College radio dropouts


Live from the Underground: A History of College Radio, by Katherine Rye Jewell
(University of North Carolina Press, 2024)

When I spoke with Jewell about her lucid and engaging history of college radio, my Covid case had grown pronounced enough that it bled straight onto the tape. She makes a smooth narrator, though, so the few places I do croak through you can hear just how ill I felt. I started by asking her what kind of history she teaches at Fitchburg State outside Boston…

KRJ: I do. Yes. I teach 20th century. I’m mostly political. Well, I kind of do run the gamut of political, cultural, and economic history. I teach classes across those different areas. Really starting, you know, Gilded Age to the present. So I actually grew up in Vermont, around Springfield, Vermont and I didn’t actually get college radio when I was in high school. And the only college radio station I could reach was the Dartmouth station. Which is a commercial station, as most of the Ivy League stations are and it’s like commercials, it sounded just like a regular, you know, kind of alternative rock, classic rock station.

So when I went to Vanderbilt, all the way to Nashville to do college, I was at the activities fair and they were advertising that you could join the radio station as a student activity. And I had always loved radio, but I had no idea that students could be involved in it. So I really became immersed in, and this was in the late 1990s as college radio was really established as this thing in the music industry, in music in general, and local music scene that was really well known.

In fact, I had no idea. And so I was kind of becoming masked in this world, and I was a history and anthropology major, but this is a student activity. It was not anything related to, I thought, what I wanted to do professionally. It was just this fun thing that I got to do, learn new music and connect with other people who loved music as much as I did. The thing is, when I went off, and became a historian, quite into political history, I focus a lot on regulation and how regulation plays out kind of on the ground for economic, and kind of cultural and social groups. And in 2011, Vanderbilt decided that it was gonna sell my college radio station and there was a really robust movement to save it, but being a historian and, you know, having that kind of epiphany in college about, you know, this college radio thing that I’d never known about, I got really curious about the history behind that.

What was it that we felt like we were losing? Where did that come from? How did regulation create these stations, support these stations, and threaten these stations? And I started looking around and there really wasn’t any national history of college radio that delved into these years, specifically since the 1970s.

You know, like the punk band funding in their demo, hip hop paid for arriving at stations too. And all it took was one DJ as a station to be interested in it. And you would get these really storied shows that were able to kind of air what was going on. I mean, it’s really, they got thrown out for the most part.

And I started going to archives and looking at the newspapers and started writing it, and here we are! So it was WRVU, Radio Vanderbilt University. It was started, as many college stations were, by students in the 1950s as a carrier current signal. And it went FM in the early 1970s. So it really followed this very similar trajectory of college radio stations.

And it, you know, gradually increases its wattage and eventually becomes a 19,000 watt station, which was pretty big for a college radio station. And it reads pretty widely over Metropolitan, Nashville. And what was nice about Vanderbilt’s station is it remains student run, and as most college stations, a lot of times the bylaws or the constitution requires that students be in positions of control, that they be the general manager, program director, maybe music director. 

The station is really dedicated to bringing in community members who are DJing, and it does that pretty much throughout its history, and it had really strong community ties, and of course this is Music City, USA, Nashville, Tennessee. And so it had a lot of really exciting links to recording and shows and the other side of Nashville.

Certainly we had our bluegrass and our country connection, and DJs covering what was going on down at the Ryman, but it was really linked broadly to the music industry in general, and in particular to new music scenes. So it had deep ties to the hip hop scene across the South, to old country and also to indie rock.

It was nice because a lot of recording artists have come to Nashville to record. And so we had a really vibrant scene, you know, venues, and so we always see live music. So within the station, the biggest controversies that we would have would be over minor issues of programming, so if you had a general show, if you didn’t have a scene to your show where you were the bluegrass show or the goth show, there was a general rotation. There were new releases and so you would try and play one. I forget how many, but you know, three or four of the new releases, and then maybe you would play a world selection, and a jazz selection. So there’ll be some debate around those types of requirements. And sometimes, as in block scheduling, there would be some friction over who got what block. And it’s from a long established community, so we had to change what would be the balance of, you know, who got to control that. It was pretty tame. 

The real controversy that the station engaged with were, across the radio dial, we really looked at things like caveat, you know, the commercial ads, ’cause this is post to 1996  telecommunication ad and the corporatization of alternative rock radio, was really ramping up and reaching its peak, and the consolidation and the decline of local radio. We didn’t really understand the context of that because we’re college students. But we very much had this sense that we were defending a way of doing radio, a way of connecting with listeners that would threaten. 

So I didn’t really understand the implications of it until I went to graduate school and I understood the broader process of deregulation. This is the 1970s, across industry, and I’m one of these new – there’s a big group of historians right now who are political historians who are really taking media seriously as a subject and in the world of political history and as a subject and an actor and political history.

And a lot of times things like radio and television have been relegated to the sideline and only looked at in terms of content and questions of representation, as opposed to things that are the subject of political controversy and regulatory change. And so those types of questions are the things that I’m really interested in as a historian.

And so it was really only then that I started to fully grasp what I was experiencing at the radio station. As I did that research, I started to connect it to these questions of the culture wars and looking back, that’s really what I see that controversy as a part of, that left culture wars as fighting over the standards of indecency or the content of music, or how many swear words are on network television and primetime hour. That instead, I see the culture wars as also being about these decisions over whose voices get supported on the airwave, what types of access many different types of Americans have to media, to doing media, to getting on the airwaves themselves, and the kinds of institutions that we support that ensure that many people have access to kind of that upward mobility through media.

It really requires a much more decentralized, local, vibrant media system than we have. That was engendered, really, by the Hill Communications Act, but we think of that as the big moment, but there was 20 years of history leading up to that moment. 

TR: What were the parameters that you felt you were working under even thing. You know, the sort of “subtext” [of received rules…]. 

KRJ: There really didn’t seem to be requirements that we, I might’ve avoided. I would never have played Green Day on my show, right? They didn’t need our help. Anything that was on the commercial FM dial, I tended to side waver. So, you know, nothing that needed my help to get exposure unless I was doing some kind of, we’ll call it like a think piece show, where I was putting music together in a certain way.

Then you might, you might hear that. Maybe I’ll play some Gordon Lightfoot. Who knows? It was depending on what I was going for with the sound of those particular hours. It was totally under my control. I sure might get a side glance if I played something a little commercial, but nobody was going to stop me from doing that.

Whereas the conflicts came in was, you know, there was never a real conflict. This was sort of a fun conflict where we had a general kind of indie rock, indie pop show. We would oftentimes play eclectic music that we would find at the thrift store.

And for a while the heavy metal show would follow us, and he always opened his show with Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath, and then the next semester we had the goth show that would follow us. And for both of those shows, we would always try to set out the most awkward transition. I think we’ve really won the night when Ichabod, the goth DJ came in and he was like, you guys, I don’t even know what to do with this because we played a Richard Simmons exercise routine that we found at a thrift store that night. So there were mild genre battles that were going on, but we were all classified as kind of independent, free form radio.  

I know that in the last 20 years,  it’s exactly that a lot of that really has changed. And there’s been a lot more people on the new call, from the addicted, to crafty, to college radio.

TR: But I don’t think people, they don’t want to do it no more.  

RJ: From what? Because I think there’s a couple of different misconceptions operating about what college radio is and has been.  The stem of it is that there became this very dominant perception of college radio as a place to find new and exciting music.

And that’s because the music industry in the 1980s incorporates college radio into its business model.  So right there is sort of a source of a kind of corporatization or corporate mindset that certainly caused radio stations to resist it, right? They hated the high pressure sales call of major labels, but that role gave them a certain status.

It gave them a certain protection for their station to stave off any kind of takeover and to maintain that independence because they were performing this market function. But at the same time, that speaks to this larger problem that we have in higher education.  Since the 1970s, what we call the neo liberalization of higher ed, was that we’re suggesting everything that’s going on in colleges to these larger market functions. 

And so that’s one fourth of it. But the thing is, is that college radio stations always are these very diverse places. Where many different types of students are looking to them for experience. And a lot of them, one of the reasons we have a lot of these radio stations, is because they did provide us pedagogical laboratory experience.

But one of the conflicts that we’d see in the eighties and the nineties are between students who want it to build their professional portfolio, to get a professional experience. Then, you know, you’ve got the hardcore kid at 10 PM, you know, or like waiting for the safe harbor hours.  Because they can like play more challenging music, and there’s some squaring off that happens over that function.

I think one of the challenges that we have right now is that a lot of people have very rosy nostalgic feelings. I happen to be one of them, about that heyday of indie rock college radio that played that particular role that really had power in the music industry, and it’s kind of overshadowed a lot of the other functions that college radio played, which were valuable, which is as community radio, as a pedagogical experience, and many other types of services that it performed. And that kind of narrows what we think of as college radio, so when it’s no longer the only game in town, that now there’s many places that are cultivating new artists and places to discover them, that it seems that college radio has no purpose anymore.

But really, it’s about figuring out in this new media environment what the next role of college radio can be. I think we have to let students figure that out. 

TR: And so are there, if there are other interesting data on how much people are listening to college radio, airway, diversity, either of those?

KRJ: So, the Future Music Foundation is the best place to go to kind of get a sense of the dynamic. At the moment, certainly younger people do not listen to radio as much as older. So radio is trending older demographically. And that includes college radio. The streaming thing is, and I’m probably the most sensitive to this because of what happened to my radio station, but certainly streaming college radio is college radio. This is Carrier Current AM radio is also college radio or commercial radio. As long as it’s student-run, it’s college radio in my book.  The thing is that the streaming and Vanderbilt’s radio station still exists as a streaming station. Um, but it’s focused really is on the campus, the institution no longer sees the radio station as a bridge between the town and gown, and instead doing radio is kind of limited. And so, certainly streaming stations are kind of available on the internet, anybody can get them. But you have to go behind and look at the mission and what’s driving these stations and how are they reaching out and getting listeners to tune in and that’s really where the rubber meets the road, I guess you could just say.

TR: It went down the wrong path. 

KRJ: It went down the wrong path, giving up that SM signal. Radio is changing and I can understand why administrators might think that this is no longer worth the investment, but I think they’ve got to give students a chance to innovate. And I think that they need to invest in those larger community connections in a positive way, because a lot of times, you know, there’s the relationship between universities and their surrounding community, and a lot of cases it is not a good relationship either, in many, many, many ways.

So we’d be all Harvard and Allston, right? We could go right there, but radio is a place where there have been more positive connections. Not always, certainly, but it is a really inexpensive  and fruitful avenue to pursue. There’s a lot of different models out there. And you know, pretty close to home, the one that I listen to often is MIT’s station.

And what I really like about that station goes back to its governance. The license is not owned by MIT. It is owned by a separate nonprofit corporation with a board of directors made up of alumni and community members and students. And even though it’s still classified as a student activity, that’s really the only kind of  connection that it has is MIT and that other than it giving it space.

And so it’s functioned as a really important community station, and has in many different ways, for a long time. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t controversies. So that’s one way of doing college radio, is looking at what’s going on in community radio. And I think certainly the resurrection of radio stations like Vanderbilt stations, as low power FM.

So we have WXNA in Nashville, which also streams, and that was an initiative put together by alumni from the station, a bunch of community DJs who are looking to see what low power FM can do. And one of the key leaders of that Save WRVU campaign, her name is Sharon Scott. She was the GM at WRVU in the 90s, before I got there, but she went out into her hometown of Louisville and founded WXOX in Louisville, which has been a really important community station there, and was very instrumental in rethinking how SM radio gives us certain things, certain functions that social media and internet streaming can’t. 

TR: Yeah. Like what? 

KRJ: It’s hyperlocal; it can further a kind of clearing house of information up to the minute in ways. That is, it can be more challenging for, through, other types of media. During the protest over Breonna Taylor’s murder, safety was a really important kind of information mode for the community, and discussion for what was going on up to the minute and getting information out. If anybody could just tune in with car radio, you don’t need an internet signal or a cell phone signal, and it’s really linked to that particular geography. So it gives people that sense of connection.

So obviously as a fan of community radio, there’s many other ways that I think of doing college radio, Muhlenberg College, in Pennsylvania. I went there recently. And that is, I mean, it’s operating and, you know, doing amazing things, amazing programming. And look, just like Vanderbilt station did in the 90s, that it’s still very much going strong, and the students really love it.

And they’re really in control and determining what the station is and what it sounds like. I think as long as we’re empowering students and providing them the resources and the space to do college radio, many more models will start to emerge. You know, indie rock was our focus but it was really broad, it had a lot of different types of sounds and we were playing hip hop as well. We played a lot of Wu Tang, and Madlib, and Peter Brita Wolf, and Cut Chemist and, you know, kind of underground hip hop as well, but a lot of Stereolab, Jones Spencer, Blues Explosion, Matador Records, Merge Records, the usual, Fussback.

I think what we’ve seen recently though, is that indie rock has become this particular sound, but it doesn’t indicate a certain kind of way of doing music that it, it has a more narrow aesthetic definition within, you know, if you turn on Sirius XM University Station. You instantly know, right, that aesthetic that I’m talking about, sort of dental. It’s not the hardcore music of old, even though that certainly gets play. 

There’s so much music out there. And the way that I see our DJs talking about what they do now is that rather than being focused on ensuring that certain things get exposure, they act more like curators or editors. So that was certainly something that I was doing as a college radio station, as a college DJ that remains continuous, that I’m putting together a story and narrative through my show, and linking music, you know, through ideas. And I think DJs are still very much doing that, but now it’s more a matter of reaching out into this huge, wide potential array of music from many different types of forces, as opposed to a certain business model of indie rock or independent music.

And I think some of it is more challenging just because the economics of music has changed. The kinds of words that we would throw around, like commercialism, it means different things now that currently, you know, I go back to, while talking to Mike Mills from REM, and I talked to the drummer from the Del Puegos in the eighties, there was a big controversy over the Del Puegos selling a thong to play on a Miller Lite ad during the Super Bowl. It was a big deal at the time. And you know, and R. E. M. kind of criticized them for doing that, right? Because they would never sell their music in that way. It was too commercial. It went against the artistic function.

But Mike Mills, in that interview, he’s like, you know, I’d never say that about a band now. Because the economic future had changed. DJs are still doing similar things. But the underlying way of making a living as an artist is in peril, and something that DJs, I think, are still grappling with, and figuring out.

You know, how can we save this industry with the type of stations that we have? And that’s where those larger organizations like the Future of Music Foundation or some of these, you know, collegiate broadcaster organization can think about those larger business of culture type questions. 

TR: Is there still a CMJ [College Media Journal] and there’s still a CMJ convention every year?

KRJ: There is not. It was sort of a sad end to that organization with its sale and demise. And it actually, from a historian’s standpoint, was really hard because they’re still archiving, actually finding old issues of College Music Journal and CMJ, the tip sheet. It’s actually really hard. There’s a big, big gap in the archival record. And a lot of those things got thrown away. And, and the internal working of CMJ, I mean, for example, CMJ hosted the first national hip hop chart with the beatbox chart starting in 1983. It was curated by Bill Stepney, who would go on to, you know, see involved in, in leaving Def Jam record and run, you know, RUN DMC, and with, you know, Public Enemy.

Founded at his station at the WBAU at Adelphi University on Long Island. But Curtis Blow had a radio show on, you know, 1979 and he was in his desk in, I forget which radio station it was in New York, I think it was at one of the community colleges there, you know, but he really had a place on college radio because you could go on and play a tape. He doesn’t need to have a record necessarily.

You know, like the punk band funding in their demo, hip hop paid for arriving at stations too. And all it took was one DJ as a station to be interested in it. And you would get these really storied shows that were able to kind of air what was going on. I mean, it’s really, they got thrown out for the most part.

So there’s one resource online, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame library and archive. They have a lot and they, when I was there doing research, said that they were getting a donation of more, but I don’t know if it’s been processed and I don’t know if it has been entered into the ability to be referred there.

Library of Congress has them as well, but it may be possible to piece them all together.  But I got a note, but there are so many books to be written, just in the dialogue. It’s just, I don’t know, let alone the chart. I mean, they have posters and woolen stone files. So it was just like, I get it, they have that, but for somebody like me going in, the key resources are at the universities themselves. And this is one of the benefits of doing college radio is that they are an institution for the most part with libraries and archives that care about preserving institutional history.

Also, the conversations are captured in student newspapers. And a lot of universities, the first thing that they will digitize is the student newspaper and yearbook. So that was really valuable for me to be able to go in and see, well, you know, what’s going on at this station? Let me just search the student newspaper and then is it worth going and delving in more to the archives?

Do they have an archive? Who do I talk to? They really allow you to kind of take the pull of what’s going on. The thing is, that I am relying on college students to do archiving.  So it could be a little haphazard. I would maybe know that a controversy happened, and then the archive would stop like three years before the budget for this season. 

You know, I think what’s interesting is that in every conversation I see that everybody has their own very emotional connections to what college radio was. And as I talk to people, it’s really interesting to watch them start to question their nostalgic view of college radio. And as I say, you know, as a sort of professional historian, my objectives, and nobody’s really asked me, what are my pieces of nostalgia?

I’ll tell you, I kind of got to that, like, what was I doing? And, you know, those blinders that I may have had, and I definitely did. But I learned to question them, and that’s what a lot of people do, but there’s a bigger conversation there. And I think it relates to how we continue to fund media. That NPR presents a certain business model for non commercial radio that holds a lot, but is also, you know, could be another force of centralization. So definitely the NPR book is something that is another question mark to be uncovered a little bit more. There are a couple of books out there that have delved into the history of NPR and the battled over control in the late 1970s into the 1980s when you know, that it used to be a kind of a bigger endeavor and it had more cultural programming, and it narrows into be much more focused on news information.  And in that process has covered well, but the kind of, on the ground story at this, at individual stations, that hasn’t really been told of, how these different stations adopt NPR and what that really meant for local, non commercial radio. 

TR: Well, Cass, this has been so much fun. Thank you for sharing so much time with us. And it’s going to make a great podcast.

Awesome. Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun.