KBVR Back to the Future

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERASurfing through modern radio stations can be an incredibly boring experience. With Top 10 hits played in a maddening cyclical fashion, it’s almost better to make your morning commute in silence. KBVR, Oregon State University’s FM radio station, is doing all it can to combat the silence and offer something new.

Whether it is an interesting dissection of a graduate student’s research or a look into the history of jazz fusion, KBVR is home to over 130 different distinct personalities offering up different playlists, meaning something new every time you tune in. It’s a trip outside the daily algorithm-bubble where nothing outside of anticipated preference is ventured or gained—what radio can be with a little adventure.

No matter how jaded you might be, the promise of a station like KBVR is undeniable.

Defying norms from its beginning, KBVR FM 88.7 was established in 1965. Broadcasting a mere 10-watt signal out of Shepard Hall, their signal only reached a few blocks past campus. In 1967, the program and its students moved to Snell Hall where they would stay for years. In 1980, the station finally upgraded from the 10-watt signal to the full 350-watt standard.

As a college radio station with an ever-changing staff, things fluctuate: quality, student participation, content variety, and even volume. The history of the station is not so much dictated by years, but by stories.

Ann Robinson, the assistant director of student media at Oregon State University from 1982 to 2011, holds a lot of those stories.

“You know, I would say that when I came to KBVR, the first 10 years were really good,” she said. “But that’s because that was the heyday of radio. College radio was the be-all and end-all in the 80s.”

About a decade later, the heyday had ended. KBVR FM was facing budget cuts in the early 90s, and Robinson recruited her station manager to call on the community for support at a budget hearing.

The response was unprecedented. “We had a packed hearing room. Usually nobody comes to those hearings. It was standing room only,” Robinson said. “One of the things I remember was the student from Corvallis High School who came and said, ‘I have a petition here with 88 signatures. I could have gotten more, but we symbolically wanted it to be 88, so they retain this radio station fully funded.’”

Robinson served as advisor to both KBVR FM and KBVR TV, and worked nearly every day with the students who came in and out of Snell Hall. She recognized the hard work of that revolving door of students as one of the highlights of the job.

“You do the best you can,” Robinson said of the KBVR program. “It depended on who was there, and how many years they’d been there, and how dedicated they were, and what their knowledge base was coming in, as to how our programming sounded and how wonderful we were. But as long as people were doing the best they could, what more could you ask for? That’s why it was such a great job for 30 years—because it was never always the same.”

Her retirement was the end of an era. Thirty years of experience with the program and only 20 years removed from the program’s start, Robinson helped guide and form KBVR FM. Another definitive end of era came more recently as the latest crew said goodbye to Snell Hall for the comforts of Oregon State’s newest building, the Student Experience Center. Current station manager Matt Walton and his team held a 27-hour marathon as part of their “Farewell to Snell” event.

The good news is, with the major location change, the current batch of students seem fantastic and ready for the transition. While Walton and his team may have established a culture of success over the last few years, it wasn’t always that way.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA“I remember during my orientation date at the university, there was an unmanned booth with a KBVR banner that said, ‘Interested in being a DJ? Sign up,’” Walton recalled. “And the fact that it was unmanned, I think speaks volumes about how far we’ve come. There weren’t many names on the list.”

Since he’s been there, the station has come very far. Walton explained that there was no formal training system in place when he started, no regulation for show scheduling, no order. Nepotism was the name of the game.

Today that isn’t the case. The current KBVR FM team has established a transparent system based on seniority and compliance with FCC rules. Those who show up when scheduled stick around. Walton himself is nowhere near the top of the priority list and he likes it that way.

As a result of these changes, Walton has noticed a particular uptick in students sticking around.

“Retention’s way higher. Any given term, you can expect to lose a percentage of your DJ core through transfer, study abroad, graduation, not digging it anymore,” Walton explained. “But we’ve done a good job of kind of fostering a bigger sense of community, and nowhere was that more apparent than our Farewell to Snell event.”

People are staying on, learning the technologies, and producing high-quality content that they’re even beginning to get recognized for. Over the last two years, KBVR FM has been nominated for seven awards by the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, four of which they’ve won. Individual members of the team have won a number of awards as well. Most notably, sports broadcaster Josh Worden and Walton himself have won the award for best sports play-by-play two years in a row. The station itself won the top award for Best College Station with Student Population Over 10,000.

That’s all perfect timing as KBVR FM makes the move to the Student Experience Center. What they’re moving into is the shiniest new toy on campus, filled with the shiniest new toys in the region. The tech they’re inheriting is so advanced that the Orange Media Network trumps even big-time local broadcasting units.

Bill Gross, interim director of the Orange Media Network, detailed a trip to the Portland Trailblazers facility that let them in on this secret.

“The equipment we’re putting in at the Student Experience Center is literally state of the art,” Gross gushed. “We were touring the Trailblazers broadcast facility over the summer. I was looking at their video switcher and it looked similar. I asked the team installing our systems, ‘Isn’t this the same one we’re getting?’ And they said, ‘No, what you’re getting is two models newer than what is at the Blazers facility.’ So we’re two models ahead of Paul Allen.”

Beyond the technology, the Student Experience Center also hopes for a new level of cross-collaboration between all forms of student media.

Walton called it KBVR FM’s next step in maintaining relevance in a digital era. “Over in the new building, it’s a shared work space. We’re not separated from The Barometer, not separated from KBVR TV, not separated from PRISM. We’re all right there—we all see each other every day. We’re all on the same floor of the building. And so by breaking down those physical barriers, the idea is there is going to just naturally be more collaboration.”

Walton went on to explain that this could mean anything from The Barometer using clips of radio broadcasts on their website or video of their major in-studio performances on KBVR TV. Gross made mention of the current PRISM editor producing a radio show and a segment on KBVR TV based on the PRISM magazine.

Thanks to all this, Oregon State University will play host to the first ever Northwest Regional Conference for the Intercollegiate Broadcast System. The event, tentatively set for October, will take place in the new building. Students from all over the nation, but primarily the Pacific Northwest, will come to the day-long conference to learn the way KBVR FM handles things and to drool on the aforementioned shiny toys.

 KBVR FM is set up to be headed to an even greater place. The current leadership believes that it has systems in place that will help keep the national award-winning program on pace to continue to succeed again and again.The technology is better than it has ever been and should give incoming students experience that they can twirl back into the real world, and through collaboration with the other programs, KBVR FM will continue to serve the community from end to end.

By Nathan Hermanson