Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Allison Pao's Story of Self

“Is radio dead?” I read this headline in an article just last week. As the President of Harvard Radio Broadcasting, Inc. (WHRB), variations of this question come up every day. Will the next generation continue to listen to AM and FM stations? How can radio compete with digital streaming services like Spotify? How can commercial radio stations generate revenue when radio ads are no longer as popularly demanded as they used to be, with so many alternative types of advertising now available?

Before outlining my research project, I will first introduce my organization and my role. WHRB is a non-profit, commercial, and undergraduate-run radio station with over 225 active undergraduate members, 7 on-air departments and 3 off-air departments, and an operating budget of $110,000. I have been serving in this position since November 2019, when I was elected by the station membership. WHRB has been my home and family on campus since I comped freshman fall. Throughout my time at Harvard, there has been nowhere which has felt more welcoming and inclusive. In addition to the student community, I also love serving our listeners in the Greater Boston community, many of whom call into our station with all kinds of comments, questions, and stories. I was motivated to seek the position of President in order to give back to both the students and listeners that make WHRB the incredible organization that it is. I am honored to contribute to a 75+ year legacy of this organization and hopefully improve the organization in tangible ways.

There are many potential areas of improvement at WHRB, but for the purposes of this project, I want to focus specifically on the issues facing the medium of radio. This is because while I believe that I can easily address student-facing issues such as recruitment, retention, and community building with the resources available to me at Harvard, I am less equipped to address the broader question of where the medium of radio will be in the long-term. I hope to leave my successors with a blueprint of possibilities for how WHRB can continue to stay relevant and innovative as radio listenership nationwide grows older.

This leads me to my research question: How are professional and college radio stations in the Greater Boston area conceptualizing radio as a medium? My specific questions include: How are stations exploring podcasts, online content, videos, social media, live events, and other areas as new ways to expand reach? How are stations adapting their on-air broadcasts in response to recent trends, listener feedback, and industry best practices, if at all? How does the motivation to “stay relevant” differ depending on the type of radio station (professional vs. college, commercial vs. non-commercial, etc.)? And once stations choose priority areas of focus, how do these priorities get translated from theory to practice?

To answer my research questions, I interview leaders at professional and college radio stations in the Greater Boston area. In terms of college radio stations, I hope to interview student leaders at Northeastern, Boston College, Boston University, Emerson, Tufts, Wellesley, MIT, and University of Massachusetts about their college radio stations. In terms of professional radio stations, I hope to interview staff at WGBH and WBUR (the two primary NPR stations in the area) as well as some of the hit music stations. From conducting this survey of professional and college radio stations in the area, I hope to gain a better sense of each station’s strategy.

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