It was just about a year ago that the idea for Spinning Indie was born. As I completed the edits on a piece that I was writing about college radio for an academic journal (which I submitted in summer 2007), I realized that I had a lot more to say about the subject and needed an outlet for all of those ideas. I'd spent much of last December voraciously reading everything I could find about college and indie radio to add some context to my article. There was very little college radio scholarship out there, so most of the books that I read were about related topics like the history of radio, freeform radio and pirate radio. The college radio scholarship that I did find was fascinating, much of it done for MA theses and PhD dissertations. In fact, some of the most impressive work about college radio was done by graduate students, many of whom seemed to be active radio participants as well as scholars. Holly Kruse's book, Site and Sound: Understanding Independent Music Scenes, was the stand-out among everything I read. It was also inspiring, as the book deal stemmed from her dissertation.
Since I started Spinning Indie, I've been able to connect with more college radio academics, definitely a small crew of great folks. In the months to come, I plan to summarize more academic articles related to college radio. In the meantime, the fruits of my academic labor are finally available for consumption, as my Radio Journal piece was published a few months back. I was hoping to be able to provide free access to the entire article online, but unfortunately there's only free access to the abstract (you can pay to see the entire article).
My piece, "Does 'indie' mean independence? Freedom and restraint in a late 1990s US college radio community" appears in Volume 5, Numbers 2 & 3 (2007) of The Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media. This is my very first academic article, so needless to say I'm excited to see my name in print.
My article actually goes back in time to discuss a period during the 1990s when college radio was often working to define itself against commercial culture's embrace of "alternative" music. Since "indie" and "alternative" were being gobbled up and repackaged for commercial airplay and commercial sale, many college stations found themselves becoming even more vigilant about supporting independence from corporate control and corporate media.
The station that I write about in my article took a radical stance, only adding artists on independent labels to regular rotation. In addition to that, to be added to the library, releases had to be free of any major label funding or major label distribution. As I write in my article,
"Deciding to include major label releases at any college station is a political statement and deciding to ban major label releases is equally political. Yet many releases do not clearly fall into one space or another, which is confusing and controversial when they are banned from a station. What is indie? Who decides? This becomes both an aesthetic and a power issue."
What was fascinating to me, was that some new people at the station didn't seem to understand or appreciate this policy. I write:
"While staff members at the radio station were supportive and proud of the indie-only policy, I found that people struggled with it and at times felt restricted by it. This article will interrogate that tension between theory and practice, raising the question ‘Does indie mean independence’? at this college station."
In the article I also give nods to some college radio scholarship and talk a bit about the contested and vague definitions of "alternative" and "indie" in the 1990s. I also discuss some disturbing trends in college radio, in which many stations are becoming more and more like commercial stations, with narrow playlists of songs.
I conclude, saying:
"As the radio industry had continued to change in the 1990s and in the early 2000s, the questions raised by this article take on added relevance. Holtermann (1992) and others cite concern about the increasingly homogenous playlists at college radio stations in the 1990s. Low power and ‘pirate’ stations were in some instances established as a reaction against college radio not fulfilling its promise. Sue Carpenter reflects that her pirate station in L.A. was ‘. . . not only a reaction against bad radio but a reaction against authority’ (Carpenter 2004).
If college radio continues to reflect mainstream radio more so than independent radio, than it may lose more and more listeners to low power stations, satellite radio (with hundreds of niche channels, yet corporate-controlled), the Internet (with indie radio stations, big commercial stations, podcasts, band websites and access to mp3s) and iPods (where anyone can make their own playlist of music).
Yet college radio stations with a strong philosophy about independent music can still hold an important place on the radio dial. College radio has been rarely studied and it is a compelling space in which to explore the tensions between mainstream commercial radio and the underground, independent responses to that. As they are often student and volunteer-run organisations, college radio stations have their own institutional structures, although they are still in close contact with the commercial record industry. This station is but one example of a college radio station with a strong philosophy about exposing unheard music to listeners, and future research would benefit from taking a broader look at college radio as a whole and at independent-minded stations in particular."
Long live indie college radio! And long live college radio scholarship. If you're working on something related to college radio, definitely send it my way, as I'd love to review more academic articles for Spinning Indie.