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The Importance of the College Radio DJ: 1986 vs. 2013

WBAR DJs in 2009

WBAR DJs in 2009 (photo: J. Waits)

In the provocative piece, Why College Radio Still Matters, Columbia College junior Torsten Odland dissects the role of the college radio DJ today, comparing it with the presumed pinnacle of college radio DJ influence in the 1980s.

A DJ himself at Columbia College radio station WKCR-FM, Odland explains that he had a particular archetype of a college radio DJ in mind before he began working at his college radio station. He writes,

“The college radio persona I’m thinking of—the rock-nerd saving space in the airwaves for interesting pop music, the sarcastic taste-maker who may actually just be Stephen Malkmus—lives eternally in 1986, when they were socially necessary.

Though I didn’t realize that when I first started programming at WKCR, part of my motivation to get involved had to do with the role I thought I might fill as a cool one.”

He goes on to dissect the role of radio at Columbia (and Barnard College) by talking about college stations WKCR and WBAR (which I visited in 2009). He states,

“But there’s a crucial difference between the college radio stereotype and radio at Columbia today: WKCR and WBAR have very few listeners on campus and are functionally irrelevant to the taste and cultural sense of most Columbia students (insofar as they’re radio stations).”

I’m glad that Odland acknowledges that there is a stereotype about college radio’s major role in the 1980s, because it’s certainly possible that even in 1986 there were few campus listeners to most college radio stations. Many stations were campus-only operations with unpredictable broadcasts, for example. Odland argues that the potential of college radio is completely different in 2013 in large part because of the Internet. He makes an interesting point about the unlimited, free access to media that the Internet affords today. The media landscape in 1986 was so different that it’s hard for a 20-year-old to even fathom it. He writes,

“Why don’t college kids listen to the radio these days when it seemed to mean so much to them 25 years ago? Computers. If I sound pedantic, it’s because I need to remind myself periodically that before 15 years ago, human beings did not have free, instant access to all media. Anyone with a computer and Wi-Fi, even if they confine themselves to YouTube, has more music to choose from than any station library ever had, and they can listen to it in whatever order they please. If you want variety but aren’t terribly curious, Pandora can give you a mathematical approximation of the radio station you’d want to listen to anyway.”

To me one of his more intriguing points is that students today may be more drawn to music on the Internet because it gives them “the most control over what they listen to.” The idea of a DJ as musical gatekeeper may be unappealing to his generation because it has “authoritarian” overtones. I would guess that even in the 1980s there were college students who had the same feeling about college radio. Instead of tuning in to a campus station, they would frequent local record shops, craft their own mix tapes, and voraciously read music ‘zines in order to construct their own listening experiences.

1987 WHRC DJ

Jennifer Waits in the WHRC studio in 1987

As a member of Generation X (I was in college during the supposed heyday of college radio), I have a different take on the idea of who controls my music listening. I’ve always enjoyed tuning in to talented DJs who curate amazing sets of music and take me on a journey that I didn’t expect.

I continue to discover music by listening to (and by doing) college radio and like that it can work to contextualize music for me (vs. the often wide-open Internet). While I agree with Odland’s argument that, “The type of person who would have listened to college radio 25 years ago has all the tools today to be their own DJ, so to speak, and construct their own musical education,” I also believe that college radio can still serve the same purpose that it did 25 years ago.

To a certain degree Odland agrees. In his conclusion he surmises that although college radio DJs today might be less significant as far as influence goes, they do provide an important human element to music-sharing. He writes,

“There’s no pretense that I’m any kind of authority, or that the listeners need to come to me for the esoteric music they want to hear—if that’s what my audience wanted, they’d be better served by Google. Without those coercive elements, the listeners who stick around do so, presumably, because they prefer sharing musical experiences with other human beings.”

I don’t think that experience is much different from what a college radio DJ may have had in 1986. The reality is that not many college radio DJs (even in 1986) had much social influence. College radio collectively may have helped break bands, sell records, and book shows; but there were many of us DJs  who had limited audiences for our individual programs. I have no illusions that my meal-time show broadcast to my college’s cafeteria had any sort of broad influence on the music taste of my classmates. That doesn’t necessarily limit the human connections that we were building, as the happy phone call from a listener has always been heartwarming to a DJ alone in the booth in a dorm basement late at night. I’m glad to hear that college radio DJs in 2013 can still experience those sorts of moments with listeners.


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5 Responses to The Importance of the College Radio DJ: 1986 vs. 2013

  1. Julie September 12, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

    Thanks for sharing that article, Jennifer. Very interesting. I left a comment on the original blog… sort of a Ghosts of College Radio DJs Past I guess.

    My experience was rather different than yours because my college radio station was in the 4th largest city in the United States, and we covered the central urban area (though not the suburbs). So we really did reach a lot of listeners, and I think we really could help promote records and shows locally. It’s not like we broke Black Flag by ourselves or anything, but we certainly introduced people to some local bands. And I think record labels like Homestead were very appreciative that we chose to play Big Black rather than, I dunno, Dream Academy.

  2. Tim Kastelle September 12, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    This is an excellent post Jennifer – thanks! I was a DJ in the 80s too, and I think that the key role we played back then still applies just as much now -as a trusted filter.

    I don’t think we ever had any kind of “authority” either as individuals or collectively (and the DJs that thought they did tended to be bores). But the thing that I’ve noticed acutely since I graduated is that I don’t have anywhere near the time available to sort through a big chunk of the music that is out there that I did when I was a DJ. The fact that some people do still have that time, and are willing to share what they find on the air, is awesome. It was then and it is now. Google actually makes this worse. Yes, it was harder to find great music then. But the biggest problem has always been knowing what is worth looking for. The best college DJs point us to the great music – and it’s an invaluable service! And you’re right – when this is done well, it’s all about connection. Always has been.

  3. Jennifer Waits September 12, 2013 at 10:27 pm #

    Thanks to you both for the comments.

    Julie– glad to hear from someone at a station that did have some influence : ) We were so obscure at my station, although I also felt great pride when labels like Homestead (glad you mentioned them- as music director at my station I remember asking them for music) sent us music. It made us feel a bit cooler than we actually were!

  4. johnnydj September 13, 2013 at 8:56 am #

    Illuminating, yet earnest reflection. Having DJ’d since 1978, it seems my audience is the same crew as it was back in the day, which puts us in our 50’s. I looked around at a recent College radio staff meeting and saw two students and a bunch of old geezers. What your excellent article said to me – and the remarks – was to focus on gatekeeping, and signposts, to help direct the audience toward music they don’t have time to find. It’s time to add URL info religiously, not as an afterthought, while on-air. Artist and label are way not enough, doh! So thanks again for your reflection on an era when radio mattered. Cheers.

  5. Matthew Lasar September 13, 2013 at 9:33 am #

    Hey, don’t forget that former Federal Communications Commission Chair Julius Genachowski was a DJ at Columbia University’s radio outlet (presumably in the 1980s). He was the “midnight rambler”! Now that’s what I call influence!

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