Illustration by Michael Byers
"It's not radio. It's college radio. There's nobody listening. Nobody. Maybe, like, three guys in a dorm somewhere."
After a then-senior at Boston University Howard Stern crafted "the single worst moment in radio history" after toppling over a pile of carts (long-lost cousins of the long-lost eight-track), halting a spin of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" in his hit 1997 box office biopic "Private Parts," the eventual "King of All Media" was convinced that his radio career had ended after mere rotations of a 33 on campus radio station WTBU.
In the film, a friend incredulously listens to Stern's drama over the gaffe. "It's not radio. It's college radio," he counters, seemingly more as fact than an attempt to ease the budding air talent's horror.
Decades later (the scene depicts Stern in all his mid-'70s hirsute glory), college radio maintains its schizophrenic nature. It's not radio in the sense that countless student-run college stations don't boast audiences that stretch much further than their campus limits. DJs are learning their craft. Mistakes air.
It is radio in the sense that students gain skills in the art and philosophies of broadcasting: music selection, news, sports and public service production, copywriting, promotion and more.
From tiny carrier-current frequencies whose main mission is teaching the basics of radio to FM powerhouses that compete with commercial, corporate-owned signals, people are paying attention to college radio, even if audience totals aren't always robust. Major record labels allot resources to promoting new artists to college stations. Rising acts rely on the inroads that college airplay provides. And, college programmers respect the responsibility of breaking new music.
"We aired Arcade Fire, the B-52's and Mumford & Sons, among others, years before they made it to commercial stations," says Anastasia Zimitravich, a senior at Georgia State University in 2012-13 and GM of the school's WRAS (Album 88) Atlanta. Along with the Georgia Institute of Technology's WREK, WRAS boasts the largest wattage (100,000) of any student-run station in the world. "It's a really beautiful thing when 50 or so students can work together on something they collectively care about and present that to the community."
WRAS PD and fellow 2012-13 GSU senior Stephanie Jones adds that college radio's non-commercial status affords a unique opportunity not to let dollars dictate airplay. "Instead of spinning the latest pop star rehash cash cow, college radio can play the small label, the weird and the forgotten. We live up to the non-commercial spirit. Our sound ranges from indie to obscure and it's crafted out of a love and appreciation of music that exposes listeners to the unordinary, undiscovered and unexpected."
Zimitravich says that such adventurousness in music selection creates a bond between WRAS and its audience. "WRAS is like a club or a fraternity, where like-minded misfits can find their niche."
The tradition of college radio long predates Stern's shocking jock error (to him, anyway), or WRAS, which first went on-air in 1971. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the earliest form of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities' KUOM (770 Radio K). "In 1912, we were broadcasting the school's football games in Morse code," says PD Caleigh Souhan, who begins her senior year this fall. "Technology is, and always has been, the force that changes broadcasting. We are focused far more on the web and other digital technologies than we were even five years ago. Radio is now a moveable medium and we work to ensure that wherever you are, you are within Radio K's broadcast range, whether that's studying abroad in Scotland, riding the bus plugged into a smartphone or even, like the old days, listening to a radio."
Souhan touches on another element that makes college radio special. Student-staffed stations mirror the intellectual stimulation that a college education helps foster. College radio plays new artists not just because ratings are secondary, but also because an open mind is a hallmark of the collegiate experience. "College radio provides audiences eager for music that challenges and engages, and for that open exchange of ideas that often happens only on a college campus," she muses.
And, if a Radio K student DJ just happens to, say, cascade carts onto a turntable before a spin of Deep Purple gets too deep ... oh well. "I believe that the magic of college radio is that failure is an option," Souhan says. "We can mispronounce a band name, we can have an awkward, nervous sweaty break - or two - and life goes on. Our listeners are our ultimate judge. They're the Dean's List of college radio. As long as they're listening and calling in, we're making the grade."
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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 Head and the Heart.
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."