Technology and the Soul of College Radio

I love college radio. In a period when commercial radio has largely been written off as a wasteland of corporate owners, tightly formatted playlists, an ever-shrinking rotation of songs and artists, along with a dwindling listenership, college radio is still a beacon of hope for music fans in search of new, weird, and independent sounds. Whereas corporate-controlled commercial music radio is more about giving the people want they want, over and over and over and over again, innovative college radio stations embrace a dual mission to present under-exposed music and challenge their listeners.

Through college radio I’ve been introduced to countless artists and music genres and have made connections with other passionate music fans. College radio has been credited with breaking numerous underground bands by creating buzz and helping to build an audience for them before they achieved mainstream success. Adventurous stations facilitate discovery of new music by allowing individual DJs to curate playlists of music drawn from the vast music libraries of their stations. With the largest collections including tens of thousands of vinyl records, 7″ singles, CDs, cassette tapes, and digital files, college radio stations often have decade-spanning libraries full of music across every genre imaginable.

College radio stations have often been at the forefront not only musically, but also technologically, building websites, setting up netcasts, establishing archives, and developing online playlist capabilities while their commercial radio counterparts struggled to even put up basic web pages. Yet other innovations like automation (a staple of the commercial radio world) are now creeping into college radio, making for a more repetitive air sound. Although automation programming has been a boon for college stations that either can’t physically be on the air for 24/7 (due to campus rules) or can’t find enough live DJs, being on the air for more hours doesn’t necessarily serve the listener if the DJ is a robot and the music is on “random”.

Having been a college radio DJ off and on since 1986, I’ve seen radical changes in radio. When I first started DJing my station only played music from vinyl records and cassette tapes. By the late 1980s, CDs were gradually introduced at radio stations and eventually became the main method for playing music over college radio. The impact of computers during my tenure in radio has been tremendous, as they’ve made it possible for stations to have websites, to netcast, to archive programming, and to even change the way that basic audio editing work is done behind the scenes. When I started in radio, sound recordings of station IDs and promotional spots were done using reel-to-reel tape, which was meticulously edited using razor blades and splicing tape.

The changes to commercial radio have been even more pronounced. Large corporations have taken control of a substantial slice of the commercial dial and oftentimes station owners are now located thousands of miles away from the stations that they run. Programming has been consolidated to such a degree that the DJ you hear in San Francisco may actually be recording their on-air banter from a living room in Iowa. Although the college station where I DJ still does things the old-fashioned way, utilizing live DJs 24-hours a day, seven days a week, many stations now fill gaps in their schedules with automated programming. Even though computerized automation systems have allowed some stations to have longer broadcast days, they also zap the personality and whimsy away from a station, turning it into nothing more than a broadcast of someone’s iPod on shuffle.

KSJS [Photo: Jennifer Waits]

With the proliferation of digital music and MP3 players, it’s also not uncommon for some college radio DJs to arrive just in time for their shows only to plug an MP3 player or laptop into the board in order to play a pre-programmed playlist for the listening audience. This works to rip the “soul” out of the college radio experience and even makes for a more listless sounding DJ because the physical aspects of doing a show have been removed. Since the DJ has already created their track list they might flop into a chair to relax, text message, or focus on other work. With their music already lined up, they don’t have to investigate or navigate the station’s record library in order to do a show. That DJ might be grateful that they don’t have to climb up a ladder to reach a barely accessible Aarktica CD on a top shelf or rifle through musty LPs crammed into a dark hallway, but they’re losing something in the process because they won’t stumble across that long-forgotten Swiss girl band Kleenex in the seven-inch library or get caught up in the battling DJ reviews scribbled all over the cover of that questionable David Koresh CD.

Historically, technology has been both a blessing and a curse for radio. At its core, radio is a technology that has been evolving and mutating since Reginald Fessenden’s first audio transmission in 1900, in which he broadcast a short question about the weather to a colleague holding a radio receiver one mile away. Some of radio’s most dramatic changes, however, have happened in the past 20 years, with webcasting, satellite radio, and digital music creating both opportunities for and threats to traditional AM/FM (aka terrestrial) radio.

As far as college radio goes, educational institutions have long been connected to innovations in radio. According to Hugh Richard Slotten, author of Radio’s Hidden Voice: The Origins of Public Broadcasting in the United States, “There clearly were experiments going on as early as the late 1890s with radio or wireless at universities (wireless telegraphy). The federal government didn’t officially start to keep track of stations until 1913.” When I interviewed Slotten, he pointed out the difficulty in pinpointing the first college radio station. He said, “The University of Wisconsin was one of the first university stations to broadcast voice transmissions. It also continued to operate during WWI (the other ones were forced to shut down). I think that is why it claims to be the earliest continuously operated broadcast station.”

The very first experimental radio license in the United States was issued in 1912 to St. Joseph’s College. In 1917, the aforementioned University of Wisconsin station 9XM (today a part of Wisconsin Public Radio) transmitted music from phonograph records and by 1919 successfully broadcast a “clear transmission of human speech”. The first licensed college radio stations came on the scene in the early 1920s, with WRUC at Union College claiming to be the first college radio station on the air in the United States in 1920. In some cases, such as at University of Wisconsin, professors and academic departments took the lead in radio experiments, but there were also pioneering students creating their own stations.

From the very early days of student-built radio stations in the 1920s, to the jerry-rigged campus-only stations that began in the 1940s, to the birth of webcasting in the 1990s, college radio has embraced a DIY spirit that has led to some incredible innovations. Students at Haverford College successfully built a radio station in 1923 and by 1925 their AM broadcasts could be heard as far away as 1,500 miles. By 1926, they were transmitting at between 750 and 1,000 watts, making their station WABQ the most powerful college radio station in the country (and the second most powerful radio station of any type in Pennsylvania). The station unfortunately became a victim of its own success and the students who created it agreed to sell it off to a commercial radio group as they neared graduation in 1927.

In 1936, a student from Brown University started a renegade, unlicensed on-campus radio network that initially just connected radios with his phonograph player in order to share his classical music collection. With the help of other more technically inclined students, his dorm room soon became the epicenter for broadcasts that were distributed via wires strung through steam tunnels to student radios in surrounding dorms. Their success soon inspired students at other colleges to set up similar dorm-based stations and led to the creation of the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System on February 18, 1940, when representatives from 12 colleges convened to share ideas about campus broadcasting.

The same creativity that sparked these student-built stations of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s was at play in the 1990s when existing college radio stations with terrestrial broadcasts figured out how to get their broadcasts online.

WNUR [Photo: Jennifer Waits]

In 1994, two college radio stations were the very first terrestrial radio stations to broadcast online. WXYC at University of North Carolina claims to be the “first radio station in the world to offer a live Internet simulcast of an off-air signal”. Around the same time, Georgia Tech station WREK began their online experiments using software written entirely by a student at the station. In these early days of the Internet, there were no rules and the whole idea of the Internet was somewhat perplexing to mainstream society (including commercial radio stations). College students immersed in technology were online pioneers and their willingness to experiment and take risks meant that college radio stations were much more likely to explore and innovate than their commercial radio counterparts.

College radio stations were at the forefront of webcasting at a time when many commercial stations didn’t even have a website to speak of. From there, they added features like audio archives, podcasts, and real-time online playlists. Interacting with stations and DJs became more personal with the introduction of instant-messenger, webcams, and live chat functionality. As social media has exploded, with more and more stations setting up accounts on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, so have the opportunities for listeners to more actively engage with college radio and DJs.

With these recent innovations, college radio has had the opportunity for its audience to swell, as Internet broadcasts allow for listeners to tune in from all over the world. Webcasting has also given terrestrial and campus-only stations a back-up plan and the ability to broadcast when AM and FM signals are taken away or sold off by cash-strapped schools. Similarly, it’s allowed new stations to crop up quickly, easily, and cheaply (and without the need for a government-issued broadcasting license from the FCC) on campuses without existing radio stations.

But, at the same time, many of the technologies that have helped to simplify, democratize, and expand the reach of both college radio and music in general, may also be working to destroy college radio’s points of distinction from mainstream radio.

College radio’s strength (generally speaking, since college radio stations can differ dramatically when it comes to their programming philosophies and formats) today is predicated on the relative freedom that it enjoys compared with corporate commercial radio. College radio DJs often are the programmers of their shows, hand-selecting music that they want to share with listeners. Music directors offer varying levels of oversight, but frequently are the gatekeepers who encourage DJs to explore new and challenging material.

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.