It’s got to be tough to be a NY Times reporter. As the stalwart standard-bearer of US print journalism, whenever you report on a cultural phenomenon you’re responsible for ostensibly declaring it as new, or newly rediscovered, newly viable…. newly whatever. While at the same time cultural insiders view that coverage with both “no duh” knowing disdain, along with the muted pride of being noticed by the Old Grey Lady.
So, that’s my stance on the Times’ recent article on continuing relevancy of college radio, spotlighting WRPI at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and KWVA at the University of Oregon. But primarily I’m glad to see the Times taking notice of what feels like an increasingly forgotten form of radio.
I got my start in college radio at WTSR-FM at the College of New Jersey (it was Trenton State College when I was there), and I’m very glad to say that ‘TSR is still a truly student-run station. Now I have the great privilege of being the adviser to student-run WNUR-FM at Northwestern University. Although it seems the bloodshed has slowed, during the 90s and early 00s there seemed to be quite a slate of student stations being reclaimed by college administrations in order to be repurposed into public radio stations or even sold off to the highest bidder (usually a church or christian broadcaster). It seems that things have now stabilized, and I hope that the remaining student-run stations are able to stay that way, although I fear the economic downturn again will make college-owned stations seem like tasty prospects for quick cash.
Along with community radio, student-run college radio is one of the last strongholds for independently programmed radio that is responsive to local community. Student-run stations are often criticized by students and non-students for being comparatively elitist and unrepresentative of both campus and local community. I remember in my college days the station being criticized for playing mostly indie rock that many (if not most) of my fellow students weren’t interested in. They’d tell us that they would listen more if only the station would play more mainstream pop and rock like the local CHR station. While the management of the station might have liked to believe these students, even then we all had enough of an instinctive understanding of basic political economy to recognize that our little college station was no match for the commercial CHR’s advertising and market power. In essence, it was absurd to compete with the commercial stations on their own turf, and a complete waste of the noncommercial license to even attempt it.
As an adviser to a college station in 2008 I see the same trends noted in the Times article, in that the contemporary college student listens to way less radio now than when I was a freshman in 1989. It’s no longer the case that the average college student prefers the local pop station to their college station. Rather, the average college student really does prefer her iPod.
Yet, I argue that true student-run and programmed college stations play a valuable role of cultural and political education in their communities. It’s often overlooked that most college stations are also staffed by a percentage of community volunteers who bring in both community representation and a broader range of experience. While not the same as community radio, any community that has a student-run station should be thankful that this beacon of noncommercial integrity often comes as a partial or wholly-funded gift from the college or university that sponsors it.
Yes, it may esoteric, amateurish or occasionally sophomoric, but I also know that without college radio many a community would have no jazz, classical, bluegrass, blues or experimental music on its airwaves, in addition to the more youth-associated genres of indie rock, metal, rap, dance and electronic.
Sure, many people now turn to the internet, satellite radio and downloads for the music they would have once gotten on the airwaves. But what about those without the resources, money, knowledge or wherewithal to use the ‘net or iPods? Or who want to be able to tune in anywhere without any hassle? Radio isn’t dead, even if the proclivities of the professional middle class are changing.
Yuppies (even if they look like hipsters) never listened to music radio much anyway….