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CD library at college radio station WKDU. Photo: J. Waits

Me Too: Sexual Harassment and Abuse in College Radio

On social media this week, I’ve sadly been hearing countless first-hand accounts of instances of sexual harassment and abuse suffered by my friends, colleagues, and family members. As I read through many personal stories describing reprehensible behavior by men throughout my friends’ lives, I’m reminded of so many occasions where I was was either harassed because of my gender or was witness to friends under attack. Like many, I have specific recollections of sexual harassment dating as far back as elementary school. And, obviously, that’s not OK.

The recent flurry of “me too” commentary (women are posting “me too” on social media to indicate that we have been a victim of sexual harassment or abuse) comes on the heels of piles of allegations against entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein. While many in the entertainment business have brushed off similar incidents as “part of the industry,” it’s clear from the “me too” conversations that sexism is not relegated to one industry.

Certainly the music industry and radio have traditionally been male-dominated and much of my experience in college radio has been at stations inhabited by more men than women. It’s still the case that when I attend various radio events and conferences, there are typically more men than women both on stage and in the audience. Even my academic radio nerd colleagues are mostly dudes. While I feel lucky that I haven’t suffered extreme forms of harassment or abuse within my college radio communities (I’ve volunteered at some pretty great stations); I’ve no doubt become accustomed to the every-day sort of sexism that permeates radio and music culture, including both words (disrespectful comments, mansplaining come immediately to mind) and actions (unequal treatment, etc.).

At a recent college radio conference hosted by college radio station KXLU, there was an illuminating panel about inter-sectional feminism. I was saddened to hear some awful stories from female college radio DJs who were regularly harassed by callers and by people within their indie music scenes. Among the anecdotes were tales of backlash just for being a female on the air, reports of false assumptions that women can’t be knowledgeable about certain genres of music, and accounts of being dismissed or cut down, including being told to “stop talking and just play music.” Panelists mentioned getting asked out repeatedly by listeners and also being subject to “crude comments” and even death threats when certain listeners didn’t agree with something that was said on-air. They reported that their fellow male college radio DJs rarely experienced this level of abuse.

And, just this week, there are media reports that students made an anti-feminist Facebook meme about a teen-girl-hosted feminist radio show in Wellington, New Zealand, comparing the show to “cancer.” According to the Dominion Post, “The hosts of the show said this was a reference to a broadcast they performed about six months earlier, around the time hundreds of high school students marched on parliament to protest against a perceived rape culture in schools.”

Perusing social media, I found some folks on Twitter sharing memories of harassment in college radio, including:

: I was 17 working news at college radio station. Male DJs openly joked I got my job screwing the news director.

Me too, because at 21 as a college radio station manager, I had no idea how to handle a male employee peeping on female employee.

For many, though, college radio can be an oasis. In her piece, Women in American College Radio, in the Panoptic last month, Sydney Catherine challenges women to work to dismantle the stereotypes that lead to many women eschewing the music and radio industries. She argues, “It’s up to the younger generation of women to change the discussion. Especially in an age where women in media are often relegated to sidekick status or even forgotten from the narrative, college radio exists as one of the few spaces where females and/or gender nonconforming individuals can safely express their views and foster a community.”

From her survey of female college radio participants, there are glimmers of hope, but also still lots of evidence of sexism. While many women reported that their college radio stations were welcoming spaces (particularly at all-female schools), interactions with communities outside of their stations reflected that there is much work to be done. Women reported that men often assumed that they weren’t savvy with music equipment, made negative comments about female artists, and still favored men over women for station management positions.

Here are a few anecdotes that she shared in her article:

Hannah: ‘I have a lot of privilege, so to me it felt like just a fun extra curricular for a long time. Only as General Manager of radio station did I first feel disadvantaged as a woman. When I was setting up DJ equipment for a party, one of the security guards tried to explain how to set it up more effectively because he DJed part time and thought I needed some help. I didn’t.’

M.: ‘It’s strange – my show is almost entirely music (and I barely talk on it), but I did get comments from people who were like ‘Oh, why do you play so much music with female singers?’ – this was never something which had occurred to me as weird? But, retrospectively, I did have to put in a conscious effort to be able to curate a library of a lot of great women musicians.’

M.: ‘…sometimes from random people who happened to learn that i had a radio show, they would say things like “oh your show must be all girly pop and top 40s, right?” but those people are jerks.’

Sydne: ‘Well, I was at a radio station at a women’s college (Barnard) that was open to all genders and students from the greater campus community (Columbia). I was surprised that the leadership positions were split 50/50 women/men (including Columbia dudes from across the street). By surprised, I mean dissapointed because I continued to apply for leadership positions for years and was never brought on staff. Though my male counterparts were.’

Najwa: ‘…I went to a women’s college, so our radio waves felt like a safe space for us no matter where our identities intersected. But trying to get DJ gigs outside of this, people would often tell me I was good “for a female DJ.” That definitely lit a fire under me to prove myself.’

Ariela: ‘…I had some gross interactions with one of the dude bands who we had on our Live at 5 program. There was a lot of being surprised that I was comfortable running the station, comments about me carrying gear, and some general uncomfortable sexual comments that I zero percent wanted to be a part of. All while a few members of the band proved themselves low key incompetent by forgetting important items of gear and exhibiting an inability to modulate their volume.’

I’m glad that more people are engaging in discussions this week about the pervasive nature of sexual harassment and abuse and hope that this leads to deeper reflection within all of our communities, including college radio. In recent years I’ve been impressed by the work of so many college radio participants who have already been working on these issues, including KSPC (in particular their community survey and ‘zine back in 2015), the aforementioned KXLU, and WXJM (where a college radio participant led “safer spaces” training and more). I also touch on these issues on Radio Survivor Podcast #25 and Radio Survivor Podcast #89.

What has your experience been in college radio? What have you done to make your station a more inclusive environment? How have you succeeded and how have you failed? And how do we change our culture so that our daughters and grand-daughters aren’t reciting their own “me toos” decades and centuries from now?

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