Technology and the Soul of College Radio

by Jennifer Waits

19 April 2010


College radio still has the ability to surprise and delight

For listeners, college radio still has the ability to surprise and delight, as one is never quite sure what will happen next. A show focused on Japanese noise music might be scheduled next to a bluegrass show. A DJ might juxtapose unexpected genres revealing the connections between 1960s girl groups, punk rock, and the riot grrrl scene or invite their listeners to explore the relationship between metal and classical music. It’s a far cry from Top 40 radio, or even from one’s personal collection of downloads since the universe of music at a radio station is far more expansive and since a human being is guiding the music selections.

The situation becomes troubling, however, when DJs are no longer part of the radio equation. In recent years the commercial radio mainstay of “automation software” has crept into college radio stations. Despite the previously mentioned benefits of automation, the perplexing aspect of it is that it contradicts the tenet that radio is a personality-driven medium, with listeners forming attachments to DJs who they know and grow to love. What happens to the way that we perceive and hear radio when there is no DJ or human curator behind the music being played? What happens to the KFJC show “Firebunker” when Cy Thoth is not at the mic? An automated mix of his death and black metal favorites just wouldn’t be the same without his distinctive voice and mesmerizing musings about metaphysics, numerology and hieroglyphics. How would the passion and musical wisdom of great hosts like WFMU’s Brian Turner and KUSF’s DJ Schmeejay get translated to listeners when their selections are programmed automatically, sans DJ? It’s clear to me that the removal of a live DJ diminishes the quality and power of radio.


KALX [Photo: Jennifer Waits]

Perhaps even more distressing is a trend for some college radio DJs to do their shows as if on auto-pilot, simply plugging in an iPod or computer and sitting back while listeners are treated to a pre-packaged playlist culled from the DJ’s personal collection. At a panel discussion amongst college radio music directors at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City last October, this practice was lambasted and described as “lazy DJ syndrome”. These programmers worried that this method of DJing was sapping the life out of college radio and was hurting the listeners because it created shows that weren’t much different from automated programming. Chad Reich of community radio station KBUT went so far as to say that “not using the shelves” of music in a station’s record library “undermines” the whole purpose of college/community radio and argued that if you’re “not working the board”, then “it’s not DJing to me”.

While the iPod-playing-DJ might say that it’s just plain easier to do radio this way, is easier necessarily better? One general argument in favor of digital music is that it’s easier to find music on a computer compared to searching through walls of CDs and vinyl records. However, the process of accessing music digitally (especially from one’s own collection) provides fewer opportunities for discovering something new and unknown. Calling up files that you have personally imported into your computer or iPod’s finite universe of sounds is very different from looking through a sea of musical choices in a radio station’s record library. Historically, combing through the shelves of a college radio station’s music library in search of both familiar favorites and hidden gems was what radio was all about. Selecting songs that one already knows off of a personal iPod for airplay doesn’t seem like radio. And it’s just not as fun for either the DJ or the listener.

I realize that my arguments against iPod-only radio shows and automation may sound a bit like the ol’ geezer complaining about the demise of a myriad number of music delivery systems dating back to wax cylinders, wire recordings, reel-to-reels, 8-tracks, cassettes, vinyl, and (increasingly) CDs. I’d be the first to admit that I romanticize the dead and dying formats, applauding the efforts of DJs who continue to champion and use them. It thrills me that a DJ at KUSF does a radio show utilizing reel-to-reel recordings. I’m tickled by the fact that cassettes are making a comeback in the underground music scene. And I unabashedly celebrate vinyl’s resurgence, truly believing in its warmer sound and higher fidelity. I do still like my music to be tangible (and I do believe that people tend to value it more when it can’t just be thrown away with the click of a mouse) and I think that the use of physical music on a radio show just plain sounds better.

There’s something that’s so powerful and energizing about doing a live radio show while manipulating physical pieces of music.

In fact, after years on the air, I’m devoted to these radio rituals: from cueing up a vinyl record, to hand-selecting CDs from massive walls full of music, to finding undiscovered classics amidst the library shelves, to scrutinizing decades-old hand-written music reviews and DJ commentary scrawled across LP covers. I worry about DJs who have stopped discovering new sounds, who just gravitate to the familiar files housed in their personal digital collections.


WBAR [Photo: Jennifer Waits]

Many college radio DJs cherish their stations’ music libraries as if they are sacred ground. At a gathering of DJs at the University of California Radio Conference hosted by KALX in April 2010, one DJ pointed out that “the actual physical thing reminds you that [the music] exists”. Former college radio DJ Jillian Putnam-Smith added, “You want to be able to go into your library and smell all the vinyl.” Another DJ said that being able to hold music in his hands and peruse label art is vital and that he couldn’t imagine having to choose music from a list of digital files.

Sadly, it’s not only the DJ fixated on their own iPod that we have to worry about, but also college radio stations themselves. Space is a huge issue for many stations and it’s an on-going struggle to make room for physical music on the shelves from week to week. Some college stations regularly get rid of music that doesn’t fit with their current programming philosophy, while others are working to eliminate physical music entirely in favor of purely digital libraries. Increasingly, there’s also outside pressure from record labels and promoters, who are less and less likely to service college radio stations with CDs or LPs, yet are happy to provide free digital downloads. Yet, when a station’s record library gets drastically reduced, we may indeed be losing a bit of college radio’s spunk and personality, as well as a wealth of history.

In a recent example, Santa Clara University station KSCU dropped off more than 5,000 unwanted records and CDs at a local record store in order to raise some cash for their station. Lore has it that Haverford College station WHRC sold off much of its historic vinyl collection in order to fund a Roots show on campus over a decade ago. San Jose State station KSJS has eliminated much of its vinyl collection and, when I visited last year, I was told that there was talk of eliminating CDs as well. As these collections are reduced, college radio may be treading into commercial radio territory, providing its DJs and listeners with fewer musical options. This could have the unfortunate side effect of making even college radio low on the list of sources that people use to discover new music.

As the Edison Research/Arbitron study The Infinite Dial 2010: Digital Platforms and the Future of Radio released in April 2010 points out, young people in particular are more and more dubious about radio as a source for new music, with more than 50 percent of 12- to 34-year-olds surveyed saying that the first place they’d turn to learn about new music was the Internet compared with 32 percent saying radio. Yet, back in 2002, 63 percent of all survey respondents across all age groups said that the first place they’d go to learn about new music was radio. In spite of this, I do think that college radio still has an opportunity to change these perceptions, since it is typically devoted to playing new music.

I am neither a Luddite nor necessarily afraid of these new technologies. I am, however, very concerned about the effect that they will have on something that I truly cherish: well-crafted, individually curated radio shows with live DJs. Instead of using technology as a crutch, it should be used to for more creative programming (like KFJC’s live remote broadcast and videocast from an underground music festival in Japan) or to get closer to the listeners (such as WFMU’s live chats within their playlists).

We all know that technology, as an entity, is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. It is vitally important, however, to interrogate and to be critical of the impact that some aspects of technology have on the things we love. The beauty and art of college radio has much to do with the human touch and yes, even its interplay with technology – the hands selecting the sounds and manipulating the mixing board, as well as their predecessors who helped to collect and curate the pieces of music in their station libraries. But when the technology takes control of the microphone or the mixing board, college radio begins to lose a bit of its soul. When the perceived convenience of technology diminishes the likelihood that a DJ will be physically present to do a show or (when on the air) will investigate the breadth of a station’s library, it unfortunately helps to distance that DJ more and more from both physical music and from the most exciting resource that a radio station has at its very center: its music.


KZSU [Photo: Jennifer Waits]

Jennifer Waits earned an MA in Popular Culture and writes about the college radio scene for her blog Spinning Indie and about radio in general for Radio Survivor. She’s been a college radio DJ at 4 different stations all over the U.S. and has been on the air at KFJC at Foothill College (Los Altos Hills, CA) since 1999.

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