Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer In the Air

By Matt Hanks

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  If you ever took a sick day from school as a child, you’ve probably heard of the Columbia School of Broadcasting. Along with DeVry Institute, the Ginsu Knife, and Sally Struthers’ Save the Children Foundation, it ranks among the pantheon of daytime television advertisers. But if you think the Memphis chapter of Columbia (actually located in Bartlett) is just another assembly line for broadcast robots, think again. Independently owned and innovation-minded, Memphis’ Columbia has built itself into a local cottage industry. From Rock 103’s Bad Dog McCormack, 104 the River’s Bill Banister, to 92.9’s Caesar Romero, Columbia alumni occupy some of the highest profile slots on Memphis’ airwaves.

Columbia celebrates its 30th anniversary this fall, and even though the future is looking brighter than ever for the school, it’s obvious that they’re still smarting from the guilt-by-association wrought by all those years of low-budget TV spots. While I was researching this story, Columbia’s director of admissions, Mark Vires, asked me – on three separate occasions – whether I would be writing a positive piece, and he even tried to wield spin control in the most casual interview situations.

In a way, his paranoia is justified, because public misunderstanding and corporate indifference toward the school has almost meant the end of Columbia on a few occasions. The Memphis chapter of Columbia – like the other schools that share its moniker – was founded as a franchise of Broadcast Training Incorporated, a Los Angeles-based company. But in the early years of this decade, all government financial aid to BTI was cut off and as Bill Banister puts it, “the franchises were left swingin’ in the wind.” Banister isn’t just a graduate of Columbia. Having logged in 25 years as a teacher and consultant to the school, he’s practically its patron saint.

If Banister is the patron saint of Columbia, Tom Mann is the school’s saving grace. In the wake of the BTI debacle, he formed the Mediacom company with his wife Laura, and bought Columbia outright in 1994. Since then he’s updated the school’s curriculum for the 21st century, and raised its graduate job-placement rate to 90 percent; a statistic made all the more impressive when you consider the sweeping, transformative changes to the broadcasting industry he’s had to keep pace with in recent years. “I guess it’s a trend that started in the ’80s,” says Mann, “but now there’s such narrow casting of formats in radio. You go up and down the dial, and you know pretty precisely what each station has to offer. Everything is researched that way now – with a very specific audience in mind.” Vires adds, “It’s like this, there used to be country, rock, and R&B on the radio, now there’s five different versions of each. During the same time [that this change was occurring] broadcasting has gone from the 80th- to the 13th-fastest-growing industry in the country. It’s booming because it’s fragmenting.”

With the advent of Web radio and digital broadcasting this trend shows no signs of slowing. Mann is banking on these innovations to revolutionize the industry. “With digital radio, AM and FM will broadcast on the same band, and they’ll pretty much sound the same. It could give AM a second life. Between that, and broadcasting on the Web, the marketplace for radio will radically change,” he says. Columbia has already started preparing for this change, by founding its own Web station and investing heavily in new technologies for instruction. Their training studios offer the latest in computer broadcast, and perhaps even more a sign of the times, the school’s instructional focus is shifting away from on-air tasks to production. “Broadcasting has become much more of a science in the past 25 years,” says Mann. “You have more automation than ever in radio, but someone still has to produce everything you hear.”

Columbia offers two different areas of focus for its 35 or so students. The audio-production courses deal with the mechanics of radio, dealing with DATs and editing, while the radio-announcing courses concentrate on news writing, ennunciation, timing, and other neccesities of being on the air. In addition, Vires says the school is planning to add TV-production classes and coursework taught in Spanish. While the school offers no degree (a diploma is given, plus the help with job placement), what students do get is experience that is diverse and hands-on. The classes at Columbia are small with four students tops, and the teachers esteemed. As Banister puts it, “The old theory that those who can’t do end up teaching just doesn’t apply here.

Mann agrees. After all, the way he sees it, he doesn’t have much of a choice. “Things used to be more defined in this business,” he recalls. “You were either going to go into television or radio, AM or FM. Now you need to be a jack of all trades. I think having such a diverse curriculum and experienced teachers here helps with that.” How’s that for positive, Mr. Vires?

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