The campus radio station offers students a chance for real-world experience.
by Trisha Spence Illustrations by Mary Kate McDevitt
Spiral cords trail beige phones with gray cube buttons in the radio studio for KTCU. One is the “bat phone,” a sticker indicates. A soundboard lined with buttons, knobs and sliders sits beneath a worn microphone that has captured countless hours of broadcast voices. The equipment looks frozen in time, but KTCU is on the cusp of reinvention.
“We should evolve like everybody else has to evolve,” said Chris Cox, a senior sports broadcasting major, as he adjusted a white slider on a soundboard. He said he supports the radio station’s revamp: “I think it’s beneficial.”
In 1948, KTCU launched as a closed-circuit station on campus. It became an FM station in 1964, giving it a wider range in Fort Worth. Now 88.7 FM, the station started as a training ground to provide students with real-world radio experience. KTCU hosts shows relating to news, sports and music, such as Radio Sputnik, which features tunes from Dallas-Fort Worth’s independent music scene; Curtain Up!, a weekly look into the world of musical theater; and the Riff Ram Sports Show.
“I feel it makes it better if I don’t script things,” Cox said as the automation system WideOrbit played “Sweet Disaster” by Dreamers. “If there’s going to be a safety net, for me, it’s the off button on the microphone.”
“Where else is somebody going to hand you your own radio show? I don’t know how many other places would say, ‘Here are the keys to the kingdom.’ ”Chris Cox
A broadcast career has been on Cox’s mind for a long time. “My dream, since I was a little boy, was to be the radio play-by-play guy for the Tennessee Titans,” he said. After high school, he dabbled in the audio industry with a Titans podcast and was a regular contributor to the professional wrestling podcast East Coast Cast.
But he deferred his broadcast dreams to support his daughter as he worked as a mechanic, then served in the U.S. Army. As a Patriot missile operator, Cox moved 2,000-pound canisters onto trucks. One day a crane operator’s error slammed the canister into a truck Cox was working on, lifting it up and catching his knee in the process. Cox fell 15 feet. After less than five years in the military, he was medically retired and decided to get a college degree.
In his first week as a DJ at KTCU, Cox didn’t speak much on air. Looking to longtime radio hosts such as Mike McAbee and his Sunday show, Bayous & Backbeats, Cox realized he could do more with his opportunity.
“If someone is going through the motions, why would I listen to you? There are a million-and-a-half different things I could listen to on a daily basis,” Cox said. “I think [listeners] remember people if they bring a lot of emotion and energy.”
Cox launched a KTCU segment called “Primary Complaint.” Through social media and phone calls, listeners respond to prompts such as “Are refried beans acceptable for breakfast?” or “Do college baseball games last too long?” Then Cox treads through the public feedback.
The experience at the radio station is all about what a student puts into it, Cox said.
“Where else is somebody going to hand you your own radio show?” he said. “I don’t know how many other places would say, ‘Here are the keys to the kingdom.’ ”
Most of the air time at KTCU is open for student participation. Film-Television-Digital Media majors are required to spend time at the station, but any student can work there.
James Creange ’17 thought he would work in sportswriting or some other behind-the-scenes sports-related job. Then, a friend introduced him to the campus radio station. “It lit a desire in me to get into radio,” he said. “It’s not what I originally went to school for, and my first two years I never even thought of doing radio. KTCU really made me love it and want to get into it.”
Near the end of his junior year, Creange realized he had a knack for radio but didn’t know about options in the field. “[KTCU] solidified in my mind that I love doing this, and I’m good at it, so maybe I should pursue this.”
Creange used his newfound passion for audio in the classroom, making multiple podcasts for a course assignment. He continued his work even after the class ended, producing around 10 podcasts, including co-hosting two sports-related segments.
One of those sports podcasts, A&J Show, was broadcast live on KTCU, with a shorter version uploaded on the student-run TCU 360 website. Creange also tapped into KTCU’s digital audience by creating web-exclusive interviews with musicians.
“I spent so much time listening to podcasts, I felt there was a market for it,” Creange said. “I felt it was an untapped market, and there were a lot of other schools that were doing it and having success with it.”
There is a growing audience for Creange’s interest. The Infinite Dial 2017 study showed that 40 percent of people age 12 and older in the U.S. have listened to a podcast. Of those, the survey found, 63 percent heard two to five podcasts in the last week.
“Nowadays, it’s so easy to create your own podcast,” said Geoffrey Craig ’14, interim sports director at KTCU. “You can have a voice, and other people can hear it.”
With experience hosting and producing the Purple Menace Podcast for Rivals.com, Craig teaches students about podcasts as a lecturer at TCU. “We’re trying to do more of that because we want them involved and excited,” he said.
Since graduating, Creange continues to develop his podcasting skills. He produces and co-hosts Spurtability, a sports and music podcast, and 4th and Long, a Texas high school football podcast.
Last spring, Creange hosted a music show at KTCU. “I got some really positive feedback from that [experience],” he said. “I had a lot of local listeners. I also weirdly made a really good friend … who ended up coming on the show almost weekly.”
Creange’s audience included online listeners in Germany and Spain, as well as friends and family in his home state of New Jersey. “When working at a college radio station, I would think, no one is really listening to what I’m putting out there,” he said. “It was nice to get positive feedback that not only are people listening, but they’re enjoying what I’m doing.”
KTCU, with 10,000 watts, has a range of just under 20 miles and reaches most of Tarrant County, with ebbs and flows into other North Texas counties, such as Johnson, Parker and Denton.
For comparison, Dallas-Fort Worth’s KHKS-FM (106.1), ranked No. 7 in May 2016 for U.S. radio stations featuring Top 40 music programming, has an effective radiated power of 99,000 watts. KHKS, better known as KISS-FM, has a range of about 55 miles and reaches 18 counties in Texas.
Radio Research Consortium, an independent, not-for-profit research firm that provides audience data to noncommercial radio stations, listed KTCU with 13,000 weekly listeners. When including online streaming through the station’s website or TCU’s app, that number jumps.
For Trey Fallon ’07, one of the benefits of KTCU is that the station is not driven by ratings. “You get the experience of doing radio things — talking and running the board and that type of stuff — without necessarily having the pressure of messing up.
“If you mess up on KTCU, maybe a hundred or so people hear you, but if you’re on a major station and mess up, thousands of people hear you.”
Fallon, an e-commerce specialist in Plano, Texas, now focuses on digital media, something he dabbled in at KTCU. He worked for KESN-FM (103.3), better known as ESPN Dallas, for nearly eight years, including two internships before graduation.
“Radio is kind of a cutthroat industry. It’s really based off ratings, and the way they get ratings is weird,” he said. “I think AM/FM radio might be shrinking, but there are other outlets out there.
“There are podcasts, SiriusXM satellite radio — You can make your own YouTube channel with videos, you can start your own blog and write there,” Fallon said. “You just have to go carve your own path.”
Radio’s demise has been the subject of ongoing speculation since the 1950s, with the spread of commercial television. (Cue the Buggles with 1979’s “Video Killed the Radio Star.”) The death of radio was predicted as each technological advance arrived, from the introduction of cassette-tape players in vehicles and the launch of iPods and MP3 players to the eruption of audio streaming platforms such as Pandora and Spotify. But for many people, radio retains its allure.
“I was worried a little bit that terrestrial radio was done,” said Janice McCall, station manager at KTCU. She shook her head: “Not at all.”
Craig said on-air experience can make people better at their jobs and not just through developing a voice. “We try to teach students that you want to have an emotional connection with [the listeners].”
“With KTCU, it’s not only students, but it’s students on the radio who are going deeper, and that experience is beneficial beyond your media.”Ashlea Bullington '13
For Ashlea Bullington ’13, the art of storytelling keeps the audio industry from fading away. “It’s creating a picture with the mind,” she said. “It’s very hard to do because so many people are used to watching television. You don’t have to be as descriptive. On the radio, you definitely do.”
Bullington said she uses the skills she developed while writing for radio in her job of producing and writing features for an international television show. “It definitely helped me with my creative writing,” she said. “I can write a more colorful, more descriptive version of the story versus just a very cut-and-dry story, which is no fun.
“With KTCU, it’s not only students, but it’s students on the radio who are going deeper, and that experience is beneficial beyond your media,” said Bullington, who owns a medical industry production company. “You are learning people. You get to know these stories on a deep basis, and you start to care about things you might not have cared about before.”
For seven decades at KTCU, students have gone on the air with their ideas and the support of the radio station’s professional staff. Many students thought they were just having fun, but some came away with unexpected outcomes.
KTCU staff does “a wonderful job with the students and making sure that they both have confidence in themselves to do stuff and are also taught the right ways to do stuff,” said Creange, who now works as a marketing coordinator at the Culinary School of Fort Worth. “But I think they have the mindset of: I’d rather see students go out there and fail giving it a shot than me just doing it for them and them never learning. I learned a ton from them.”
Dabbling in radio can have a lasting impact on anyone who works in journalism, said Bullington, who freelances as a Texas Rangers correspondent for D210sportstv and as a producer and host for Gameday Productions. “Working at KTCU definitely helped me with my personality. What new reporters don’t really understand is that you’re just supposed to be yourself, and so many people lose who they are.”
An early employer expected Bullington to change her speech, hair and makeup. She credits her collegiate roles with giving her the strength she needed to resist. “It really helps having that experience and the opportunity to learn who I was beforehand,” she said. “So when I got into the business, it wasn’t hard for me to stand up for myself.
“There are so many things that you come out [of KTCU] learning to do,” Bullington said. “It’s the first start of modern-day radio, modern-day talk shows, the actual stuff that we watch on TV — it all comes from radio. Radio is the original. You learn so many more skills by being able to do that and by being able to be in that atmosphere and learn, and it’s a no-brainer to be in there as much as you can.”
During her college years, Bullington was a goalkeeper on the school soccer team, but she made it a priority to gain experience at KTCU. She and four other sports radio classmates, including Craig, created Riff Ram Sports Hour. The student segment is still on the air under the name Riff Ram Sports Show.
“Having the ability to work for the radio station meant honing my skills on a bunch of different things versus just saying, ‘I’m a reporter and that’s all I want to be.’ I think that is something that not a lot of people in this industry really take advantage of like they should,” Bullington said. “Working at KTCU, amongst other things, especially in the sports broadcasting program, it really gives you a broader spectrum of what you can do in this business, and it makes you a bigger threat in this business.”
Fallon said working for KTCU also allows students to create a portfolio to show potential employers and make connections with people in the industry. “A lot of the equipment at KTCU is the same or very similar to what they use at other commercial radio stations,” he said. “You get that hands-on experience with some of the tools and the programs that you do use when you work for a radio station.”
Since becoming station manager in Fall 2017, McCall is ready to turn up the volume at KTCU.
“We’re taking a different, unconventional route right now while we get the dust off of us and get back into the game and get students [in the station],” said McCall, who started working at the radio station in 2001.
That unconventional route includes stepping out of the box and playing diverse music — “the stuff you can’t find on Pandora,” McCall said. “Where are you going to discover new stuff? We put new stuff in every week.”
When it comes to discovering new music, the Infinite Dial study says only 8 percent of people ages 12-24 use radio as their primary source, trailing friends/family, Spotify, YouTube and Pandora, in that order.
“Yes, you can make your playlist on Spotify or Pandora and things like that, but you’re going to get stagnant and listening to the same kind of stuff,” Craig said. “We are going to give you new stuff that is going to spark something in your brain that goes, ‘I want to branch out.’ ”
Craig conducted new surveys of listeners and describes the station’s evolving sound as more indie rock. “If you look at all the festivals, South by Southwest, Austin City Limits and Coachella — look at the bands that are playing there the last five to 10 years,” he said. “Those are the bands we are starting to play more of.”
The approach also includes a new look at familiar bands, incorporating tracks from EPs that come out between publicized albums. “It’s not that we stay completely away from Top 40 artists,” said McCall in her campus office, complete with shelves of CDs and a plush Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. “I try to get them to look at B-sides or not the big hits.”
“Radio is supposed to be fun. Music is supposed to make you happy.”Geoffrey Craig '14
Local music holds a firm spot in KTCU’s catalog. Student DJs play area bands that they have heard. They also play lesser-known bands from outside the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Once those bands find out there is an audience for their music, McCall said, they are likely to stop by Fort Worth for a show.
KTCU’s tagline, “The Choice,” coined more than two decades ago, remains true today. As McCall and her team revamp the station’s social media and other marketing content, listeners are supporting the new direction.
“I get calls from men — just by their voice I can tell they’re not college-age,” she said. “They’re opening their minds to something new. I think they’re giving it a try.”
Variety is key for Craig, but it needs context. “It’s fresh and it’s not the stuff they’re going to hear anywhere else. We play a lot of Weezer, but we mix in AC/DC or the Rolling Stones,” he said. “I think you always have to have that tie to classic rock — the Beatles, some Frank Sinatra every once in a while. You have to have those because they were such an influence to all these other bands. A lot of our students may not have made that connection until they come in here.”
McCall and Craig work to teach students all aspects of the radio business, not just the disc jockey part. Students run shifts, work sports events and help with volunteers.
“We want them, if they’re going to pursue a career in radio, to be able to walk out of here and apply at a radio station and [for potential employers] to say, ‘I see you do this, this and this every shift. Well, you fit already.’ It’s all about confidence,” Craig said. “We want them to have fun.”
Craig said students are gaining leadership experience and other qualities, including pride in their work.
“I want them to be successful, and if you’re happy in what you’re doing here, you’re going to carry that with you.
“Radio is supposed to be fun,” Craig said. “Music is supposed to make you happy.”
More from Spring 2018
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Topics: Feature, Schieffer College of Communication
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