Dark Days for College Radio


One of the remaining bastions of the college-rock era has fallen silent, at least for now. For the second week in a row, CMJ has not published its weekly college radio charts, calling into question the fate of an institution that has tracked the music played by college stations around the country since 1978. No date has been set for when the venerable—and, once, invaluable—charts will resume.

The chart hiatus is just the latest in a series of setbacks for CMJ. The last-known remaining employee, Lisa Hresko, recently took a new job with indie-label trade group A2IM. And last year’s lack of a CMJ Music Marathon, for the first time in the event’s 35-year history, came despite {CMJ owner Adam} Klein’s assurance it “absolutely” would happen in 2016.

Also from Pitchfork:

The rise of CMJ coincided with the heyday of college radio during the late 1980s and early ’90s. Though initially used as an education tool for broadcasting lectures, by the end of the ’80s college radio had become an indispensable musical tastemaker, with trade magazines and multiple nationwide charts tracking the growing popularity of the market. Bands including U2, R.E.M., the Cure, the Smiths, Dinosaur Jr., Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, the Replacements, and more were first broadcast by enterprising students with open ears.

The influence and relevance of college radio has undoubtedly diminished since the ’90s, challenged by new outlets for musical discovery and listening that began with the rise of blogging, file sharing, and widespread broadband access around the turn of the century. The entire economy of critical and economic success for musicians has changed so rapidly in the last 25 years that exposure on college radio can seem quaint in 2017.

Starting around 2010, a growing number of colleges began transferring their FM broadcast licenses to larger conglomerates for a short-term economic windfall. While each case is informed by different circumstances and buyers, they are united by the administrative opinion that students don’t really care that much about radio anymore (and that fast cash can be made).

When licenses are sold, the process can be messy, divisive, and upsetting. Such sales can also have further consequences, cutting off exposure for nearby businesses and artistic communities. That said, administrators are not necessarily wrong in doubting terrestrial radio’s continuing relevance. College radio has always occupied a very tiny space, and most stations are so small they don’t even show up on the ratings system that measures listenership. And last year, a nationwide survey on media consumption found that only 9 percent of people in the 12-24 age bracket use AM/FM radio as their source for keeping up with music; the same demographic was more likely to use YouTube (22 percent) or streaming platforms like Pandora, Spotify, and SiriusXM (11 percent in total across the services) to find their favorite new artists.

College radio may be the only hold-over from the music industry’s fading recent past that gets me wistful and nostalgic. My time as a college radio DJ and music director is incalculably responsible for what I’m doing today. Even before that, discovering new sounds on static-filled college radio signals beaming in from faraway cities changed my young life … I grew up in the middle of nowhere and actively sought out these distant stations, often only picking them up in the middle of the night. Here in Orlando we’re lucky to still have a freeform college station, WPRK 91.5 FM – one of the oldest college stations in the USA. I really should tune in more often.

But I’m also heartened by the democratization of broadcasting, whether it’s from podcasts on Mixcloud, or shows on internet radio stations, or even meticulously crafted playlists bursting with esoterica. I know, it’s not the same, but all is not lost either. To pull another quote from the second article, “if anything, the platform’s loose mission of promoting discovery, serendipity, and community has persevered despite setbacks because the desire for those very things will continue …”. As long as there are freaks like me (and those I grew up listening to) who obsessively crave not only finding the latest sounds but also sharing them with others there will be something like college radio. Unfortunately (or not?), it just might not have anything to do with college.

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