When KASU went on the air in Jonesboro 60 years ago, NPR didn’t exist and PBS was a decade away. Even “ASU,” which gave the college radio station its call letters, was yet a dream.
Arkansas State University was Arkansas State College, and the KASC name was already taken. So Carl R. Reng, A-State’s president, boldly seized on KASU, reasoning that his college would soon be a university.
Six decades later, A-State has been a university for 50 years and KASU is celebrating being the state’s oldest public broadcast medium. Mike Doyle, the station manager, says its basic mission has never wavered.
“It has always been connected to an academic unit that prepares students for careers in media and communication,” he said. The ways it fulfills that mission, though, have changed as remarkably as the technology students use to produce the broadcasts and the ways the audience engages with it.
And today’s media industry isn’t looking for just radio announcers, TV reporters, news writers and social media specialists. It’s seeking prospects who do it all.
“I need reporters who can feed the digital monster first,” said Nick Genty, news director at KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock. “Immediacy, being able to gather facts, sort them out and present them on all platforms as soon as events happen.”
Austin Kellerman, Genty’s counterpart at KARK, Channel 4, agreed. “Can they do it all? Shoot, edit, write for the web, etc.? How active are they on social media?”
Colleges like A-State are adapting, emphasizing multimedia courses but also teaching entrepreneurship, a valuable path as companies downsize.
Enrollment in A-State’s specific radio/TV degree program fell from 49 in 2012 to just 13 last year. But the multimedia program, introduced in 2014, picked up the slack, going from 54 students to 78 in three years.
“I teach a class in advanced audio production, and even the terminology needs updating,” Doyle told Arkansas Business. “We talk about having something on tape, but we don’t mean tape. It’s a digital file. People talk about airwaves, and we still have a 600-foot tower with a signal that reaches 25 to 30 counties in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee. But thousands stream KASU’s internet feed.”
KASU-FM offers “music, news, arts and views” at 91.9 MHz and at KASU.org. Its sister TV station, now called ASU-TV, debuted in the late 1960s under department Chairman Charles Rasberry. Since the 1970s, it has occupied Channel 16 on Jonesboro’s Suddenlink cable system. KASU has a Twitter account and Facebook page, and it is bolstering its social media presence. A-State also caters to a booming student interest in film production.
“It’s a great laboratory for learning the communications world,” Doyle said. “You have to get the facts, tell a good story, be creative, analyze facts critically. There will always be a market for these skills, no matter how the market changes and no matter what medium you’re using.”
KASU.org features world news, weather, reports from Arkansas Public Media and the station’s own news department, and links to NPR programs like “All Things Considered.” The nonprofit radio-website collaboration reflects a modern mass media business model of consolidation, centralized operations and seeking audiences on all platforms.
“We provide students the tools to operate in a multiplatform world,” said Mary Jackson-Pitts, a media professor who is proud that A-State has the only program in Arkansas blessed by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism & Mass Communications.
“We recently hired Dr. Ron Sitton to run the Delta Digital News Service, which has students operating in every platform area,” Jackson-Pitts said.
Delta Digital, created last August, is a lab where students learn to feed content to news organizations, emphasizing a multimedia format. Jackson-Pitts expects the students’ clippings and links to be important elements of their resumes.
DeltaNewsService.com posted last week a five-part package on the opioid crisis in northeast Arkansas. The work was done by students in the spring 2017 multimedia reporting class.
“That class encompasses newspaper writing, writing for the web, broadcast writing, the use of social media,” Jackson-Pitts said.
Today’s TV reporter, for example, might gather images and audio on her smartphone, get the news out fast on Twitter or Facebook, then return to the studio to write for the station’s website. “Then they need to be able to put the story in context and perspective for the air product,” said Genty, the KATV news director. “It’s not an easy task.”
‘Fundamentals Never Change’
It’s also not easy for colleges to keep up with technology, said Doug Krile, the retiring executive director of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association.
“When I was on a development committee for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, updating methods and technology was something that I always preached. It’s costly, but you can’t have the kids pushing around studio cameras when at most TV stations now they’re robotic. Schools are coming around, though, and ASU and UALR have done a good job.”
Broadcasting jobs have always overlapped, Doyle said. “Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite were in radio before they became TV icons,” he said. “Craig O’Neill, who was Randy Hankins as a student here, became a huge hit on Little Rock radio before he went into TV.”
O’Neill, the evening anchor on KTHV, Channel 11, got his bachelor’s degree in radio/TV journalism from A-State in 1972.
“The fundamentals never change,” Jackson-Pitts said. “You have to know how to write and use good grammar. You have to think critically and synthesize information. Students have to learn to report factual information without providing commentary, and that’s a challenge across all platforms.”
Overall enrollment in A-State’s communications and media programs increased from 404 in 2012 to 457 in 2016.
As automation and consolidation began cutting broadcasting jobs, A-State started offering courses in media management and entrepreneurship.
Jackson-Pitts developed a course to “help students realize that entrepreneurship is a great asset in a changing industry.” Along with the undergraduate course, ASU has an online course in entrepreneurship as part of its master’s program in media management. “Contractions led a lot of people to graduate school, and we try to help downsized people start businesses,” she said.
The instruction focuses on two models. First there’s conceiving a desirable product or service and creating a company to provide it, Jackson-Pitts said. The other path, which the professor called “corporate entrepreneurship,” urges employees to take bright ideas to the boss and share in the company’s rewards.
“Students learn to develop businesses where they want to live and raise a family,” Jackson-Pitts said. “They offer solutions and services in small towns. They can work for themselves. Students need to know that they can monetize their talents, and that every business needs ideas to monetize.”
After taking the course, she said, students have launched businesses in photography, graphic design, video production and blogging. “Even critiques and analyses of video games can find a market.”
Looking back at 60 years of KASU history, Doyle grew nostalgic, recalling his years as a broadcasting major and student announcer in the 1970s.
Regardless of technological advances, Doyle said he will always think of radio as a “magical realm” created “between your left ear and your right ear.”
He recalled the radio and TV personality Arthur Godfrey once asking a 7-year-old whether the child preferred TV or radio. “I like radio better,” the boy replied. “The pictures are clearer.”