Principles for independent student media

Jacob Abrams wrote about The LION 90.7fm’s recent move at Penn State into a new, central facility. The new facility for student broadcasters was something that was whispered about when I first became involved almost ten years ago, so it’s gratifying to see the new space come to fruition.

I’ve written before about the Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group and its role in supporting student broadcasters, and Abrams’s piece brought me back to the principles that have defined the cultural/institutional DNA of The LION 90.7fm since its 1995 founding.

They’re principles that have been in the air in one form or another since the earliest days of Penn State student broadcasting. They’re principles that have been described with slightly different language over many generations, discoverable in University Archives at Pattee Library, but they’re principles that retain a fundamentally similar character since the Senior Gift of the Class of 1912 supported the creation of WPSC. And I don’t think anyone has written these down in a long time:

  1. Independently programmed and operated, led by an elected student president and general manager.
  2. Mission of public service to entire Penn State and Central Pennsylvania communities, realized through open membership to students of any academic major as well as community members.
  3. Institutionally supported through technical, professional, financial, and legal support that respects freedom of thought and expression.

These principles have set Penn State student broadcasting apart from its national peers, and they’ve worked to create and sustain a tremendously unique spirit across generations. Remarkably, even during periods when The LION 90.7fm has served as a necessary iconoclast, it has traditionally done so in the spirit of improving Penn State as an institution and family.

At most colleges and universities, student broadcasting is run in practice by professional faculty or staff. And it’s typically treated as a learning laboratory rather than as a mission-driven public service. And it’s typically limited to students in the College of Communications or an equivalent academic speciality. And the cumulative effect at peer institutions is typically a dramatically narrower and less relevant media voice.

So Penn State students and alumni are celebrating two decades of student broadcasting and the principles that have made them worth celebrating. It’s why the Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group is building—with the help of new and old friends (and hopefully you)—a scholarship for The LION 90.7fm’s students that is making more than $5,000 per academic year available in tuition assistance.

In parallel, if there’s any single area that I hope to see improvement at Penn State for better supported student media, it concerns The LION 90.7fm’s third principle.

Adequate institutional support that respects the first two principles remains an area that has always been more aspirational than actual. It’s my dream that Penn State’s Office of Student Affairs, the University Park Undergraduate Association, and The LION 90.7fm can eventually work together through the Student Activity Fee Board to establish a new class of student organizations that would provide annual, automatic student activity fee allocations to student media organizations.

Doing so would create a comprehensive designated status for any student media organization to receive sustainable activity fee support in the form of an allocation that has no strings based upon the content of speech from any particular organization.

In other words, it would address the challenge of independence for student media organizations reluctant to accept money from Penn State due to potential influence and screws that could hypothetically be turned if the content of any organization’s speech happens to be offensive to any given student leader or administration member.

While the present campus climate is a healthy one, where independent student media seems to be respected and supported, this hasn’t always been the case and there’s no inherent policy basis for our present campus climate to continue into perpetuity. In essence, enjoy the sun but plan for rainy weather.

The model I’m envisioning would follow that of the recently created “Student Government Association (SGA)” status for student organizations. In this case it would be “Independent Media Organization (IMO)” status.

Just as SGAs receive automatic standing allocation funds from the student activity fee without having to assemble line-item budgetary requests to the University Park Allocation Committee, so too would IMOs receive annual standing allocation funds based on the needs of their sort of media organization.

So publications like Valley Magazine, Phroth, LaVie, or Kalliope might receive an annual $25,000 allocation, and broadcasting organizations with heavy equipment and engineering needs like The LION 90.7fm or PSN-TV might receive an annual $50,000 allocation. Newer organizations under a certain age might receive an annual $5,000 allocation while they build their audience and prove their staying power.

In The LION 90.7fm’s case, that would be enough to pay its faculty adviser/engineer a small part-time salary of $25,000, with enough remaining for its operational and equipment expenses.

But critically, an IMO or similar designation characterized by an annual, automatic activity fee allocation would ensure independence for student media organizations by ensuring their ability to function is not tied to institutional capriciousness.

If we respect freedom of thought and expression, I think it only makes sense to create a financial model that ensures student media organizations can function without having to seek favor from student or administrative leaders who would otherwise determine funding and potentially influence content.

At any rate, this is one concept for institutional support of student media that ensures its operational and programmatic independence. It’s something that still doesn’t really exist at Penn State in a structured and equitable way.

Given The LION 90.7fm’s historically fierce devotion to its principles, it seems only fitting to revisit how lessons from the first two decades of student broadcasting might make the next few decades for student media as a whole even better.