Fuck Algorithms, College Radio Is a Reminder of How Great Music Can Be When Nobody's Trying to Make Money
I DJed at my alma mater's radio station and remembered the beauty of awkward on-air commentary and hit-or-miss programming.
"Every day, once a day, give yourself a present," the renowned philosopher/criminologist Agent Dale Cooper once said. "Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen." This week, since I'm a Dale Cooper acolyte who takes my coffee damn good—and hot!—and uses the Tibetan rock-throwing technique to fact-check my articles, I decided to reward myself for doing absolutely nothing by signing up to do a two-hour shift at my old college radio station. By far, the most rewarding thing I did while attending UNC-Chapel Hill was playing weekly radio shows at its station, WXYC. For one, the station provided me with a musical education that I'd later rely on in my career as a music writer. But more than that, it allowed me to join a scene of similarly music-obsessed folks from a host of backgrounds whose unique tastes and perspectives helped open up my own. In a sense, my time at WXYC was a microcosm of the best that college could offer. And in playing a radio show, I gave myself permission to revel in my younger days despite being a prematurely graying curmudgeon who's closer to 30 than I am 20.
Why does the outdated format of college radio appeal to me at a time when almost all recorded music is at my fingertips all the time and sharing my excellent taste with people is as simple as tweeting a Soundcloud link out to the masses? Well, because of everything that outdated format offers as a counterpoint to the capitalist garbage fire that music is today. There was a time when—awkward on-air commentary, clunky transitions, hit-or-miss programming, and all—college radio was a democratizing force in music. Even if a band lacked the institutional backing or commercial appeal to warrant airplay on commercial radio, there was a chance that their record might find its way into the hands of a college radio programmer, who might fall in love with the album and play it on air, where it stood just a chance of being discovered by anybody in the area who dared to venture left of the dial. If enough college radio stations throughout the country played your music and it made a dent in CMJ's college radio charts, you might just have a career on your hands.
Not only did college radio bolster groups such as R.E.M., The Replacements, and Uncle Tupelo, the unique influence afforded to college radio DJs—who in a sense served the same cultural gatekeeper role that music bloggers fill today—meant that the DJs themselves could use their time slots to become stars and shift the culture. Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia started their legendary radio show on Columbia University's WKCR when Stretch was just a freshman at Columbia, and the show, which often featured in-studio freestyles from the best and brightest in hip-hop, went on to become a linchpin of the New York rap scene. And before Public Enemy was Public Enemy, they were a DJ crew at Adelphi University in Long Island who hosted The Super Spectrum Mix Hour on the college's WBAU station.
College radio's sway over the music industry has faded with time, however. The proliferation of music blogs allowed adventurous listeners to seek out the next big band on their own time, and the invention of the iPod and CD-R meant that you could curate your own soundtrack of quirky music instead of putting your faith in a pimply humanities major sitting behind a soundboard. Meanwhile, CMJ—the apparatus that once fastidiously tracked college radio airplay—has seen an ignominious decline. In its diminished stature, college radio exists almost completely outside of the framework of the music business. This, too, is democratizing—albeit on a smaller and more intimate scale—and it's the reason that for a certain strand of young music nerd, college radio is the greatest thing in the universe.
As my friend and editor Kyle Kramer once put it, getting a radio show in college offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to "subject everyone in a five-to-ten-mile radius to [your tastes] at three in the morning." Given that literally nobody is making money off college radio these days, there are close to zero consequences for playing whatever you want on the air—except for the possibility of incurring a several-hundred-thousand-dollar FCC fine because you were too high to remember to play the clean version of that dusty Cannibal Ox 12-inch you unearthed in the station's hip-hop section. The other big benefit of college radio, Kyle notes, is that "you have the benefit of access to your station's record library, which is a bigger physical repository of recorded music than you will probably ever again find in your life." The extremely low stakes of college radio encourages young DJs to build communities based around the shared goal of playing the most unique music possible on air, and a station's often shockingly massive music library serves as a vital resource for making it all happen.
You're culling from a catalog that forces you to physically engage with music itself, the shelves around you offering both constraints and a map.
When I showed up last night at WXYC—which, in addition to counting the guy who directed every episode of The Weird Al Show as a former DJ, was the first radio station in the world to broadcast online—I grabbed one of the dozens of empty mail crates and started stalking the station's library, looking for music to play. Like many other college radio stations, WXYC boasts a collection of tens of thousands of CDs and LPs, and to this day those make up most of its DJs' on-air shows. Much of this music is exceedingly rare or otherwise inaccessible online—there are small pressings from now-defunct labels, imported reissues and compilations, promotional singles that were never made commercially available, and more out of print records than you can shake a Numero Group T-shirt at. Basing a radio show off such a library is vastly different than playing a Spotify playlist of obscure shit off a laptop—you're culling from a catalog that forces you to physically engage with music itself, the shelves around you offering both constraints and a map.
Given that I hadn't been on the radio in five years, my impromptu show went well enough. After spending 20 minutes fumbling with the controls on the station's vintage soundboard, muscle memory kicked in and I started switching between playing tracks on the station's turntables and CD changers like the seasoned pro—or, rather, enthusiastic amateur—I once was. Halfway through, I realized I hadn't pulled nearly enough music to fill up my two-hour time slot and began frantically scrambling between the control room and the library, grabbing records that might fit alongside whatever I happened to be playing at the moment. An early Twista single from back when he was called Tung Twista prompted me to play the similarly quick-tongued Shabba Ranks. In turn, listening to Shabba toasting over a hip-hop beat caused me to think about Noreaga's dalliances with reggaeton, sending me to search for the copy of N.O.R.E. that I happened to recall the station had somewhere on its shelves. On my next trip to the stacks I found a late-period Whodini single, which I played because I'd never heard it before. I faded that into something off an Italian synth compilation that the previous DJ had left sitting around.
It didn't always work out, but, then again, that's sort of the point of college radio. The digital sphere tends to be so focused on doing things right or making information orderly that it erases the possibilities of discovery that accidental order creates. Often, the immediate access promised by online streaming services can be so overwhelming that we simply retreat to music we already know, making infinite choice feel the same as having no choice. Conversely, working within the vast but clearly defined parameters of a college radio library can make the possibilities themselves seem infinite.
I realize that what I am describing is a wildly archaic process—even when I was in college the station had an aux cord to let DJs play stuff off their laptops, a privilege I abused my senior year by turning Diddy's verse on the remix to Waka Flocka's "O Let's Do It" into my time slot's de facto theme music—but as someone who primarily engages with music online, it can feel like a breath of fresh air. There's unique value in physically placing one piece of music beside another, entering them in a conversation that makes the seemingly disparate feel like obvious bedfellows. Radio is particularly suited to this, as are mixes more generally. As a writer I can spend hours on a piece teasing out subtle connections and concentric spheres of influence between artists and scenes, or I can illustrate those links by simply playing the music for you and letting you draw from those juxtapositions what you will.
There's a human element to this process that's often missing from music discovery—rather than simply being fed music by a streaming algorithm or a music blog trying to garner clicks, a college radio set allows you to consider the spectrum of music through another person's ears, outside the pressure of any kind of commercial end goals. To revisit the immortal words of Dale Cooper, college radio is a present from the cosmos to everyone who takes part in it. It doesn't make anyone money, and by no means will it ever make anybody a star. But if you tune in, sit back, and simply let it happen, you just might encounter something beautiful.
Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.
Drew used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog and his talking Master P doll. Follow him onTwitter