Earlier this week, Pitchfork published a long-form piece with the provocative title, Does College Radio Even Matter Anymore? The sub-head continues the theme, adding, “How left-of-the-dial stalwarts are fighting to stay alive.” Click-bait for college radio fans and practitioners, the article is actually more nuanced than its alarmist descriptors suggest.
On the doom and gloom side, the piece goes into detail about some prominent college radio station FM license sales (including University of San Francisco’s KUSF and Vanderbilt University’s WRVU) and the takeover of college radio FM airtime at WRAS by a public radio group. It also describes “The winnowing influence of college radio on a broad national scale,” largely referring to its impact on musicians and the record industry.
Yet, the article also lovingly describes college radio’s strengths, while reminding readers that terrestrial radio is still a very important part of today’s media landscape. I was interviewed for it and was happy that my points about the timeless appeal of college radio and about college radio’s embrace of the LPFM opportunity made it into the final version.
Author Kevin Lozano begins with a tour through New York University station WNYU (also my 6th station visit back in 2008), which will ring true for many of us, with mentions of pizza boxes, vinyl and “ephemera.” Using WNYU as a stand-in for stations across the country, he writes,
But, like all college stations, WNYU reflects an essential experience, something that replicates itself decade after decade: the autonomy, the freedom of speech, the experimental drive. It is also one of the last bastions within the world of radio that invites the possibility of randomness and risk-taking, even within the noncommercial, left-of-the-dial zone between 88.1 and 91.9 MHz.
Yet, these experiences run the risk of becoming scarce, as more and more college stations go silent or cede their broadcast towers to corporate interests and conglomerates. Adding to the alarm is the recent downfall of CMJ, the institution that for decades tied the nation’s college radio stations together through charts and its annual festival. All this bad news has led some to eulogize the format, but college radio is still alive and, for many, still necessary.”
Acknowledging the crowded landscape of music discovery options, Pitchfork contrasts college radio’s stereotypical heyday in the 1980s with today’s world full of YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, Beats, etc. While college radio’s connections to the music biz are always worth noting, it’s unfair to reduce college radio to just a music discovery service. College radio is more diverse than most people realize, with stations serving a multitude of purposes on campus and beyond. Many ARE music-focused, but there are also plenty of stations that have healthy news, public affairs and sports operations. Some stations are led by students, with no faculty or staff oversight, whereas other college stations are deeply connected with curriculum, serving as labs for broadcasting programs. Additionally, college radio exists on numerous platforms, including FM, AM, LPFM, HD, campus cable, local cable, carrier current, unlicensed AM/FM, online, satellite radio, iHeartMedia, mobile apps, and more. I even remember a service that allowed college radio stations to have their signal accessible to listeners who used a telephone to call up a specific number. If there’s anything that I try to communicate to readers, it’s that college radio has a wide variety of forms and formats. There are many types of stations and that’s part of the appeal of college radio.
With that in mind, I was interested to hear the perspective of Marshall University college radio station WMUL’s Music Director Nathan Thomas. On Twitter, he writes, “Yes, @Pitchfork, college radio still matters. Because college radio exists outside of major-metro cities too.” He adds, “All stations mentioned are from big cities, they leave out most of the country where these stations matter most.”
Thomas, whose station is in Huntington, West Virginia, has a great point and my own experience at Bowling Green State University’s college radio station WBGU-FM opened my eyes about just how vital college radio is in a smaller communities. When I was there in the mid to late 1990s, the station was an amazing oasis for all of the music nerds, misfits and alternative-leaning characters on campus and a comforting and eye-opening resource for listeners (both in town and on campus) looking for something different on the dial. This was even more important in a conservative Ohio community where kids got harassed on the street for such minor oddities as dressing in vintage clothing.
Inspired by my experience at WBGU, when I first started blogging about college radio on Spinning Indie, I made a point to write about lesser known stations in every part of the United States. For my 50 state tour series, I had the ambitious goal of profiling college radio stations in every state and I started out with KXUA at University of Arkansas. Coincidentally, when I was interviewed by Pitchfork last October, I had just returned from visits to college radio stations in Arkansas and I’m sure I shared some heartwarming tales about the power of college radio in those communities, as I found so much inspiration from my trips to KXUA (tour #115), Hendrix College radio station KHDX (tour #116) and KUOZ (tour #119) at University of the Ozarks.
What do you think? Does college radio matter? And to whom? Does it matter more at certain stations? Or does it just depend on who you ask?
More College Radio News
Students Find Creative Outlet in WXYC Radio Station (The Daily Tar Heel)
UW Student Government Laments Fee Opt-Out, which could Hurt Radio Station (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
WPTS Debuts First Monthly Live Hip-Hop Showcase (WPTS Radio)
College Media Mega Workshop in Minneapolis in July (Mega Workshop)
Did last CMJ Staffer Leave? (Medium Rotation)
Radio Rockstar at BVZ (Penn State University)
WGLZ Prepares for Another Big Semester (The Trumpet)
Radio: Student Shares Passion for Balkan Music (Daily Bruin)
Three Bands Rock out for College Radio Station WCSB at the Beachland (Cool Cleveland)
UK Student Radio Producers invited to Enter the Annual Charles Parker Prize Competition (Charles Parker Prize)
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