Scholars focused on college radio are a pretty tiny subset of the already small universe of radio scholars, so I am thrilled to see the publication of a student radio-themed issue of Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture this week. Brian Fauteux shared the news yesterday on Radio Survivor and he and I also have vested interest, as we both authored articles for the publication.
Although I’ve written hundreds of pieces for Radio Survivor about college radio, that work is often overlooked by academics, who typically turn to books and peer reviewed journals when doing literature reviews. Similarly, academic publications are rarely read by the general public, because it can be difficult to find and access subscription-based journals.
For that reason, it’s nice to see that this particular publication is a “free access” issue that can be downloaded for free by anyone with an interest in radio studies. Of course there’s also a physical, paper version, which I’m eager to get, as it’s always nice to see one’s work in print.
I was pleased to see that the issue covered a wide range of topics within the field of college radio scholarship, including research delving into the role of college radio in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Poland, the United States, and Canada. A few articles looked at college radio as an “alternative” practice, and specifically discussed how programming decisions and music genres played into that. Finally, I was happy to have my article about the history of student radio at Haverford College included, as there is little published work about the very early days of college radio (I’m talking the 1920s) in the United States.
In his introduction to the issue, editor Salvatore Scifo writes,
With scholars usually tending to study three ‘types’ of radio, namely, public, commercial and community radio, student/college radio research has been overlooked despite being a common presences on American as well as British campuses: ‘this radio “type” is often ignored because college radio lacks influence in the mainstream media and is not seen as a site of community radio empowerment’ (Wallace 2008: 46). However, readers of this journal will be able to find evidence of the empowering potential of university and student radio as a form of community radio through the contributions to this issue.”
Going Commercial: Navigating student radio in a deregulated media marketplace (New Zealand’s Mode 96.1 FM)
It is one of seven student stations operating throughout New Zealand. Its distinction is that it runs not only as a form of instructional radio but also as a fully commercial enterprise. This makes it unusual not just locally but internationally. As we describe, a radio model of niche commercial programming that changes according to market opportunities is rare anywhere, let alone in student broadcasting. It is how this is accomplished year-to-year, which makes the station worthy of study.”
According to Reilly and Farnsworth, the first student radio station in New Zealand, “…Radio Bosom, began in 1969 as a capping stunt, repeating the recent exploits of early New Zealand pirate radio by transmitting from a boat off Auckland and then running its boat aground (Mishkind 2011).”
As far as Mode 96.1 FM, it was the branding utilized by the New Zealand Broadcasting School’s station in 2010, although the station has operated under a variety of different guises over the years and this is by design. Reilly and Farnsworth write,
Every year, the format is redesigned from the ground up and re-launched in April. Brands such as C96, The Attic, Jacked FM and Alpha have been introduced in recent history. The students research audiences and look for gaps in the current over-crowded marketplace in order to fill it with a new concept station. Three groups, of around seven students each, design a marketing plan, sales budget and playlist. This culminates in a competitive pitch to local and national commercial industry reps that choose one of the three options to launch a few months later. In the past, station formats have been as diverse as a Beatles-only station, country, dance, children’s, Adult Contemporary (AC) and easy-listening.”
Campus frequencies: ‘Alternativeness’ and Canadian campus radio (“Underground Sounds” on CKUT-FM)
Radio Survivor contributor Brian Fauteux writes about the concept of “alternative” and its role at campus radio station CKUT-FM at McGill University in Canada in his piece. He analyzes the content of ten weeks worth of programming from 2008 for the local music show “Underground Sounds” with the goal of considering “…how ‘alternative-ness’ might be conceptualized in relation to campus radio and the programming of ‘local’ and ‘independent’ music.” Fauteux also explains that campus radio stations in Canada have a specific mandate that is different from their U.S. counterparts,
In Canada, campus radio is subject to high Canadian Content (Can-Con) regulations set in place by the CRTC (the percentage of musical selections that are Canadian) and stations operate with a mandate to cater programming to a local community. Because the role of campus radio is specialized and distinct from that of commercial or public broadcasting, community media like campus radio is often defined and discussed as an ‘alternative’ to more dominant broadcast models.”
More specifically, Fauteux explains that, “The primary role of community-based campus radio stations (one of two Canadian campus radio sub-sections in place at the time of this research, the other being ‘instructional’) is to broadcast alternative programming that is not typically heard on commercial radio, particularly Canadian music, but also in-depth spoken-word programming, community-specific programming and special interest music.” This is very different from the United States, where the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not mandate the type of content aired on college radio stations (other than the prohibitions against offensive content and commercial content on non-commercial stations).
As he looks at “Underground Sounds,” Fauteux explains how the program is deeply connected with and “plays a dynamic role within” the local, Montreal music scene. I was interested to see Fauteux’s discussion of how even a seemingly “alternative” local indie music show can still be construed as having links to the broader commercial music culture. He writes,
Campus radio is a platform for artists without the financial backing of major record labels to receive airtime and this is a considerable digression from other broadcast models, namely commercial radio. However, campus radio is still inherently linked to larger frameworks of power and bureaucracy through CRTC broadcasting policy and the artists programmed require a certain level of cultural status or credibility, at least in the minds of programme hosts and the scene participants featured on the show.”
In his article, Nick Rubin writes about how the term “college radio” came to be understood as signifying a particular form of alternative culture in the 1980s. He writes that,
In the early 1980s, ‘college radio’ appeared in popular discourse to refer to non-profit student stations which championed music marginalized by mainstream, commercial radio. College radio programming enacted a critique of the music industry’s political economy, reflecting participation in the late 1970s and early 1980s Do-It-Yourself (DIY) rock underground, an association of independent labels; independent record stores; small clubs; ‘zines; and those college stations which embraced punk and its offshoots.”
I was grateful that Rubin acknowledges college radio’s rich history dating back to the 1920s, but he points out that he is more concerned with the popularization of a stereotypical vision of college radio during its supposed hey day in the 1980s and “…traces the historical development of this cultural short-hand…” As he dug into the history of college radio, Rubin discovered some of the challenges related to the dearth of documentation. He writes,
The archives of the College Media Journal (CMJ), the trade magazine that focused on college radio, were unavailable. While I could find random single issues from the early 1980s, no library that I could locate – not even CMJ headquarters in Manhattan – houses a run of back issues from the period under study here. The biweekly chronicle of the 1960s rock counterculture, Rolling Stone, failed to examine college radio during the 1970s. While the trade magazine Billboard covered college radio programming in the late 1970s and early 1980s and provided industrial context, it seldom probed the motivations and identification processes of college broadcasters. Regarding archival broadcast material, despite burgeoning interest in collecting contemporary college radio broadcast recordings, such archives have yet to be centralized, and my research relies on artefacts such as DJs’ playlists, stations’ airplay charts and programme guides.”
These insights about the lack of an organized collection of college radio materials will hopefully make it clearer to more radio stations and institutions that we need more projects devoted to preserving college radio materials. I’m hoping that we can make some headway on that effort through work of the Library of Congress’ Radio Preservation Task Force.
As Rubin outlines the trajectory of public discourse about the concept of “college radio” in the United States in the late 20th century, he identifies four specific phases, including 1) Late 1960s/early 1970s emphasis on freeform, 2) early to mid-1970s album-oriented rock, 3) 1977-1981’s punk rock ethos and 4) DIY underground sounds following the 1981 debut of MTV.
Regarding the punk era, it was fun to see that Rubin referenced the programming history at KFJC (where I currently DJ). He writes about the infamous punk rock overthrow in 1978, quoting Gary Singh, who writes, “‘four student managers pretty much overthrew the general manager due to his belligerent, unwavering emphasis on mainstream album-rock formatting. The station then subsequently went on to bring the entire punk/New Wave explosion to the South Bay’ (Singh 2009).”
From wireless experiments to streaming: The secret history and changing role of college radio at Haverford College 1923–2014
My Interactions article is the result of extensive research into the history of college radio at Haverford College, where I was a student and college radio participant in the 1980s. I combed through the Haverford College archives, scanning through old yearbooks, the student newspaper, and radio station documents. Additionally, I conducted interviews with Haverford College alumni from the 1940s through the 2010s in order to get a clearer sense of the role that college radio played on campus. I write that,
Throughout college radio’s nearly 100-year history, the stories of individual stations have rarely been documented. Case studies (Bareiss 1997; Goedde 2008; Wall 2007; Wallace 2008) have looked at specific college stations at a particular point in time, but we have few examples (Houston 2004; De Anguera 1994; Brooks 2013) of in-depth historical accounts of college radio stations. As an attempt to fill in some of those gaps in the history of college radio, I embarked on a project to unearth the storied past of radio at Haverford College, which stretches from 1923 to the present day. Not only were Haverford students pioneers in college radio broadcasting; several of them achieved prominence in the radio industry after graduation.”
My greatest hope is that this article helps bring more attention to the existence of student-run radio stations in the 1920s. This part of college radio history is rarely discussed and it’s a shame, as students made some profound contributions to the early days of radio. With that said, the most heralded part of Haverford College radio history happened between 1923 and 1927, when students built and operated the powerful AM station WABQ.
In addition to broadcasting endeavors, the members of the Radio Club also conducted ambitious wireless experiments, including the first international chess match by radio (with Oxford University) in 1924. I write that, “By spring of 1925, the Radio Club was one of the largest clubs on campus and was airing lectures, speeches, and concerts by campus musical groups, which could be heard as far away as 1500 miles from the college.”
When the students who ran WABQ were approaching graduation, the Radio Club decided to sell WABQ to a commercial station in Philadelphia and that marked the end of terrestrial radio at Haverford College. In my article I outline the many forms that radio took following the loss of WABQ, beginning with the launch of carrier-current campus-only radio stations in the early 1940s. When I was at Haverford in the 1980s we were still doing radio via carrier current station WHRC-AM and it was a vital part of the campus’ music scene. By the 2000s, the carrier-current equipment was failing and the Internet and podcasting became the preferred methods of transmission.
After losing their powerful AM station in the 1920s, Haverford students had to rebuild radio on campus over and over again. It’s not unlike recent changes at long-time college stations (KTRU, WRVU and KUSF) following the sales of their terrestrial licenses. In each case students have had to re-imagine their stations while taking advantage of changing technologies. As has been the case since 1923, radio revival and rebirth are not impossible at Haverford; just as long as students still dream of having radio stations. It’s hard to know what the future of radio will be, but if the past is an indication, there will be many ups and downs, as students graduate and leave their work and legacies behind.”
The learning curve: Distinctive opportunities and challenges posed by university-based community radio stations (Siren FM)
Deborah Wilson David’s article investigates the United Kingdom (UK)-based community radio station Siren FM, which is located on a college campus at the University of Lincoln. Wilson David writes that, “It was one of the first full-time community radio stations to be founded by a British university and be fully located on the university’s campus. Once a student radio station, it was re-launched with a full community radio licence, with students forming one of the communities served.”
Student radio stations in the United Kingdom pre-date the country’s community radio sector, but still have been relatively recent additions to the radio landscape, with early broadcasts dating from the 1960s. Crush Radio, based at what is now the University of Hertfordshire, was the first student radio station in the United Kingdom (launched 1960) and the first university radio station at the University of York, Radio York, broadcasting legally under a test licence in 1967 and relaunched in 1969 (Partridge 1982: 8).”
One challenge that the station would face was to develop ‘Siren FM; the student radio station’ into ‘Siren FM; the community radio station’, where the students formed solely one of the communities served. The body of volunteers would comprise not only students but also members of the local communities. Here was the first issue; as with Gtfm’s experience of the clash between two separate participating groups and that of WMUA in the United States, the nature of the relationship between the student and non-student volunteer on a community radio station had the potential to be problematic. The latter, in most cases, may have had little or no aspiration towards higher education but in volunteering for these campus-based community stations found themselves immersed in an academic environment that could feel alien and intimidating. One young woman who joined Siren FM from the local community said that for her the hardest part of the process of joining the station was walking on to the university campus (personal communication)…”
Arguably there are further benefits that a community radio station can bring to a university that go beyond, and are apart from, the enhancement of the student experience: that of public engagement, bridging the gap between ‘town and gown’ and offering a tangible community asset. But most importantly, for the poorly resourced third tier of broadcasting in the United Kingdom, the campus-based community radio station offers a relatively sustainable model that may prove to be one of the most resilient in the sector.”
There are no data about student radio broadcasting in Poland before World War II. However, there is no doubt that the real development of student radio projects all over the country took place in the early 1950s due to the connection with building new student campuses. Usually they were equipped with a closed-circuit cable system. Due to a lack of radio receivers (which had been confiscated during World War II by the Nazis), creating cable radio networks in factories, housing estates and campuses was very popular at that time. The new regime in Poland was interested in the development of radio broadcasting as a tool of propaganda, and cable radio networks were the easiest and cheapest way to rebuild the radio audience.”
It’s interesting to learn about this historical context, particularly as it relates to the access to radio before, during, and after World War II. Changes in the government following the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 also play a big role in Doliwa’s analysis. She writes, “When talking about the contemporary history of Poland, it is impossible not to mention the year 1989, which was the turning point not only in the history of Poland but also many countries in East-Central Europe. During this year the Iron Curtain collapsed and almost everything changed, including the form of student radio, its goals and problems.”
Although student radio content was more tightly controlled before 1989, Doliwa explains that student radio stations did sometimes air material that expressed dissent. She writes,
In general, as the only alternative to public radio, student radio stations before 1989 were very popular. They were a platform through which it was possible to listen to something that could not be heard on public radio, not only music but also spoken word broadcasts that sometimes opposed the communist system…Although it was strictly forbidden in Poland before 1989 (not only broadcasting but even listening to the station), some of the student stations also disseminated Radio Free Europe programming (Guzinski 2002: 37; Biały 2003: 5). Generally, student radio was a haven of freedom before 1989.”
And somewhat paradoxically, student radio before 1989 was also a fertile training ground for young journalists in Poland. Doliwa writes, “Polish authorities were interested in the control of student stations and from time to time tried to use them as a tool of propaganda. However, at the same time they supported the development of the student radio movement.”
Doliwa goes on to explain the current state of student radio in Poland, which has moved from closed-circuit broadcasting to licensed terrestrial stations as well as Internet stations. She also notes that “community media” doesn’t exist in Poland in the way that it exists elsewhere, largely due to differences in how radio is regulated. She explains that most licensed student radio stations in Poland are commercial and that “…it is generally very difficult to obtain a special licence for non-commercial broadcasting in Poland, and this opportunity is in most cases unavailable for student radio broadcasters.”
There is much more to explore in each of these articles and I encourage anyone with an interest in college radio to read the entire student radio-themed issue of Interactions.
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