I just spent four hours listening -- through the miracle of Internet radio -- to college stations in Honolulu, Berkeley, New York and Baltimore. Result: I discovered a startling blend of jazz and hip-hop, heard a passionate DJ introduce the music of Morocco, learned about a cutting-edge composer of new classical music and caught up on the latest jazz releases.
Some of the best radio adventures -- and most assuredly some of the very worst -- are found on college stations. The voices of students desperately evangelizing on behalf of their latest musical passion can be found at the extreme left of the FM dial in most cities across the country. But not in Washington.
A series of political and financial disasters have virtually wiped college radio off the air in our region. Only the University of Maryland's WMUC (88.1 FM) remains, and though it boasts its share of cutting-edge programming, its weak signal doesn't carry far from College Park. (It can be heard online at www.wmuc.umd.edu.)
Once upon a time, Georgetown, Howard, American and the University of the District of Columbia had stations that either were student-run or broadcast lots of student-produced programming.
American's WAMU (88.5 FM), where Washington radio legends Willard Scott and Ed Walker met as student DJs, evolved into a professionally run station, a flagship of National Public Radio offering news and talk programs. Howard had no station until The Washington Post donated its FM outlet, WTOP-FM, to the university in 1971. The university initially gave students a prominent role on the station, but WHUR (96.3 FM) soon became a big, professionally managed moneymaker for the school and remains one of the city's most popular commercial music stations.
Georgetown's WGTB was one of the most important pioneers of the underground radio movement of the early 1970s. To the horror of the university's Jesuit administration, the station became a purveyor of radical politics, alternative electronic rock, way-out jazz, gay and feminist shows and even, in 1975, public service announcements for an abortion referral service. That last agitation was the beginning of the end. Georgetown's administration cracked down on the station, fired its general manager and tried to restore control over programming. The students kept pushing the limits, and in 1979 the Jesuits sold the station to the University of the District of Columbia for $1.
UDC used the 90.1 frequency to create a jazz station that was staffed primarily by professionals but included students. But in 1997, under pressure from the city's congressionally imposed financial control board, UDC sold Jazz 90 to C-SPAN for $13 million.
The sale disturbed then-FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, who wondered whether other colleges "under pressure to bring in revenues" would also "sell off their noncommercial stations? With what result for the public?"
There's been no resurgence of college radio in Washington, except perhaps at XM Satellite Radio, the D.C.-based national pay-radio service that has among its 100-plus channels a station (XMU) that plays the kinds of music heard on many campus stations. The DJs, however, don't sound like they've just pulled an all-nighter.
(You can hear the stations mentioned here online: University of Hawaii: www.ktuh.org; University of California at Berkeley: kalx.berkeley.edu; Columbia University: www.wkcr.org; Morgan State University: www.weaa.org; XM Radio: www.xmradio.com.)