Thursday, January 31, 2008

Are PLUG Independent Music Awards Very Indie?

PLUG has been doing annual "Independent Music Awards" for the past few years and they have a category for best college/non-commercial station of the year. Their advisory board of up to 300 music fans selects the nominees, which must be a daunting task considering how many great college radio stations there are. This year's nominees (you can vote now and find out about the winners after the March 6th awards ceremony) are: KALX (Berkeley, CA), KCMP (Northfield, MN), KCRW (Santa Monica, CA), KDHX (St. Louis, MO), KEXP (Seattle, WA), KUSF (San Francisco), KXLU (Los Angeles), WFMU (Jersey City, NJ), WLUW (Chicago), WNYU (New York), WRAS (Atlanta, GA), and WXPN (Philadelphia). Seems like a list heavily skewed towards the coasts...and a list that doesn't feel entirely "indie" in nature to me.

The 2005, 2006 and 2007 winner for best college station was KEXP (formerly KCMU), a station licensed to the University of Washington, but since 2001 engaged in a partnership with the Experience Music Project. As a result of that partnership they changed their call letters, got a spiffy new studio and equipment, and obtained a huge amount of financial support. Good for so many college stations are suffering due to lack of funding. Yet, should they really be in the same category as college stations without major financial backing? It's notable that some of the other nominees are also big-budget stations and at least one (KCRW) is a public radio affiliate, which also falls into an area that I don't consider independent.

Satellite Radio's XMU Enlists College Radio Stations to Program "Student Exchange"

Satellite radio in many ways offers what some of the best college stations do by providing niche programming in a variety of genres, including new independent music. I haven't listened much to XM Radio's college radio-themed station XMU and when I have it struck me that it was a mainstream version of college radio, perhaps mirroring the CMJ "tops" list.

When I first heard that college stations were "taking over" XMU on select days I was thrilled, thinking what a great idea it was to have a satellite station broadcast from various college radio stations from around the country. Well--that idea is kind of radical, so it's not exactly what they are doing. On the weekly Student Exchange Program, XMU features pre-selected programming from a rotating list of specific college radio stations. The show began in April 2007 with selections from Emerson College's WERS in Boston and has also featured stations from Oberlin College, Berkeley, and Georgia Tech. It certainly has the potential to highlight interesting college stations from all over the country. This Sunday, February 3rd from 4 to 6pm Eastern Time the show features KSLU from St. Louis University and airs on XM Radio channel 43 and on DirecTV channel 831. One can also listen online for free if you sign up for a free trial of streaming on XM's website.

XMU does work with/provide guidelines to the college stations to help shape their playlists as this blog post from one of the featured stations WOBC (Oberlin College) points out: "...we send XMU a playlist that best represents WOBC's sound. This is a difficult task considering we have an incredibly diverse line-up, but XMU helps to narrow down the options. They want more 'mainstream indie' pop and consider Kate Bush branching out. Of course WOBC is always bending the rules. The last show in June consisted of some 80s hip-hop, a few Oberlin bands, noise/freeform, bands like Can, the knife and more..."

Aha! So, I was right...XMU is a blander form of college radio!

If any of you work at a station that has programmed for XMU, I'd love to see your playlist and learn more about the process you went through to be included on XMU and how you came up with the music for the show.

Here's a list of the stations who seem to have appeared (it began as a monthly program, but is now weekly). I couldn't find an archive listing all the stations that have appeared, and surprisingly, not many of the stations even mention XMU appearances on their websites.

April 2007: WERS (Emerson College, Boston, MA)
May 2007: KALX
June 2007: WOBC (Oberlin College, OH)
July 2007: WERS again
August 2007: KALX again
September 2007: WREK (Georgia Tech, Atlanta)
October 2007: WERS again?
11/11/2007: WOBC (2nd time)
11/18/2007: WRAS (Georgia State, Atlanta, GA)
?11/25/2007: KPSU (Portland State, Portland, OR)
?12/2/2007: KCSU (Colorado State, Fort Collins, CO)
?12/16/07: WONY (Oneonta, NY)
?12/23/2007: KALX (Berkeley, CA)
2/3/2008: KSLU (St. Louis University, Missouri)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Annoyed DJ Sets Fire to Community Radio Station

I've been thinking a lot about how formatting rules are handled at indie-minded stations and then today I hear about the community radio DJ at KOOP in Austin, Texas who set fire to his station a few weeks ago after he was annoyed about not being able to program his show in a certain way. Yikes! This is obviously an extreme example of just how seriously many DJs take their shows and the tensions that can arise when they feel that their freedom of expression has been threatened.

According to articles about the incident, the jazz-loving DJ gave up his Internet-only radio show and then came back to the station about a week later, setting fire to two studios apparently because he was upset about music choices for his program getting changed. The article in today's Austin American-Statesman says, "...the dispute...was over what kind of music should be put into a digital library for the Internet program."

It's very confusing to sort through the facts on this one as the online playlists for this DJ's show are categorized as country/roots on the station's program schedule. Perhaps the guy really wanted a jazz show and that's what set him off? I definitely want to hear more about this story. KOOP is going to be hosting an interview show tomorrow (1/30/08) at 1pm Central time discussing the fire incident with station executive staff and the fire chief. Should be interesting!

Side Note: KOOP shares a frequency with college station KVRX at University of Texas, Austin, with KOOP broadcasting during the day and KVRX at night. KOOP also has some Internet-only shows at night, one of which was hosted by the firestarter DJ. After the fire, the stations worked together and KVRX helped out by covering the entire programming day instead of their usual split time with KOOP. I'm curious if many other stations share frequencies like this? It's definitely cool that they were willing to work together in a time of crisis.

College Radio Challenges in 2008

College radio today definitely faces a number of challenges, as discussed in a Jan. 9, 2008 piece "Local college radio stations fight to be heard in a homogenized age" in the Toledo City Paper. Decreasing listenership, declining funding from colleges, and audiences who may be turned off by non-standard radio are factors in this. The article quotes the Program Director of WBGU-FM (another station where I was a volunteer) in Bowling Green, Ohio, who also happens to be a grad student working on a thesis related to "college radio's relevance in a digital era." Intriguing!

Yet, I was a bit disturbed that one of his conclusions is that "The programming on college stations online needs to be tailored to the known audience." While I do think it's important to be aware of one's audience, "tailoring" to an audience starts to sound more to me like what commercial radio stations do and what college stations try to avoid. It's a fine line, because college radio does wants listeners, but typically doesn't want to pander to its listeners. So, how can a college station remain experimental and independent, yet at the same time not alienate potential listeners who may not be as open-minded as the DJs and station staff? I'm sure this is a debate that rages at many stations today.

Does Reporting to CMJ make you bad?

I've been reading a lot about college radio lately and a number of scholars have raised alarm bells about participation in industry charting signaling college radio's downfall. They argue that by reporting "tops" lists to industry publications, station Music Directors are become more professional (in a bad way) and less experimental. Some stations even decide much of their programming based on college radio charts, which in turn, makes for a more standardized, less eclectic airsound.

I just ran across an article profiling some college stations in South Dakota that references a station's relationship with CMJ (the longstanding college radio publication that many stations report "tops" lists to) and it states that because they report to CMJ they get free music in return (a main reason that many stations send their charts to CMJ). The article mentions "CMJ play time rules" as one of the regulations that station KAUR-FM at Augustana College must fulfill. I'd never known about rules from CMJ, so am intrigued about what that might mean. If you're at a station that reports to CMJ, let me know if there are programming rules that you must follow. Does CMJ send specific items to you that they want you to add or do you just get sent music from bands and labels? If you're a station that doesn't report to CMJ, is there a specific reason for that and are you intentionally making a statement about remaining independent from the music industry and charts?

KAUR does require that their DJs play 50% new releases during their shows, so perhaps the items reported to CMJ are from this category. Incidentally, KAUR looks like a pretty cool station that's devoted to underground, independent music and pushes its DJs to play music that they aren't familiar with. Their DJ manual even states a rule that DJs can't play anything that's been on Top 40 radio in the past 10 years or anything that could be heard on other radio stations in their city in South Dakota. Great policy!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Devalued Vinyl: Station Library Sold off to Fund Concert

When I was at WHRC at Haverford College in the 1980s we worked really hard to beef up our collection of music and after a few years had a pretty decent selection of new stuff, adding to all the interesting vintage artifacts in the record library. So, it was incredibly depressing when I visited WHRC in 2004 to learn that a number of years prior WHRC staff opted to sell off their record collection in order to fund a concert by the Roots. I’m still in a state of shock about that. When I visited, they basically had no vinyl left at the station and had a very small CD collection. When I was at WHRC we had records from the 1940s and 1950s that we enjoyed checking out from time to time. They’re all gone. Also, when I was co-Music Director at WHRC, my partner and I spent a lot of energy and time fostering record label relationships so that we could get sent music that we were excited about at the time. All of those records are gone. The vinyl they did have was a complete mess, with torn and water-damaged packaging, and not organized. I peeked through the dilapidated shelves and saw a lot of bad 70s stuff, some old Christmas records and a Peter Himmelman LP that might have been from our era.

I've since learned that when I visited in 2004 it had only been about 5 years since the station had been revived and that for a time the records were in storage shared by dining hall staff, so much of the collection may have been trashed early on for all I know. The members of the WHRC staff who I met in 2004 had nothing to do with the vinyl sell-off and were trying their hardest to rebuild their music collection, much like we did 15-20 years earlier. But, it still saddened me that there hadn't been an archivist or consistent station manager who could have maintained all of that history instead of selling it off.

High End mp3 Speakers and Vinyl Revival

I was amused to see a review today of expensive ($400-$700) mp3 speakers, in light of recent discussions of just how bad music sounds when compressed to mp3 format. Sure, mp3 music may sound better on awesome speakers than through iPod headphones or computer speakers, but it's still inferior quality music compared with older formats.

A December 2007 piece in Rolling Stone "The Death of High Fidelity" provides a great overview of just why it is that today's CDs and mp3s don't sound as great as other formats (particularly vinyl). Records are being recorded louder and with limited range, meaning today's listeners aren't getting the same nuances and details that folks heard on high-fidelity vinyl.

So, it's really no surprise that there's been a flurry of trend pieces including "Vinyl Gets its Groove Back" in Time this month and "Vinyl May Be Final Nail in CD's Coffin" in Wired in October 2007 about the resurgence and trendiness of vinyl records as an alternative to compressed mp3 recordings and CDs. Another article this month "Groove Yard: Rockridge shop sustains LP life even after MP3 success" profiles a Bay Area record store that still remains dedicated to vinyl.

If you're an independent musician, college radio DJ, or club DJ you know that vinyl has never gone away and that predictions about its comeback have come and gone. It's notable that a decade ago a New York Times piece "Fans Flock to Vinyl in the Era of CD's" also covered vinyl as an emerging trend. Many college radio stations never stopped playing vinyl, although recent releases are more typically found on independent record labels. This may be changing as even Amazon recently opened an online vinyl store where one can buy releases from the likes of Pink Floyd, Mary J. Blige and The Shins.

Indie, Alternative, Progressive, Underground....

The terminology for non-mainstream rock/pop/experimental music played on college radio has been in a constant state of change ever since I first got involved in radio in the 1980s. At my first station we talked about playing "progressive" music when we were playing bands like Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Half Japanese, The Smiths, and the Replacements. At the time we meant that we were playing new stuff that maybe a lot of people hadn't heard before. Yet, today, in 2008 when I hear the term "progressive" I think about a specific genre of music from the 1970s that is often grand and dramatic with extended jams.

Similarly, in the early '90s college radio stations often said that they played "alternative" music, meaning sounds or bands that were an alternative to what was on mainstream radio. However, alternative caught on and became a full-fledged genre and ultimately a commercial radio format often typified by guitar bands, grunge music, and musicians on the Lollapalooza lineup (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction as granddaddies of that scene).

So, what about "indie"? Indie, meaning independent, can refer to bands on smaller, independent record labels and it can also refer to an an anti-commercial aesthetic that came into popularity in the 1990s. When we think of indie rock in 2008, what do we mean? Does it still hearken back to a 1990s style of music? Does it refer to current bands outside of the major label scene? Or, is there a new term for non-mainstream music today?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Forgotten Radio History

Many college radio stations are staffed entirely by undergraduate students, which means that schedules change every semester and staff turnover is very high. Additionally, students' #1 priority isn't necessarily their volunteer work at the college station. When I was at WHRC, we struggled not only with attracting listeners, but also with enlisting students to DJ and help out at the station with all the mundane tasks that need to be done to keep a station afloat. The unfortunate side effect of stations like this where the staff turns over every year is that there is no institutional history and no connection to the past or tradition. When I was there we found cool, old dusty records in the record library from maybe the 1940s, but didn't know much about the station that played those records. It's only now, years later, that I'm learning that Haverford College had one of the earliest college radio stations and was home to some radio pioneers.

Similarly, students at Haverford today know little about the status of the station in the 1980s when I was there. In fact, an article in the college newspaper in 2002 even stated that WHRC went off the air in 1985, thereby erasing my entire tenure (1985-1989) at the station! Not that we were doing much that was pioneering...But, I was there when we added the first CD (it was all vinyl before that) to the library and when we started to build relationships with and get sent free music from hip independent record labels like Homestead Records. At the time, that was a huge accomplishment for us since we were a tiny station and didn't get record service from many labels at all.

More on the History of WHRC

Five Years Dead, WHRC Airborne Again (Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/99)
Haverford College Radio Returns (Main Line Times, 2001)
WHRC (The Bi-College News, 4/01)
WHRC Revamps Its Style This Year (The Bi-College News, 9/01)
More Than Just Music for the People (The Bi-College News, 2002)

Toiling in Obscurity on Carrier Current Radio

I've been a fan of college radio since I had my very first radio show back in 1985 or 1986 when I was a freshman at Haverford College. At Haverford's WHRC, DJs were toiling in obscurity. We were the lowest of the low as far as college radio stations went, inhabiting a spot on the AM carrier current dial, which meant we could only be heard on campus. Our main listenership was on the right side of the dining hall, where our shows were piped in during mealtimes. We could also be heard in the dorms, but not in the more distant campus apartments where I lived. I remember working hard to do a great radio show one day (during weekend brunch) and finding out later that cafeteria workers had shut off the speakers, meaning that essential nobody heard my show. But, I persevered, getting more and more involved with the station with each subsequent semester. My friend Alex and I even became co-music directors and had great fun traveling to NYC for CMJ conferences, where we met label reps and saw bands play in dive bars. We actually convinced some cool labels to send us free records and we felt victorious. The labels didn't need to know that our station had no audience.