Ooh, that’s right! It’s brave new radio on WPSC-FM! . . . [HISS] . . .
Everybody’s moving, everybody’s moving, everybody’s MOVING, MOVING, MOVING . . . [CRACKLE] . . .
College radio is a genre, a format that belongs on the tuner alongside all your other basic offerings . . . [HISS] . . .
My mental state is all a-jumble, I sit around and sadly mumble . . . [HISS] . . .
All right! Here we go! It’s College Radio Day!
On Tuesday, 350 stations from across the college-radio universe spoke with one unruly voice, broadcasting an all-day celebration of eclectic music and the student-run, pizza-stained stations that play it.
Quirky, loud and unpredictable, college radio has dwelt for a half-century at the left of the dial, a youthful counterpart to public radio. The genre seeded protest in the ’70s and launched the careers of U2 and R.E.M. in the ’80s, but now finds itself under siege. Over the past decade, the economics of radio have pushed more than a dozen major stations off the airwaves.
One by one, universities are selling off stations to raise cash. FM licenses in major markets are worth millions. Recent sales include KUSF at the University of San Francisco, KTRU at Rice University in Houston and WXEL at Barry University in Miami.
Locally, the University of Maryland, University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary still own broadcast radio stations that are largely student-focused. But students at other schools have lost their access to the airwaves, including those at Georgetown and American universities in the District and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Georgetown sold its feisty radio station to the University of the District of Columbia in the 1970s for a dollar; UDC turned around and sold it to C-SPAN for $13 million in 1997. Johns Hopkins sold WJHU in 2002, spawning the professional public-radio station WYPR (88.1 FM). American University lost its student-run station in 1997, when the AM counterpart to WAMU (88.5 FM) shut down.
Students at all three schools fought to get back on the air. Instead, the universities moved the stations online. Students are mostly happy with the new format — although they’re lucky if a streaming show draws 20 listeners.
“It’s an incredible freedom that you get, if you’re a freshman in college, to have an hour time slot to talk about whatever you want to talk about, to play the music you think people should hear,” said Caroline Klibanoff, 21, general manager of WGTB at Georgetown, which operates solely online.
Howard University’s WHUR (96.3 FM) has evolved from a laboratory for future broadcasters into a professional outfit. Howard students must make do with an AM station.
A group of station managers organized College Radio Day in hope of generating enough support and positive pressure that universities won’t pull the plug.
“College radio is a very, very important medium. Don’t take it for granted,” said Rob Quicke, general manager of WPSC-FM at William Paterson University in New Jersey. “Because if it vanishes, the voice of an entire generation of students will vanish with it.”
Quicke said the idea of a unifying college-radio event came to him last winter as he watched the film “The Social Network.”
Tuesday’s event drew 350 official participants, including six broadcast and Internet stations in Virginia, and three each in Maryland and the District. WTJU (91.1 FM), U-Va.’s station in Charlottesville, marked the occasion by broadcasting a series of student testimonials about the power of college radio. WGTB broadcast public service announcements about the event and posted an essay penned by Klibanoff. DJs at U-Md.’s WMUC (88.1 FM) were instructed to work college-radio talking points into their shows.
College radio dates to the 1920s. Student-run stations diversified FM radio by playing free-form set lists as commercial stations settled into tightly scripted formats. Many acts admired by critics broke through on college radio; the pattern became so pervasive in the 1980s that the decade is often termed the “college radio era.”
But many college students today don’t own a radio. With the help of iPods, shuffle buttons and “smart” Internet stations such as Pandora, they build their own stations.
“We are one of many voices at this point,” said Alex Rudolph, 22, general manager of WVAU, an Internet-only station at American. “College radio is not the be-all, end-all as far as getting the next Sonic Youth out there.”
Leaders of the college-radio industry embrace Internet stations, but not as substitutes for traditional broadcast stations, which have greater reach. And with the number of those stations shrinking, they felt it was time to unite.
“The hardest part for college radio is letting people know that it’s still here,” said Peter Kreten, general manager of WXAV-FM at St. Xavier University in Chicago. “And if you give us a shot, you may hear your new favorite band.”