Technology and the Soul of College Radio

Jennifer Waits

While college radio and technological innovation have long gone hand in hand, technology may currently be ripping the soul out of the beloved broadcast format.

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.

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