Monday, August 4, 2008

Radio Journal Article Analyzes "Alternative" Programming at Boston and NY College Radio Stations

The main impetus behind starting Spinning Indie was that I was becoming increasingly obsessed with college radio after spending a bunch of time researching indie radio for an academic article that I was working on for The Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast and Audio Media. My article, which is focused on the role of "indie" at one specific college radio station in the late 1990s, is now officially published and will soon be accessible online in Volume 5.2 of the journal.

In the meantime, I just discovered that the previous issue (Volume 5.1 from 2007) of Radio Journal includes another piece about college radio by Tim Wall called "Finding an alternative: Music programming in US college radio" (note: this link will only work for a short time until the next issue is published online).

According to the abstract for the paper:

"Radio stations based at universities make up only about 11% of all over-the-air stations in the United States of America, but college radio is often presented as offering an alternative in music radio to the for-profit stations that dominate the airwaves. College stations are now seen as a key means of promoting 'indie rock'. This article traces the development of university-based radio stations in the United States, and reports on a five-year study of music programming in three stations based in Boston and New York, to examine their claim to alternativeness. The paper concludes that the stations do use different forms of music programming, that the programming extends well beyond the scope of 'indie rock'..."

In his paper, Wall took an in-depth look at the programming policies of three college radio stations between 2002 and 2007. The stations he examined were Fordham University's WFUV in New York, WERS at Emerson College in Boston, and WZBC from Boston College (alright! This was my favorite station on my trip to Boston in April). Through his research he found that:

"...there is not one type of alternativeness; and the distinctive sense of alternativeness articulated by the jazz, world, indie rock, folk and Americana music played on the college stations was as much rooted in the cultural histories of those musical genres as it was in the way they were programmed and presented."

Here is a bit of a summary of what he found at each college radio station:

WZBC (Boston College)

Wall tells us that WZBC is run by students and has a free-form format. Of note, is that the station has a relationship with public radio, but that this didn't seem to influence the majority of the programming. (When I perused their website, the only public radio indication I saw was that they air the program "Democracy Now")

He says, "In my independent discussions with three station presenters, they each stated that they had a very committed listenership in the Boston area, but they also argued that it was widely perceived that most Boston College students were not interested in the station’s output. In doing so, they constructed parallels between their own personal sense of being outside of mainstream college life with the commitment of a group outside the university and a musical form that they perceived to be 'alternative' and 'underground'."

This comment, that listeners tend to not be students, is something I've heard about many college radio stations. He continues:

" our conversations the staff went to particular lengths to distance themselves from the 'college rock' forms of radio they perceived as the norm in college stations...The presenters selected music on a track-by-track basis as the show progressed, usually chosen in response to the record currently playing. Most often these records were from a pile the presenter had pre-selected and brought in from their own collection, but also drew on records from the station’s extensive library..."

WERS (Emerson College)

During Wall's research study, WERS made significant changes to its programming policies. He writes that by the end of 2005 "block programming" was replaced by "strip programming" from 2am to 7pm that was " '...a blend of folk, rock, jazz, world, blues, soul, electronic and reggae’..."

The playlists at WERS are more tightly controlled that at freeform WZBC. Wall writes: "By the end of the five-year period, the station’s daytime programming operated on an entirely centralised playlist, although the presenters of the specialist reggae and hip hop shows had freedom to select their own music."

As I mentioned after my own visit to the radio stations at Emerson College, WERS seems to be more pre-professional than many college stations. He writes: "Rather than a commitment to a particular lifestyle, WERS staff were either interested in a career in broadcasting, or felt that it was an effective way to pursue their interest in particular kinds of music."

WFUV (Fordham University)

Finally, Wall wrote about Fordham public radio station WFUV, which had the least amount of student involvement and was the most tightly controlled, "professional" station of the three.

He writes:

"Station staff spoke quite proudly of the station as an AAA station, and their role in establishing the format within more conventional radio practice. This format – Album Adult Alternative – is relatively new in US radio, although it has antecedents in Adult Oriented Rock (AOR) and Adult Contemporary (AC) formats. As the names suggest all three are aimed at adult (aged 25+) listeners and grew out of FM radio. AAA stations are presented, in the words of station staff, as offering an alternative to the 'rock-clich├ęs and rock-lite formula of AOR', and the 'pop sensibilities of AC', by playing 'music at the margins’'of American rock, with a strong folk/acoustic and world music flavour."

In distinguishing WFUV from WERS and WZBC, Wall writes:

"While staff at WZBC and WERS in 2003 felt that it was important to have music and other programming systems that differed from for-profit stations...WFUV saw these as professional tools...Their professionalism was very important to them, and they used this self-identity to distinguish themselves from other college stations. On the other hand, they associated themselves with the college’s commitment to education as a way of distinguishing their values from those of the stations whose primary objective was profit."

WFUV definitely seems to benefit from having a paid staff and great funding. Wall didn't mention this, but they have a project coming up this fall that is going to provide yet another "alternative." According to their website,

"WFUV (90.7 FM) will launch an alternate channel online...and in HD at 90.7 FM in the New York City area, to include a blend of established and emerging NYC-based indie rock, electronica, world, dance and other musical hybrids, in Fall 2008. The new site is supported in part by The New York State Music Fund, established by the New York State Attorney General at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors."

In summarizing the whole paper, Tim Wall writes:

"The case studies reveal that there is no one form or expression of alternativeness in American radio...More important than a simplistic sense of 'college music' as alternative rock, it is the themes of progress, cultural uplift and alternative lifestyle that have threaded throughout the development of American education and broadcasting, and they continue to play an important part in the discursive practices of college radio today."

I'm glad to see more academic attention to college radio, which is, indeed an alternative to commercial radio, no matter what form it takes. However, as Wall pointed out, these stations really just scratch the surface in terms of the wide range of programming philosophies and interpretations of "alternative" that can be found at college radio stations in the US.


rubes said...

Tim's conclusion is also a running theme in my own research - I read an early version of his paper and wanted to hear more; thanks for cluing us in to its publication! And congratulations on yours too!

Jennifer Waits said...

Hey thanks! There's so little academic work being done about college radio, so I was thrilled to see this article.

Although my forthcoming paper has many intersections with Tim's and I also look at the terms "alternative" and "indie" the station that I researched has a much more radical, staunchly "indie" approach than the typical station.

rubes said...

awesome. the alternative and indie wars are frustrating to fight but interesting to witness. can't wait to read your article!