion’s spark.

There’s the young woman who, when she had a special blogging guest for Women’s History Month, had a surprise lengthy talk on her music show.  “And they talked for like, an hour,” said Cunningham.  “It was a great conversation…  But you need to stick within the format.” He has been encouraging her to try the talk format in a later semester.

Another show for Women’s History Month (March) called She, Her, Hers had an immediate focus. Cunningham helped to encourage the scope of its reach.  “It was focused on Columbia College, mostly faculty, students, just because that’s who they know,” he said.  “And they loved it.  They wanted to keep doing a show that’s based on women.”  So he suggested their hour-long program could also be honed to a tighter half hour version to upload to the Pacifica Network.

The Appeal and the Challenge of Spotify

Cunningham said because Spotify and Apple Music have a large audience, including students, they figure into WCRX’s approach to drawing listeners.  He believes it’s important to find people where they are.

“So is there stuff that you can do on Instagram, or on YouTube, or can you create a Spotify list that shows your personality?”  He said. “I had a student that was in a class called covering elections, and she went to the Iowa Caucus in 2020.  And she came back and played interviews on the air.  But then she also did a Spotify playlist of all the songs that different presidential candidates used to walk on stage…in hopes that people would see that and go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.  I want to maybe hear the show.’”

On the other hand, because streaming is so huge, it has forced some of its listenership into a box.  Cunningham read an article explaining that, while Spotify and Apple Music have large catalogs, they aren’t practical avenues for discovering new music.  So, to his mind, community radio is a great platform for opportunity.

Every day, at 30 minutes past each hour, WCRX has local music.  This is thanks to the social media manager spending time reaching out to local artists and asking for submissions.  When the music comes in, the social media person hands it over to the music director who puts it in rotation. 

The station also has a spotlight show called Songs from the Inbox.  Independent artists are contributing to it all the time, with a special slot set up for featured locals twice a week. 

Cunningham said one way for students to understand that their work is relevant is when they start getting mail.  He had one student who first focused on one local artist with his first hour.  Right away, bands got in touch with him on social media.  He began getting CD’s in the mail, with messages of wanting to be on the show. 

Another student had a similar experience.

“So, we do mostly top 40ish music with some hip hop and alternative but it’s stuff that’s streaming and popular,” Cunningham said.  “And so [this student] just wants to do metal which is totally something completely different from other things.  And so at night we do specialty programming.  And so he did his metal show.  And he’d gotten a handwritten note from the Metropolitan Correction Facility.  And someone there sent him a letter thanking him because he can’t have CD’s.  And you know, this is two hours a week this person can listen to music that he loves.  After that, the student became so serious.  Oh, wow.  Programmed his music.  Everything was ahead of time.  And it was only because this one person sent him a handwritten letter saying ‘Thank you very much, I tune in every week to your show.’ Yeah, it’s like, you know, when students realize that, ‘Oh, my God, people are listening.’”

And ultimately, it’s the personal touch community radio can bring that makes the difference.

“We saw over the last few years, that unique content has become what people are seeking out.” Cunningham said.  “You know, and so we’re trying to find ways of creating that.  How can we be different than Spotify, right?  We can do that by curating… So the students can say, I want to do more r&b or hip-hop or I want to do more alternative.  We program it…And then it’s up to you to add the color and the personality.  You’re sharing information, events happening, interviewing people, that’s where you really make it your own.”

Ideas Keep Cranking Out for WCRX

The station is developing a podcast with another non-profit, The Museum of Contemporary Photography, called Focal Point.  They are also in talks to do a 3-part series with Dance department. 

Furthermore, Cunningham is following the school’s grant proposal for a solutions journalism based podcast class.  If the grant is accepted, he would work with a faculty member who already has a class on solutions journalism, where reporters focus not only on the difficulties of a social issue, but also possible responses.  Cunningham said there are already podcasts out there that approach stories with a solutions journalism based mindset.

“There’s one about opioid abuse that I’ve used as an example.  You look at the drug courts that came up under the Obama administration that, instead of putting people in prison, moved them over to getting treatment.  But then there’s some issues with that, because if you fall off the wagon, you’re put back, you automatically go to prison.  But in Seattle, where possession is decriminalized, instead of fearing arrest, people can go in and start to communicate with counselors and therapists that will help them kick the habit.  So, there are different ways of handling this instead of the ‘let’s be tough on crime.’  So, that’s one that is on our radar that I am looking to develop.”

The other exciting news is that WCRX recently got a new transmitter, which they moved downtown.  The old one dispatched from the west side, which was useful because it was clear, and they could reach the edges of the city.  “But students if they had a radio, they couldn’t hear it downtown, because the signal was blocked by the buildings,” said Cunningham.  “And so we are bringing it home in some regard.”    Cunningham hopes the move will help Columbia become more of a voice for the arts and community. 

Long Live the Terrestrial Signal

When Cunningham is driving, he prefers to scan for smaller radio stations over the larger ones.  He likes their originality, including commercial spots that are more interesting, relevant outreach with their communities, and more captivating music.  He said even if the music is mainstream, it’s programmed with distinction.

He remembered a former co-worker sharing with him that it’s worth it to ask for feedback directly while broadcasting.  Because others might be scanning too.

“Yeah, I was talking with a colleague of mine, he’s a public radio affiliate at the College of DuPage, which is a community college.  It’s a jazz station that does NPR updates at the top and bottom of the hour.  And he’s like, saying, Don’t negate the terrestrial signal I have.  Here, at the college, they’re looking at how many students are in the program, they’re looking at the IT guy that oversees stuff [who] is only looking at how many people are streaming.  And this guy’s like, ‘do not ignore the audience that’s out there on the terrestrial signal.  They may, be randomly going through and scanning and finding you but there are people there.’  So, it’s interesting, because he is the program director of WDCP College of DuPage.  He goes, ‘stations like us, they’re not gonna be on Arbitron, or any of these rating systems, right?  They’re not gonna pay for it, so we don’t really know.’ But he said, ‘you could put out on the air like, you know, send us a message, call us, we’d like to hear from you.  And people will call.  You’re not going to get the majority of the people.  But you will get people and that’s a way of getting feedback.’  I haven’t done it yet.  Because I’m still nervous. But you never know, you know, right whose listening…”

Pacifica Network is happy to welcome WCRX to the affiliate program.

Click here to find what’s playing on WCRX.