It's appropriate that the posh suite that houses the University of Akron's student-run radio station contains a classroom. Over the past nine years, WZIP-FM/88.1 has been quietly schooling a handful of well-moneyed corporate stations -- as well as its college radio brethren -- in the ratings game.
A nonprofit station that receives no federal funding, WZIP recently ranked eighth out of 35 FM radio stations in the Cleveland/Akron/Canton area, drawing an impressive 144,700 listeners a week, according to Arbitron data for spring 2001. WZIP's closest competition among student-run college radio stations, Cleveland State's WCSB, attracts a weekly audience of 16,900.
The station's numbers not only make it a ratings bully in college circles, but real competition for local Clear Channel stations in some key demographic areas. So how does a station with only three salaried employees, a modest broadcast power of 7,500 watts, and less than 5 percent of its corporate competitors' annual budget go toe-to-toe with the giants?
"Young people trying to communicate with young people -- that's pretty much our secret weapon," says Tom Beck, WZIP general manager and University of Akron faculty member. "We don't have millions of dollars to do research, but I have young people that work for me, and they've got a finger on the pulse."
"To quote Mr. Beck: We're young, cool, hip, and with it," laughs WZIP staffer Wendy Clawson. "We're just like them."
"Them" refers to adolescents and young adults with lots of disposable income. Young listeners are flocking to WZIP's teen-friendly "rhythm radio" format, which blends rock with rap, Linkin Park with Jay-Z. Moreover, the station eschews the disparate, experimental approach that's often associated with college radio in favor of a single, unified format. Unlike other college stations, once listeners tune in to WZIP, they don't tune out: Among the highly coveted age ranges of 12 to 17 and 18 to 24, the station is ranked first and third in the market, respectively, according to Arbitron. Perhaps WZIP's greatest strength is that it's one of the few modern-day radio stations with its ear close to the ground.
"Without sounding presumptuous, I think we have a better idea of what the younger crowd is going to listen to than someone who's working 10 markets," says Nathan Williams, an engineering assistant at WZIP. "Our music directors are not faculty. They are students, and they basically make the selection of the music. The faculty leaves us alone, as far as running the station goes. Yeah, Mr. Beck plays a day-to-day role, but he's kind of hands-off in most cases."
But it's not just the youthful staff at the reins that has made WZIP so competitive. The station also has built-in flexibility that is fast becoming one of its greatest assets. Corporate radio's size -- and its lengthy chain of command -- makes it inherently slow to respond to market changes. By relying on program directors who don't answer to industry research, major-label sales pitches, or stockholder concerns as much as their own likes and dislikes, WZIP is better able to react to and anticipate trends. This is especially important in the perpetually fluctuating rap and rock realms, where who's hot and who's not seemingly changes with the weather.
"When you're a huge corporate structure, it's a little bit tougher to make changes," Beck says. "We don't have to be like that. We can change tomorrow to all-yodeling if we wanted to, if we thought that was going to work, because we have that kind of flexibility."
That flexibility has been crucial to WZIP's rise. The station's early '90s switch to a unified, urban format occurred just ahead of the hip-hop explosion and quickly made WZIP one of the nation's most successful college stations. Since then, as rock and rap have become increasingly intermingled, WZIP has adopted rhythm radio, a move that has led to new levels of prosperity for both the station and the university.
"There's all kinds of reasons for what we do: Our students get good training, the public gets serviced, and the University of Akron gets promotion," Beck says. "We see all of this stuff working in concert, and I think that's what helps to make us competitive. We have measurable objectives: At the end of the day, we want to see numbers, and we turn that over into the potential to communicate with people. Commercial stations sell blue jeans and beer. We're trying to sell a better life."