You probably remember that I was pretty excited to see that there were going to be 2 academic papers about college radio presented at the IASPM (International Association for the Study of Popular Music) conference in Iowa City in late April. Well, I couldn't make it to Iowa City, but I did connect with Nick Rubin, who is one of the college radio scholars who presented at the conference. He sent me a copy of his excellent and thought-provoking paper "'Your Better Alternative': College Radio and the Popular Music Industry," which he presented on April 27th at University of Iowa.
Nick is a graduate student at University of Virginia, working on his dissertation about college radio (Alright!), teaching classes on the history of rock and roll, and DJing at their college station WTJU.
His paper talks about the tension between the assumption that college radio is alternative and radical when in fact stations often act in more mainstream ways, reflecting practices of commercial stations (like adding music that record labels are hyping, making decisions based on charts, and requiring DJs to play a certain percentage of new adds). He writes:
"...college radio Music Directors often restrict their DJs through overt or subtle means. Playlist requirements require DJs to play a set number of songs per hour taken from a preselected group of new 'rotation' CDs; the administrator's goal is both to enhance a station's first-on-the-scene image, and to provide more reliable programming for listeners..."
Nick describes the practices above as similar to commercial radio, which to a certain extent I agree with (especially if the requirements are very restrictive), but to a large degree I see a big difference between the two. I work at a station with playlist requirements (you must play about 1/3 new adds), but I never feel controlled or restricted by them. My station adds over 40 items a week and the new bin is up for 8 weeks, so there's a ton of material to choose from and I can always find music that fits with the aesthetics of my show. I agree that some DJs do feel restricted by these types of rules, but I think it's OK for a station to have a point of view about the type of "sound" it's going for and that, to me, is the goal of having a large, curated bin of new (to the station) Music Director-approved selections.
What fascinated me the most about Nick's paper was his discussion about the role that promoters play in college radio. Some music directors rely heavily on the advice of promoters and won't even add bands to a station's library if they don't have the backing of a promoter. He writes:
"Bands who don't hire a promoter are at a disadvantage, as one Music Director suggests: 'We get between a hundred to two hundred CDs a week...But normally you can tell bad stuff; it doesn't have a major promoter behind it, or, if the band's promoting itself, you know, it's not too good...'"
Wow! I can't imagine that every station feels this way. I know that my station doesn't discriminate against promoter-less bands and having a promoter is certainly not a sign that the music will fit with your station's air sound. But, one of Nick's interesting points in this paper is that many station music directors don't rely solely on their own judgment, but seem to rely on external sources like promoters and CMJ charts in order to make programming decisions. Thankfully he heard about some exceptions to this:
"...certain stations largely opt out of the game with promoters. Liz Schroeder, formerly of AAM Promotions, reports that 'the bigger more influential stations are more likely to be dismissive.' Laura Jellum of Spectre corroborates, ' 'XYC and 'NVR and 'FMU - They do what they want and barely talk to promoters, but we service them anyway.'"
As I've discussed before, college radio stations are a diverse group of organizations, including commercial stations, public radio affiliates, non-commercial, 100% students, blends of community and student DJs, indie-oriented, mainstream, very controlled, freeform and everything in-between.
Like Nick, though, my preference is for stations that have their own point of view, are more focused on indie & undiscovered music, and don't rely on playlists and promoters to guide programming decisions. I'm not a fan of 100% freeform programming, because I am a fan of really great Music Directors as station curators. Amazing Music Directors can be really good at finding and sharing interesting music with their stations and listeners and provide the glue that holds a station together so that it doesn't just sound like a random collection of DJs with no connection to one another or a broader station goal.
"...given college radio's reputation and self-image as 'alternative' and 'indie' - as oppositional to commercial radio - we should critique the practices that impinge on the self-expression of its DJs, and that shortchange the artists working outside of capitalized and professional distribution channels."
What do you think about some of these issues raised by Nick's paper? Do you work at stations with programming rules? Do you add music from bands with no promotional backing? Is it important for college stations to try to rebel against (or at least think about) corporate control?
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