College Radio: A Study In Success
College Radio: A Study In Success

With school back in session, a look at how college stations, from big to small, continue to break hits, serve communities and launch careers.

Not all college stations run purely on student initiative. While Boston University 's WTBU is student-run, its other outlet, WBUR (billed as "Boston's NPR news station"), is professionally-staffed. It's also a ratings winner, sporting a 3.5 share and a cume of 408,000 among listeners 6-plus in Arbitron's June Boston rankings. In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania's triple A WXPN drew 298,000 listeners 6-plus in that period. In Los Angeles in that span, college radio listening totaled more than 1.2 million, courtesy of outlets providing classical (the University of Southern California's KUSC), freeform (Santa Monica Community College's KCRW) and jazz and triple A (California State University's KKJZ (Long Beach) and KCSN (Northridge), respectively).

KCSN's staff includes PD Sky Daniels, formerly of triple A KFOG San Francisco; Jed the Fish, a former 30-year veteran of Los Angeles' alternative KROQ; and, even Berlin lead singer Terri Nunn. "Due to the experience and relationships of our staff, we are aggressive in establishing new acts, both local and internationally, as well as respecting and extending careers of creative legends," Daniels says. (True enough, U2 manager Paul McGuinness told the Los Angeles Times last year: "In every era there will be a mold-breaking, groundbreaking, taste-making station, and KCSN sounds very clearly like something we ought to support.")

Still, approximately 35 students contribute to KCSN, whether on-air, in social networking or marketing efforts, learning alongside respected industry veterans. "Students are exposed to a high level of professional awareness and interactivity," Daniels says. "They get real-world training if they have vocational desires toward the music and entertainment industries."

With such experienced radio experts at the helm and millions of listeners tuning in, it's no wonder that college radio is a favorite target of record labels, especially independent labels, whose mindsets tend to fall in line with the DIY affinity for discovery that marks the college years. I.R.S. introduced R.E.M. in the early '80s with the support of college airplay, while labels such as Sub Pop are practically synonymous with college radio, having helped popularize grunge in the early '90s via signees Nirvana and Soundgarden. Sub Pop's success has continued with newer acts like Beach House, Fleet Foxes and the Postal Service.

The amount of major label love for college radio, however, appears to vary label-to-label. "It's hard enough getting attention at commercial radio," one major label executive laments, with some majors relying on independent promoters only in working college radio. Conversely, Capitol Records is among major labels that consider college airplay a key starting point for acts with multi-format potential.

"We've seen crossover success with the Decemberists, the Gorillaz, and, more recently, M83.," Capitol college and specialty radio manager Erin Ginty says, adding that the label additionally employs independent promoters to help "cover as much ground as possible." After Mute worked M83.'s sixth album, "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming," to college stations, the label teamed with Capitol's alternative promotions department, resulting in a No. 5 Alternative Songs hit in "Midnight City."

Count Ginty among those grateful for college radio's willingness to foster the development of new acts. "College radio helps lay a foundation for an artist. Without this format, some musicians could never get airplay."

WRAS' Jones concurs. "We love music. We have the rare opportunity to play pretty much anything we want.

"We are not going to waste it."