How Columbus State University got a radio station

Danna Gibson is chair of the department of communication at Columbus State University. She is shown with Cody the Cougar during a ribbon-cutting and launch celebration for 88.5 WCUG Cougar Radio on April 21.
Danna Gibson is chair of the department of communication at Columbus State University. She is shown with Cody the Cougar during a ribbon-cutting and launch celebration for 88.5 WCUG Cougar Radio on April 21.

Danna Gibson and Scott Sellnow-Richmond have each played a vital role in launching Columbus State University’s new WCUG radio station.

CSU obtained the radio station via a partnership with PMB Broadcasting in Columbus — a partnership Dr. Gibson was present to foster from the beginning. Gibson got the phone call that CSU had a radio station, but it wasn’t until she brought Sellnow-Richmond on board as faculty adviser that she really started to see WCUG take shape.

A year later, WCUG has grown and surpassed all of its goals. Both professors sat down with reporter Carrie Beth Wallace to discuss the process of obtaining WCUG, how it’s grown over the past year and where the station is headed.

Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.

Q: How did Columbus State University come to have a radio station?

A: (Gibson) We have had a partnership with PMB Broadcasting for quite some time. Four years ago I wanted to convince Jimbo Martin to be on our newly formed advisory board. I brought him in on a Monday and we talked about the vision for the department. I was just the interim chair at the time. By that evening, he called me and said, “I’ll be on the advisory board.” By Friday he called me and said, “Gibson if I understand correctly, you really want a radio station, don’t you?” I said, “Well yes, but we don’t have the resources or the…” and he said, “No no no. Leave the buts to me.”

So he opened a production studio for us. It was on the other side of the Carpenter Building. It had older equipment, but we were thrilled to get it. He opened it so that we could record programming and send it to PMB and they would put it on the air. We held live events, election events, we created special topic programming, and we had a crew of students do Friday night Football Focus. It was a very popular program and we received quite a bit of Facebook following. We were very excited. We had done that faithfully for three years. Jimbo kept saying, “One day, I’m going to give you a real live station.” And I just kept saying, “Wow. What will we do? This will be amazing.”

Q: So then what happened? How did you get the station?

A: He began hinting at it about two years ago. He kept saying, “We’re working out the details, just hang tight, it’s going to happen.” Then, in mid-June 2015, I got the call. Joseph Brannan called and said, “Danna, it’s a go. You have a radio station that goes live July 1.” I was driving. I said, “Wait, wait just a minute. Let me pull off the road.” My first reaction was “this is amazing.”

I am always thinking of ways to grow the visibility of the Department of Communication at CSU. Over the past four years, we have grown 71 percent, and that growth is because of our amazing faculty and students. So I knew if we were gifted something of this nature, our students would make it happen. I knew that we had a faculty member coming on board with a background in radio.

So I said, “OK, Joseph. This is amazing.” And he said, “OK now you’re on the radio 24/7 starting July 1.”

Q: You had to be on air 24/7 in two weeks?

A: Yes, and we had nothing. So I said, “Joseph, what are we going to do?” And he said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to run jazz.” And I laughed and said, “OK, we’re going to run jazz.”

We have this video footage that is precious to me of the renovation. At the end of May that year, this space we’re sitting in was another professor’s studio. So renovation had to take place starting May 31. We thought getting the station was going to happen, but we didn’t know when. Then I go the call in mid-June. So between May 31 and July 1, this space went from nothing to this.

Q: So what happened next?

A: We run automation. So first it was jazz, and I was sitting there thinking, “Oh my gosh, what if people gripe about the jazz?” No. We had an amazing groundswell of support for that.

Now we run 11 formats — 11 different genres of music. While on one hand, it seems like, “Why are you doing that?” Well, our students really need that training so that when they graduate from here and go out into the field, they’ve had experience with this.

I want people to know that we ran automation for two reasons: one, we had to get our music built up; and two, because we had to train our kids. During the summer, some of them would come in and put the music into the program. Then by fall, they were starting the voice overs. July 1, we went on the air and goodness knows, it wasn’t within two weeks when Dr. Sellnow-Richmond arrived on campus with us.

Q: How was the transition?

A: Well, Ledger-Enquirer reporter Mark Rice came in to interview us while Dr. Sellnow-Richmond just happened to be visiting. He had already signed his contract that he was joining us Aug. 1. We were standing in this room with Mark Rice and Dr. Sellnow-Richmond was standing a little bit behind me. I whispered to him, “Will you serve as faculty adviser?” And his immediate response was “I’d love to.” So without missing a beat, I said to Mark, “Let me introduce you to our faculty adviser.”

I’m about to turn the rest of this interview over to Dr. Sellnow-Richmond, but first I want to tell you some things that he won’t tell you. First, he brings with him the mindset that the students need to run the program. He took the initiative in leading them to build their own governance. They have policies and procedures. We run this station with a management team of four students. They are so proud of this station. At the media event for the Georgia Film Academy, we had a PMB student employee who was there interviewing right along with the best. But to realize that all of our students have just come into this? It’s an amazing opportunity for them.

I don’t know how to capture the excitement of seeing four college students take such ownership of this space. They wear that shirt that PMB provided them with such pride.

One of the things Scott has also had one of our students employees working on is marketing. Our goal this year is to get sponsorship. The station costs us every year, so we are going to rely on people in this community to help us cover that year of programming. We are working out ways for that. Even though we are non-commercial, we have a website that will drive the promotion for that support. We will give promotion for them throughout the day and they will be inaugural sponsors. To us, that is a big deal. If they will join that elite first wave of inaugural sponsors, we will be working on special ways to set them apart. That is something our marketing person has been tasked with this year. People can find more information on our website if they are interested. So Dr. Sellnow-Richmond, go ahead and pick up from here with more about your experience with the station.”

Q: You arrived right in the middle of the launch, Dr. Sellnow-Richmond. What was happening when you got here?

A: (Sellnow-Richmond) When I arrived in Columbus after just moving down here from Detroit, I met with a couple of people about vague ideas of what they wanted the radio station to be. There were definitely plans in place but it was still sort of very preliminary and more of just sort of throwing ideas out there. So what I did in July really was just set to work building what sort of place this was going to be. What kind of roles the student staff was going to play, what types of roles the volunteers should play, how to train them on FCC guidelines, how to work with the equipment we’d been given. … Everything we work with is industry standard or better. We have better equipment than I ever utilized when I worked.

So when I set to work, what I tried to do was parallel each of my student employees’ jobs and their job duties with actual career paths that exist in broadcasting.

We have a student who is our program director. Every radio station has a program director, an operations manager, has someone in charge of production and has someone in charge of marketing. Those are our four paid staff members. We have a lot more volunteers that sort of shadow them and supplement them and go on the air and produce and everything else. But those careers are directly transferrable to any corporate broadcasting entity if they choose that career path — on top of just all around being good resume builders in whatever direction they may go in. My goal has always been and still is to sort of walk a very fine line between utilizing its potential for vocational training, but at the same time I want to preserve the artistic merit of college radio. We as a radio station want to include and serve the community and we do that, but we also want to energize the students and the culture here. We are working all the time to become a foundational aspect of the culture here. I want everybody on campus here to know who we are and to be proud that they have some sort of stake in ownership — even if they never volunteer. Because we are competing with everything.

This isn’t 2001. We aren’t just competing with other terrestrial radio stations, we’re competing with Spotify and YouTube Music. Where they can literally listen to anything they want at any time. We can’t compete with that. We can give them what they want if they tell us what they want, and that’s another reason why we have all of these genres of music. There’s a need for them. We are able to give these genres of music that corporate radio won’t touch. So we’re able to do that, but my thought is that the way to get them to listen to us — which they can do through TuneIn on their smart phones — rather than looking up Spotify or whatever. They have to have a sense of ownership to want to do that. So having a student staff has been really important to that. We are a presence at all major university events as long as it’s appropriate for us to be there. Our growth, and this is sort of the definition of the communication department, has exceeded anyone’s expectations.

Q: 71 percent growth is unheard of in any department.

A: Right. Our radio station had a set of goals for us that they wanted us to accomplish over the first year. We hit all of those within the first 90 days.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like for our readers to know about the station?

A: Well, everyone who’s on the air with regularity is a student. We have 11 genres of music and six talk show programs. All of the talk shows are created, produced and hosted by current students. We have a couple in the pilot stage as well. We give them a couple of runs at recording a show and kind of critique them and move them certain directions. We also just let them work out the kinks, because the first couple of times you record a show they’re usually a little wobbly for anybody. We’ve done up to five shows before we have them ready to go on the air, because we have them work on it until it’s ready to go. We have that luxury.

We have sports talk programming, and a late-night show on Fridays from 11 p.m. to midnight called The Graveyard Shift where they talk about conspiracies, aliens, ghosts and things like that. We have a show called Art Attack where we have art students talk about what’s going on in the art department. It’s really cool. We actually have a student right now who just pitched me a murder mystery show. People will voice act and then you have to tune in the next week to find out what the conclusion was from the previous show.

Q: This is so neat.

A: These are things you can’t get anywhere else in Columbus, but we have the students who have the time and the creativity. Again, not just have it on the air for their peers, but for anyone in the community. We can always use more people, but we are definitely developing an interest on the campus and getting more and more people excited about WCUG. Again, all of those programming blocks are available for individual sponsorship from our inaugural donors.

Another program called The Daily Exchange runs daily from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and is a mix of current and pop music where we also feature things that are going on around the university, the arts and the community. We are going to start running interview with the faculty that my interns collected over the summer. We interviewed people from nonprofit events and churches running events of interest to the community. It’s just going to continue to expand. We’ve started to interview faculty from the arts and music. It’s just really where we showcase our version of a morning show. We’re starting to feature more and more interview content. It’s always students creating the questions and doing the interviews. We’ve been lucky to interview some pretty impressive people so far.

Danna Gibson

Occupation: Chair of the Department of Communication at Columbus State University

Formal education: Ph.D. from the University of Memphis

Hometown: Waynesville, N.C.

Family: Married to Dr. Gary Gibson, superintendent of the Taylor County School System; four children

Scott Sellnow-Richmond

Occupation: Faculty adviser for WCUG

Formal education: Ph. D. from Wayne State University

Hometown: Battlecreek, Mich.

Family: Dr. Debbie Sellnow-Richmond, son due in late October