marks the 50th
anniversary of NPR’s first
broadcast. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of radio histories
and contexts, leading up to this Guest Post from a
colleague whose upcoming book on college radio should be a must-read!]
[Katherine Rye Jewell is my colleague at
Fitchburg State University, where she’s an Associate
Professor in the Economics, History & Political Science department (and
where she’s taught lots of American Studies courses, many of them team-taught
with me!). Her first book, Dollars
for Dixie: Business and the Transformation of Conservatism in the Twentieth
Century, changed the conversation around the South in 20C America; and
I’m sure her second, on the topic
of this Guest Post, will do the same for college
radio and media history. I’m proud to call Kate a colleague and friend!]
It’s easy to conceive of a
golden era for college radio, one now lost to streaming and Internet radio.
Never mind that college
radio lives on, even thrives, despite the digital disruption and the music
industry’s recent woes. For Americans who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s --
the last of whom have turned 40 -- college radio served as a paragon of
individuality, authenticity and free expression, or an experimental training
ground for the untested and non-commercially viable, perhaps deservedly,
depending on one’s perspective.
It’s tempting to construct
that consensus history of college radio. But it would be the wrong view.
Rather, college radio holds such a particular place in American culture and
memory for more than its role in breaking new bands or helping fans discover
their next favorite artist. Its meaning grows from its role as a battleground
in the culture wars over how the nation would sound — whose voices would
represent communities and identity across space, and receive the benefits of
broadcast, even if limited. And there perhaps, it has ceded ground to new
connected lovers of the eclectic and avant garde across space. On road trips,
music fans knew to keep the dial turned below 91.9 FM, searching for weak
college signals that bled through between NPR and Christian radio. The
connections they found went beyond mere entertainment, offering more than
refuge for young-adult angst and mass culture dropouts.
Stations sampled local
and regional culture that reflected America’s patchwork diversity, featuring
local artists and musicians, venues and record stores. They connected
like-minded adventurers in the underground, lovers of the unheard, the
under-appreciated, and not-commercially viable. They provided underrepresented
communities with a voice not found elsewhere on radio.
A network emerged in the
1980s that could reshape American culture, the music industry and mass media
structures. They created alternatives to what mainstream record executives or
commercial FM formats dictated, but also influenced the music industry,
signified by the 1988 debut of Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. Fueling
this cultural shift, stations fostered fanzines,
independent record labels and genres such as punk and hardcore, rap and hip
hop, electronic and dance music. They provided outlets for experimental jazz,
folk music, reggae, and news and information, religious programming, or shows
focusing on Broadway musicals or a cappella recordings. College signals
broadcast religious services or hosted syndicated news in multiple languages,
or news and information for queer communities. Among its musical fare, many
artists would not go on to commercial success, instead anchoring vibrant local
scenes and networks.
non-commercial radio offered an authentic culture defined by localism and
connection amidst national media networks, repeated economic dislocation and
globalization. Although alternative rock emerged as a mainstream musical
category and commercial-radio format, college stations served as outposts on
the spectrum to push the boundaries of expression
In my own musical
education, WRVU’s 2011 sale, coinciding with other headline-grabbing
closures, convinced me that technology had finally displaced the “classic”
college-radio experience. I lost track of music scenes during graduate school,
and as with other former DJs, I drifted away from college radio. I had watched
as Napster came and went during college, transforming music consumption and
venting fans’ frustration with CDs’s gouging prices. MTV had already been lost
to reality TV and glorified game shows. YouTube, Spotify and iTunes seemed to
undermine the last vestiges of localism.
technological-disruption narrative belied college radio’s disappearance.
For one thing, stations
live on. College icons at Oberlin, the University of Montana, Princeton, MIT
and more continue to broadcast new and local music. Community-based signals,
also prosper in the Internet Age. WFMU, New Jersey’s famous freeform station,
pioneered success through streaming. The dial grows crowded, again. Upstarts in
community radio WXNA in Nashville, WXOX in Louisville, and out of KUSF in San Francisco emerged after the FCC’s
removal of barriers for low-power FM.
I began exploring
college radio’s history, consulted with radio practitioners, archivists, and
experts in the current media landscape. In my research, I found that college
radio’s seeming displacement was a red herring, standing in for broader
anxieties about transformations in the media landscape. Lamenting college
radio’s demise tends to emerge from a sense of alienation with popular culture,
of feeling disconnected from voices rising to prominence in American culture.
Furthermore, college radio’s popular image as the vehicle for alternative rock
acts to remake American music overshadows longstanding, often conflicting
purposes and expectations for these airwaves, simplifying the genres served and
its cultural significance. Local bands mailed in tapes, hoping for
airplay. Student deejays pored through submissions, attended late-night shows
at smoky, backroom venues for playlist fodder—and increasingly executives
looked to college stations as a proving ground for new talent to be signed to
major-label contracts. While this is true, college radio’s support of hip hop
never generated such popular association with college radio, and indeed, even
led some stations to be cast off the airwaves, such as Adelphi University’s
signal in 1996, the station that was home to members of Public Enemy during
their college days. Even in the construction of college radio’s central
contributions, mythologies and exclusions in line with larger culture war
It’s true that the
Internet contributed to Gen Xers’ repeated sense of dislocation, ranging from
latch-key kids, to dot-com entrepreneurs who went bust, to losers in the 2008
financial and housing crisis. While pundits decry social networks as creating
“echo chambers,” digital media provide myriad vehicles for expression.
Liberated from regulated airwaves, alternative media options are endless.
Consumers can curate infinite playlists. But how can new, meaningful
communities be built around them?
When there are infinite
visions — transmitted via media on which the seven dirty words and more are
entirely permitted — what voices will rise to remake and reunify American
culture? As with the culture wars that have emerged since the 1960s, what was
at stake for partisans was less what Prince or Twisted Sister song would
negatively influence children, despite the sincerity of opponents. Instead, it
was more an expression of fear, of lack of control over American culture and
institutions: a rather abstract term that adheres much more easily to dirty
lyrics and gyrating dance moves as a vehicle to express these deeper concerns.
But as the media
landscape has transformed, and technological change continues, new questions
have emerged. Where do debates regarding value and authenticity of music and
art take place? The Internet nurtures niche cultures—but what happens when you
don’t know what your niche is?
The loss implied in
suggesting college radio’s demise bears little connection to the medium’s
persistence. Indeed, college radio often failed to uphold professed democratic
or meritocratic ideals. University administrations or student preferences often
limited station programming, but the Internet poses no such barriers, giving
rise to artists such as The Weeknd and Chance the Rapper, whose success also
circumvented mainstream labels, or perhaps, the interests of college radio
music directors. Instead, what seems lost is not music discovery or community
voices, but the sense of their collective potential to challenge the media
structures that define American politics and culture. As opportunities to
broadcast expand, the result is cacophony. The voices blend into static.
But the left of the dial
persists. It has expanded to the Internet and diversified alongside American
culture. Student and community DJs still peruse the latest recordings and
construct listenable (for the most part) shows. Nielsen continues to report
that most Americans still tune in to the radio during some part of their week.
So rather than mourning
college radio’s demise, tune in, hit “Seek,” and find an alternative sound. It
might not be revolutionary, or even oppositional—or perhaps it is—but it will
provide a sense of place and connection. And maybe some new favorite songs
along the way.
PS. What do you
think? Other radio histories or stories you’d share?]