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R.E.M. Breaks Up, College Radio Nostalgia Ensues

College Radio Staple at WVFI (Photo: J. Waits)

The web is buzzing today with the news that R.E.M. has broken up. Once a staple of college radio, R.E.M. eventually crossed over into the mainstream.

A BBC News headline today declared, “R.E.M.: The band that defined, then eclipsed college rock.” In fact, R.E.M. was one of the bands that epitomized the “college rock” or “college radio” sound that morphed into the ironically named commercial radio format of “alternative rock.”

Last year one of R.E.M.’s early singles, “Radio Free Europe,” was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress because of its significance and because it set “the pattern for later indie rock releases by breaking through on college radio in the face of mainstream radio’s general indifference.” Many credit R.E.M. with paving the way for the future commercial success of other college radio stalwarts.

The contradictory nature of independent radio darlings like R.E.M. achieving broader success caused Salon.com writer Andrew Leonard to opine back in 2008 about their appearance on college radio station KALX when they were past their college radio prime. He wrote:

“…to hear Stipe’s voice on KALX was to hear a life-cycle metaphor. The band is back where it started — no longer a staple of hit radio, no longer in high rotation on MTV, no longer selling out stadiums. Nope, back to blessed obscurity, back to college radio, back to singing unintelligibly about… Houston? “

Today’s news about R.E.M. splitting up is creating a wave of college radio nostalgia (although college radio never went away), with commenters on a Huffington post piece making statements such as:

“I can’t even IMAGINE college radio without R.E.M…” – MahatmaCoat

“…just the fact that they owned “college radio” making it the place to go for new music was influential in itself.” – chiodo08

Like many aging GenXers, I also can’t imagine my early days of college radio without R.E.M. and their other I.R.S. cohorts. But, I don’t believe that any one band “owns” college radio. There are plenty of adventurous artists who continue to get college radio airplay decades after their first releases. Perhaps today’s college radio nostalgia might cause some R.E.M. fans to flip their radio dial to the lower frequencies to catch some unexpected sounds. Luckily, the experience of discovering something new and different over the terrestrial radio airwaves lives on, even if R.E.M. called it quits.


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