Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Global Look at Radio: 2009 Radio Conference Report by Nick Rubin

Main Buildings on the York Campus

I am SO disappointed to have missed a recent radio conference in Canada called The Radio Conference 2009: A Transnational Forum; but am super pleased that fellow DJ/radio scholar Nick Rubin was able to go and report back for Spinning Indie. Happening every other year (in changing locales) since 2001, this international conference brings together a wide range of radio scholars.

I met Nick (virtually) when I discovered that he had presented a paper about college radio at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) conference in 2008 and had him send me a copy of it so that I could write about it for Spinning Indie. We've been in touch ever since, as it's a very small group of us who write about college radio from an academic perspective (or from any perspective, really).

Huge thanks to Nick for his great insights about the July conference. It sounds like lots of good geeky radio scholar fun.

Here's his recap:

The Radio Conference 2009: A Transnational Forum

Conference Report
by Nick Rubin

Hey y'all. My name's Nick Rubin and I'm a PhD student at the University of Virginia, working on a dissertation on college radio during the late-seventies/early eighties. I'm also a DJ at UVA's WTJU, and have worked at a few other college/community/public stations through the years.

Thanks to Jennifer for asking me to blog the conference; I've loved reading Spinning Indie, and I'm excited to be a contributor, in whatever minimal capacity. And if anybody reading this would be willing to share experiences/impressions of college radio in the late-seventies/early eighties, please contact me at nickrubin@virginia.edu.


The Radio Conference: A Transnational Forum was held July 26-30 at York University, in Toronto. Actually, it was on the extreme northern edge of Toronto, and the heart of the city was visible only as a thin, distant layer of smog. York itself was ringed by parking lots and several square blocks of brand-new, mostly-empty brownstones – the area was, in a word, uninviting.

But the remote locale facilitated a close-knit meeting, with radio scholars representing all continents besides Antarctica. A substantial contingent from Australia, New Zealand, and the UK led a nightly charge to the one nearby sports bar, and Anne McLennan of York's Media and Culture department made sure the panels ran on time. She also hooked us up with lunch and dinner each day. It sort of felt like summer camp.

The Southern View from York U

I attended this biennial conference in Lincoln, UK in 2007, and was struck then by the variety of topics addressed, partly attributable to the global provenance of the inquiries. In the U.S., music, news, and talk programming have long dominated the radioscape, shrinking our expectations along with our experiences - when’s the last time you turned on commercial radio and were genuinely surprised or bewildered by what you heard?

The medium’s possibilities dwarf its present implementation in the U.S., so it was useful to hear of radio as drama, as activism, as instruction, as propaganda. The papers suggested a multitude of directions not just for college radio scholars, but for college radio. How much are college stations testing the limits of terrestrial radio as an artistic medium? I've never done a show that wasn't spinning discs, so I can't claim to be pushing any boundaries – I'm just wondering…

Social Impact of Radio

Keynote speaker Michael Keith called for the faculty members present to teach more classes on social impact, laying out a litany of instances when radio made a difference in local politics or served as a voice for underrepresented groups. This made me wonder how much one could claim a social impact through musical programming. One interesting moment came when Keith told the crowd that college students might get interested in radio if we pointed out that these days, "radio" also means internet radio, podcasting, digital radio, etc.

I've gotta say this claim has never sat well with me, because it sounds vaguely misleading and because radio as I understand it (terrestrial radio) stands to lose out if it appears on a platter with all these other media. Andrew Dubber elegantly turned around Keith's assertion, offering "maybe we should say that broadcasting is more than just radio now." Right away, this sounded more intellectually honest while maintaining terrestrial radio as a unique endeavor – particularly valuable, irreplaceable even.

HD Radio in U.S., WFMU's Real-time Chat Rooms,
and What it Means to be a Radio Listener

That said, the most interesting papers I saw on the first day weren't about radio in this specific sense. Michael Huntsberger (Linfield College, Oregon) recounted the botching of HD radio in the U.S. context, expanding his purview to consider examples of "value-added" terrestrial radio, such as WFMU's real-time internet chatrooms, where listeners discuss the music on the air or more likely, something totally unrelated. Huntsberger paraphrased WFMU Manager Ken Freedman; the chatrooms are like a party where FMU provides the site and the music, and the guests can talk about whatever they're talking about.

It made me think of the ways that we conceive of our listeners and the way we intend our shows – are they meant as background or as close listening, for solitary listeners or groups? And it made me think of the ways that changing technologies have externally affected our modes of listening to radio; i.e., the existence of music streams on the internet makes us listen differently to a radio station, whether or not the station itself has a stream. Do we subconsciously acknowledge or respond to this as DJs, and how much should we even think about it?

African-American CB Radio Culture and Relation to College Radio

Angela Blake (Ryerson University, Toronto) examined African-American CB radio culture, a welcome reminder that the Citizens' Band comprised (and still comprises) more than just the working-class white truck drivers of seventies' lore. Blake linked African-American CB culture to games like the dozens and to hip hop emceeing, which on one hand seemed to reinscribe borders of black cultural activity, but on the other hand, located it in an unexpected site, causing a reevaluation of CB.

Blake's paper made me think of radio stations at traditionally-black colleges, and the way that these stations are often implicitly erased from "college radio" because of the way that the term is so casually equated with, you know, predominantly white kids spinning tunes by predominantly white musicians for a predominantly white audience. I know that "rock" is a contested field, but would applying "college rock radio" to the scenario just described remind us that it only represents one strain of college radio?

New British Invasion and College Radio

My paper was about the "New British Invasion" in the early eighties mainstream, and college radio's relation to the phenomenon. Briefly, when the synthpop bands started breaking huge here in the States (thanks in large part to MTV), there was a backlash from many angles: synthpop wasn't real rock; it was linked to the twin evils of disco and punk; the dudes wore makeup; etc. College stations had largely supported these bands as imports, but a self-image as gatekeepers to the underground led them to turn more to regional American scenes as the English bands hit the mainstream. There's a lot to tease out, but it sparked some interesting discussion, which was pretty exciting. I'll let y'all know if I publish it some day.

Also on my panel was a paper about the rise and fall of the "Alternative/ Modern Rock" format. The speaker's background included record promotion and commercial radio, as well as record promotion, and he was concerned with reviving the format, rather than analyzing what makes modern rock modern rock, which as a music head, I would have been really interested in. In any case, our papers dovetailed nicely, and (in a reverse echo of what I said at the beginning of this post), some of the folks there said it was nice to hear papers about music formats.

Radio History: 1930s Aboriginal Recordings, 1960s Pirate Radio in New Zealand, Commercial Radio in Canada in the 1970s-1990s, Finland Radio in the 1990s, etc.

The other papers hinted at the range of possibilities for radio scholarship – one examined the ethical issues of an expedition undertaken in the 1930s to record (and broadcast) aboriginal musical activity, and more importantly, of the efforts to repatriate the recordings with the source communities. Others recounted Radio Hauraki, New Zealand's 1960s pirate radio station; the shifting policies of the Canadian government to shape commercial radio programming from 1975-1990; the narrowcasting developments in the Finnish radioscape during the 1990s; and the neoliberal social sensibilities inculcated by This American Life.

The range of approaches and topics was pretty staggering, and suggested the vast intellectual space out there for radio scholarship. At the same time, I wondered about the audience for such inquiries, as radio's social impact – while remaining considerable – seems to have been far outstripped in the present context by "new social media" outlets. Radio folks are obviously interested in radio; can we convince communications departments and publishers that others are as well? The pessimistic view is that radio – including college radio – is in crisis; it's pretty much history. But isn't the crisis worth examining? What are the social, economic, and legal forces in play? What are the cultural ramifications?

There's plenty to talk (and write) about, as the Radio Conference proved. Thanks to Jennifer for asking me to report back to y'all.


Toronto realtor said...

very interesting article about all this radio impact and history. I did not know this event is going on every two years.

Paul said...

Thanks, Nick, for the report on this conference I also wish I could have attended. And, thanks to Jennifer for asking Nick to write it up!