[April 20th 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 media.
College stations 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.
Certainly, local, 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.
Yet the 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 battles emerge.
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.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other radio histories or stories you’d share?]