“If you asked most college students if they know there’s a student-run radio station on campus, they’d say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we had that!'” acknowledges Ben Yee, the recently retired general manager of WCBN (88.3 FM). Yet Yee, currently finishing a PhD in nuclear engineering, says the student-run station is experiencing “our best year in a long time … In our last fundraising drive, listeners pledged $33,000.” That’s peanuts compared with Michigan Radio’s $817,000, but a lot better than the $28,700 listeners gave last year.
Between 120 and 130 volunteers run the station, about half students and the rest staff, faculty, and locals. Yee’s been there since his sophomore year, while some DJs like Sean Westergaard and Jim Manheim (the Observer’s deputy editor) have been doing it for decades.
Since the station can’t afford to pay for Arbitron audience surveys, it can only guess at how many people are listening. “We know the Little Caesar’s on Stadium listens to us all the time–they’ve called and told us,” Yee says. “And because we’re online, we got a testimonial from a law firm in Los Angeles.”
It doesn’t help that the station broadcasts with a measly 200 watts of power. “We’re still planning a new transmitter,” says Yee. It’s currently projected to cost $50,000, with construction starting in early 2013. “We’re going for 3,000 watts so we can reach a larger range of people as far east as Ypsilanti and as far west as Dexter and Chelsea,” Yee says. “But not as far west as Jackson. There’s a high school radio station there at our frequency.”