Why College Radio Still Matters
Written by Bwog Staff
In appreciation for its ancestral role in our own lineage, Bwog posts features from each new issue of The Blue and White (whose new website will launch next week!). You can look forward to a personal exploration of the Trans Narrative; a debunking of the Board of Trustees; and an interview with Ta-Neshi Coates. Snatch up a copy in Lerner, the Diana, Butler, or one of Columbia’s fine dormitory establishments. Here, senior editor Torsten Odland, CC ’15, argues the importance of radio after the college DJ’s halcyon age. Like what you read? Stop by the B&W’s first meeting of the semester: Sept the 10th, 9pm, the crypt of St. Paul’s chapel.
I’m not sure where I developed the image I have of the “college radio DJ.” Neither of my parents were DJs; I never listened to college radio growing up. Other than maybe a caricature I saw on The Simpsons, I have to assume the archetype I have in mind is based on a variety of Wikipedia sources.
If you look far enough in the history of indie rock, every band’s page claims “their album dfsd was very popular on college radio stations in the United States.” The more popular 80’s alterna-bands (R.E.M., The Replacements, Pixies) have been classified, in retrospect, as “college rock”, which gives one the impression that not only were these intrepid DJs introducing America to the jangle music we all respect so much today, they were leading a youth movement. The college radio persona I’m thinking of—the rock-nerd saving space in the airwaves for interesting pop music, the sarcastic taste-maker who may actually just be Stephen Malkmus—lives eternally in 1986, when they were socially necessary.
Though I didn’t realize that when I first started programming at WKCR, part of my motivation to get involved had to do with the role I thought I might fill as a cool one. But there’s a crucial difference between the college radio stereotype and radio at Columbia today: WKCR and WBAR have very few listeners on campus and are functionally irrelevant to the taste and cultural sense of most Columbia students (insofar as they’re radio stations).
Though it ranges into the twenties with some frequency, Joe Bucciero, CC ’15, WBAR Treasurer, assured me that the average listenership for online-streamed WBAR shows is “in the single digits.” During the late-night shows, in all likelihood, there are long stretches of air when the DJs are just listening to music alone in the basement of Sultzberger.
With ’KCR it’s tougher to say. There’s no way of precisely determining how many students are physically tuned in to 89.9 FM, but I only know one Columbia student who owns a radio. If students are listening, they’re streaming it. WKCR doesn’t track those numbers. But I don’t think I overstep my bounds in claiming that outside of the ’KCR community very few students listen to the station regularly (though I may be discounting the segment of Columbians I suspect exist who only listen to classical music). To put it another way, I don’t know anyone who does.
The answer seems obvious as soon as you formulate the question. Why don’t college kids listen to the radio these days when it seemed to mean so much to them 25 years ago? Computers. If I sound pedantic, it’s because I need to remind myself periodically that before 15 years ago, human beings did not have free, instant access to all media. Anyone with a computer and Wi-Fi, even if they confine themselves to YouTube, has more music to choose from than any station library ever had, and they can listen to it in whatever order they please. If you want variety but aren’t terribly curious, Pandora can give you a mathematical approximation of the radio station you’d want to listen to anyway.
One shouldn’t forget that the best thing about radio was that it was free; it brought free music into peoples’ homes in a world where, if you liked what you heard, you had to go out and physically buy it (if you could find it). Now that access to music is free in general, it seems natural that students would gravitate toward the systems that give them the most control (“control”) over what they listen to. You don’t have to look hard to see an authoritarian color in the traditional DJ-masses arrangement—even when its figurehead is a slacker dork, one person determining the limits of what can be heard, the holder and source of all relevant information about pop music.
Thanks to Great Wikipedia, the information that made college radio DJs important cultural middlemen is available to anyone with a computer. Today, when one hears, and particularly enjoys, a Limp Bizkit song (say), one is only three clicks away from a full biography of the band. Easy access to a list of all their albums (when they were recorded, for what label), their associated genre, and usually even a gloss on their “legacy,” not only democratizes the brute facts of pop music, but empowers one to really explore the formless, unfathomable, de facto public library of music on the web.
The type of person who would have listened to college radio 25 years ago has all the tools today to be their own DJ, so to speak, and construct their own musical education. Ironically, though the Internet may have destroyed the significance of the “college radio figure,” the official canon inherited by our generation of rock-scholars—in which The Smiths, Sonic Youth, etc. are undisputed greats—is the narrative developed and maintained by college DJs, standardized, and made universally available.
One finds a pretty illustrative example of the way times have changed in the case of Can, a strange, groovy band from Germany, and its reception in America. Today it’s “accepted fact” that Can was one of the more seminal bands of the ’70’s—innumerable alt-people, from Johnny Lydon to Thom Yorke, have been outspoken about the band’s influence on their work. If you’re interested in rock history, you don’t have to do very much research before the name Can surfaces as kind of legend.
But in 1986, you’d be in a very small community of Americans if you ever heard a Can song. Their classic record Tago Mago, released in Germany in 1971, wasn’t distributed by an American label until it was released as a CD in 1990. If you were voracious enough to buy British music journals, you might read their name; if you lived in a metropolitan area it’s possible that you could track down a British or German import of the album—but most people weren’t. Every Can song is too long and creepy for American commercial radio; so the band’s music was unavailable to almost everyone.
If you did hear a Can song, it was probably on college radio, where it became a cult favorite and made impressions on a lot of young musicians. My path to Can in 2009 was slightly more direct: I was reading about Kid A on Mother Wikipedia, where Thom Yorke is quoted talking about Tago Mago as an inspiration, so I listened to a few Can songs. Then I downloaded their two critically significant records, which subsequently have become two of my favorites.
College radio may have been educational and groundbreaking in ’86, but today it’s a laughably inefficient and inflexible way to disseminate culture. Which begs the question: can we write WKCR and WBAR off as institutions of undergraduate wankery, or, more to the point, as mere clubs?
Neither station is in huge danger of this. From the station’s spring blowout, WBAR-B-Q (which consumed roughly two thirds of their annual budget last year, according to Joe), to smaller events highlighting student musicians, WBAR’s primary contribution to Columbia’s cultural life is the concerts it organizes and promotes. In that respect alone, they’re a welcome tonic to the Bacchanal committee. At the risk of short-shrifting them, however, I’m going to focus on the way ’KCR justifies itself.
It would be a mistake to characterize WKCR as wankery. For one thing, it has dedicated fans that aren’t Columbia students. I know because they call. On average I get a call an hour during my jazz show, though I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned the station phone number on the air. Some people have questions—they call to ask the name of the last song you played, who the bassist was, etc.—but equally as many call in just to say thanks. Last time I was in the studio, a guy streaming the broadcast in Chicago called to tell me, “You’re giving me goose bumps!”
Secondly, even in college rock’s heyday, ’KCR didn’t have any social influence in the sense usually attributed to college radio stations, because it didn’t broadcast contemporary pop music. Engaging listeners on campus, at least since WKCR’s transition in the early ’70’s (under pressure from the Columbia administration, who were displeased by the station’s coverage of the 1968 protests) from primarily intellectual content to primarily music, has only been tangential to ’KCR’s purpose.
“We’re the lifeboat for stranded cultural artifacts. Especially jazz,” solemnly explained Sophie Rubashkin, BC ’15, WKCR Publicity Director. When I asked her what she sees as WKCR’s mission, she added, “I think we say, ‘Yes, we will put Eric Dolphy on the radio five days a week, because he should be. And no one else is doing that.’” WKCR’s slogan is “The Alternative,” which sums up the station’s programming philosophy pretty efficiently: it plays what, for a variety of reasons, commercial radio stations won’t.
’KCR preserves a public space for forms that are no long popular, like jazz. Its six music departments—Classical, New Music (basically avant-garde), Jazz (60% of the station’s air time), American, In All Languages, and Latin—put varieties of music on air that one more Top 40 station wouldn’t.
Philosophically, it stands on more solid ground than your average college radio station. But this contributes to a kind of rigidity in its programming—by which I mean that, for a lot of people, joining WKCR means signing up to DJ music you don’t listen to in your spare time and know, basically, nothing about.
It’s mission doesn’t nullify the fact that WKCR is basically inefficient in the way I earlier described—they may put Eric Dolphy on the air daily, but I when I’m in the mood for Dolphy I usually want to pick the song. But it does demonstrate something about the musical education one receives from the Internet. Almost everything I know about jazz can be backed up somewhere on Wikipedia, and Youtube; conceivably, I could have learned all the same stuff without ’KCR. But I know that without WKCR, I wouldn’t have, because no one would have taken the time to tell me, “Jazz is important.”
There’s a decent argument to be made that the ease and freedom of choice afforded to us by the Internet is counter-educational musically, because it allows you to very quickly identify the limits of your comfort zone and fill its interior with lists of largely interchangeable bands. I think that’s a cynical take—my personal research has certainly introduced me bands (like Can) that have taken real effort to appreciate—but there can be no denying that the sheer amount of information one is confronted with online encourages the kind of inquiry centered around a particular perspective. A standard in music can be organized, analyzed, criticized. And because the Internet makes each perspective infinitely investigable, it can mask how narrow your vision really is, until you’re at a place where you actually (though unconsciously) believe that what you read on Pitchfork is the world-consensus. WKCR’s point is that engaging with a plurality of perspectives is the fullest way to experience music; while unfamiliar perspectives take some study to appreciate, any genre is intrinsically worth studying.
Sophie and I agreed that the experience we’ve had as programmers has been dominantly educational. Neither of us listened to much jazz before coming to school. Other than Kind of Blue, everything I play on the radio is music I’ve been introduced to in the past year and a half; talking to listeners on the phone, I’m often acutely aware that my audience knows much more about jazz than I do. I don’t expect I’m able to teach a ’KCR listener much about anything, so I’ve always approached my show as a chance to dig through the library for a few new records I have good reason to believe are cool.
Though I’ll always hunger for the style-points and cultural entitlement of yesteryear’s college DJ, I have to admit there’s something decent and modest about the arrangement between me and my listeners on ’KCR that strikes me as a purer expression radio than the “socially significant DJ” of 1986.
There’s no pretense that I’m any kind of authority, or that the listeners need to come to me for the esoteric music they want to hear—if that’s what my audience wanted, they’d be better served by Google. Without those coercive elements, the listeners who stick around do so, presumably, because they prefer sharing musical experiences with other human beings. After they hear a flugelhorn line that really affects them, they want someone to call, someone they can tell, “Thank you so much for playing this.”