WSUM’s new livestream creates space for free expression

FreeFlow is an online-only livestream
WSUM’s new livestream creates space for free expression
Courtesy of WSUM
Carlton Cook, WSUM station manager

With more student DJs than hours of airtime to give them, WSUM – the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s radio station – started an online-only livestream earlier this year. Called FreeFlow, it abides by looser rules than the station’s federally regulated FM stream.

Now in its 16th year, WSUM can be heard locally on 91.7 FM and on the station’s website, WSUM launched a trial run of FreeFlow in January through a link on the website’s audio player, but could start promoting a fuller schedule this fall.

Providing free artistic expression is one of the main goals of the new livestream, according to WSUM co-founder and general manager Dave Black. Like satellite radio and cable TV, services that require either a paid subscription or an internet provider to access them, the livestream is not subject to the same rules against indecency and profanity that the Federal Communications Commission applies to terrestrial radio and network TV.

Black is a non-voting member of the 14-member WSUM Governance Board – composed of 10 students, journalism and communication arts professors and a representative of the Dean of Students. The board ensures that the station adheres to FCC rules and university policies. WSUM is licensed by the FCC as a noncommercial educational radio station and is also subject to its bylaws which are approved by the Board of Regents.

DJs on the radio dial are prohibited by the FCC from swearing or playing music with profanity or sexually explicit language. That can be limiting, Black says, especially for those who wish to play hip-hop, punk or heavy metal music.

WSUM Program Director Audrey Bachman, the station’s show scheduler, says she receives more applications from students wanting to DJ shows than there are broadcast hours in a week. She says she had to turn away several applicants last semester, something she says is “really unfortunate.”

Bachman says many students seeking airtime want to play genres of music that typically contain language too graphic to be legally played on the radio outside of the FCC’s “safe harbor hours” of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., when children are least likely to be listening.

FreeFlow not only creates more programming hours, it also eliminates the need for DJs to heavily edit profanity-laced songs before playing them.

“It’s not that we want an outlet for swearing and misogyny and all that,” Black says. “We want an outlet for totally free expression, 24/7, because there are some genres that just aren’t a good fit for radio.”

The station has a training program that weeds out “Howard Stern wannabes” before they get on air, Black says. Both the station and the livestream serve as “a learning laboratory,” he says, but FreeFlow may become a place for newer DJs to sharpen their skills before moving to WSUM on the radio dial.

What FreeFlow becomes remains to be seen, Black says. “I think the demand from students who want to do shows will drive it.”

Sammy Gibbons is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine. and co-hosts a weekly one-hour music show on WSUM.