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Is Twitter the New College Radio?

When I was a kid in the 1970s my parents would try to pry me away from the television, warning me that it was going to “rot my brain.” Yet, my dad also admitted to me that his parents made the same pronouncements to him about the dangers of listening to too much radio. Each generation seems to fear the latest technology and it’s almost cliched when parents demonize TV, video games, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and texting, when in fact these are all just new ways to communicate the same old stories, news, and entertainment.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Twitter and Facebook are the new “radio” for the younger generation. It’s almost hard to believe that way back when we got our breaking news from the radio because today radio is often overlooked as a news source.

WHRC Studio 1987

WHRC Studio 1987

A few weeks ago I was at my college reunion and revisited the campus radio station WHRC. During my visit I talked to a lot of people about the station and the role that it played on campus in the 1980s. Everyone had bits and pieces of nostalgia to pass along, but what really amazed me was that several people had distinct memories of first hearing about the Challenger disaster in 1986 while listening to WHRC. At the time the campus-only station was piped in to the dining center and, in fact, the main WHRC audience was during meal times. So all of the people who I talked to were probably eating lunch in the dining center when they heard the news together about this tragedy.

Similarly, when Kurt Cobain died in 1994 (another defining tragic moment for my generation), the first people to mention it around my office had heard the news over the radio. However, this was also the first time that I remember hearing that the Internet was actually breaking news, as it was buzzing over word of Cobain’s death. This was during the early days of the Internet (I’m not even sure if we had email at my office yet), when those participating in online communities like The Well were trailblazing true hipster geeks. I’m pretty sure it was my friend’s sister who worked at Wired (a hip magazine about technology? Crazy!) who was getting some of these early reports on Cobain and passing the news along to those of us in technologically-deprived offices.

Flash forward to today, when breaking news spreads like wildfire through mobile devices, online, on Twitter, and through social networking hubs like Facebook. It kind of makes you wonder if these tools are supplanting radio in some way. An interview with Cracker’s David Lowery in Glide touches on this, making the point that Twitter and Facebook may even be the new college radio, not just for their ability to break news, but also in that they facilitate music scenes:

I see you’re on Facebook and fans can follow you guys on Twitter.  Quite different from the 80’s…or is it?

Well, exactly.  It’s different from the ‘80’s in that it’s much easier to maintain a grass roots following now.  But we basically tried all of this networking back then, just in a different way.  We collected people’s addresses, we had mailing lists, we had a newsletter.  We went around to the college radio stations, which to us back in the early’80’s was our underground blog.  We would play on the college stations and then do a show in the college towns and there was this belief that we would associate ourselves with like-minded people, which is a lot like the social networking tools of today.

There was something about the popularity of the college radio station back in the 80’s that made music so special.  Students today have no idea what that was like…

I’ll tell you what it was.  College radio in the ‘80’s was very egalitarian…it was about playing pop music for our generation…

Indeed, radio can (and did) bring people together to help spread news, spread scenes, and even spread music out to a wider audience. Although radio’s declining influence is true overall, I do think that non-commercial radio and college radio in particular, is still a powerful force. Even for breaking news. Just this week, in 2009, I got a call during my college radio show from someone following up on news he’d heard on the radio earlier in the day about the death of surf legend Bob Bogle of the Ventures. He asked if I could verify the news for him. It was like the olden days before the Internet, when people would call radio and TV stations to find out things like “was that an earthquake that I just felt?” and “where is the Sonic Youth show tonight?” And it confirmed my strong belief that radio isn’t dead yet.

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