Tuesday, May 13, 2008

College Radio and the Popular Music Industry - IASPM Paper at Iowa City

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.

Nick concludes:

"...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?


Sheddums said...

I agree that the role of a music director can be hugely significant in a station's programming, but the point of college radio is that it's one of the few places that can support niche shows that even the best music director can't help steer through requirements to play new music.

College radio thrives on late-night weird shit, one of the last things that stops many stations from becoming an FM version of the Hype Machine. This is territory that we can't expect new music to cover, and is much more important than having a "broader station goal" apart from playing sick tracks.

Jennifer Waits said...

I actually agree with you on that. When I posted that I was thinking about college radio stations that have both "format" and "specialty" shows and I definitely think college radio stations should have specialty shows in niche formats.

At my station those shows don't have to abide by any programming rules in terms of playing new adds to the station (but many of the shows do anyway).

So, I don't think having a broader station goal in any way interferes with having specialty shows as well. And, my dream MDs add all kinds of weird stuff.

I don't like hearing college radio DJs playing a lot of mainstream commercial radio stuff on the air and sometimes that happens when a station is too freeform.

nick said...

Hey Jennifer, sheddums, millions of spinningindie readers, et al. Jennifer and I were talking on email and she kind of invited me to post those comments here. SO! let me say, i agree that a station needs to take steps to ensure that some lame-ass jack johnson fan doesn't get the wrong ideas. but i guess i'd rather that the screening process happen beforehand, in applications, auditions, training - and also in playlist feedback.

as far as stations slighting the music distributed without a promoter's help - don't get me wrong, WTJU is like Jennifer's station, and takes pride in finding the good stuff (and nixing the crap) regardless of whether or not it comes from a promoter. i was quoting someone from another station...

as far as steering things goes, at WTJU we provide feedback on all the CDs we add and pass, and when we email the adds/passes, DJs see the notes. that's a pretty light touch. i know other stations whose MDs are slightly or much more proactive about turning DJs on to new stuff they like. but again, our feeling is that if you got a show, we hope you check out the stuff we think you might like, but we like your taste and leave it up to you. i guess this leads more to a random collection of DJs, but that's part of what makes college radio different from Z-100 or whatever.

anyway, we're mostly in agreement here, and i didn't want to overstate the case in my paper, but just point out that college radio DJs often do have parameters they have to negotiate, however minimal these may be.

love this blog - LOVE IT!!! thanks jennifer!


Anonymous said...

hey guys, i have a question that i doubt anyone will answer because it's sorta been a while since anyone commented here.

i'm a new artist that not very many people know about. anyway i have a ton of cd's to get rid of, and i've sorta tried to promote my previous projects through college radio and had at least enough success for me to try again...

but as you can see it's august, and school's out! should i wait till september to send the cd's and associated things out? does it matter? thanks