What Will Happen to College Radio?

A rough period for student-run stations.


Stateside, a Michigan public radio program, recently spoke with me about the future of college radio. Here's an excerpt from their write-up:

"Tune that dial to the left, Johnny—the thrash-metal show should be on."
Radio World

Jesse Walker said he doesn't think college radio is dying, it's just going through a rough patch. He's a former DJ at WCBN, Ann Arbor's student-run, community radio station. He's also the author of "Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America."

Walker said college radio is a place for students to get the education, experience, and freedom to take risks and explore the world of radio, an experience he says you can't get in commercial radio. College radio is also a venue for underground artists and bands to get their music out.

But some college radio stations are being sold off to public radio stations, which takes away opportunities of exploration from the students.

"They are being sort of taken over by these public radio empires," Walker said.

To read the rest—and to hear the actual interview, which was broadcast on Tuesday—go here. For my book on radio, which may help you understand the politics and economics underlying these battles, go here.

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  1. I’m lucky enough to have three college stations to listen to. I hope they don’t get sold off. They’re about the only way I get to hear music that isn’t played to death.

  2. “Jesse Walker said he doesn’t think college radio is dying, it’s just going through a rough patch.”

    It’s getting better!

    1. “You’re not fooling anyone.”

  3. They could just do a podcast, then they could do whatever they want and bypass all of those political and economic problems.

  4. Kkkorporate OPPRESHUNZ!!!!!!!!

  5. I don’t understand the corporate mindset here.

    “By doing what you’re doing, you have become valuable enough for us to purchase. Now we just want you to change what you’re doing! Play DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s ‘Turn Down For What’ and stop playing that alternacrap that made us buy you in the first place.”

    1. By doing what you’re doing, you have become valuable enough for us to purchase.

      No, it’s the ethereal real estate—the place on the dial—that they find valuable.

      1. Most college stations are such low wattage, I don’t see how they could have much commercial value.

        1. A 10 watt translator in Chicago just sold for $4 million. Most of the college stations around here are 100 watts.

          The NPR station here is owned by the Chicago Board Of Education – they would be stupid enough to throw 15 million at a 100-watt college station and the university would be happy to take it.

          1. That’s nuts.

    2. “By doing what you’re doing, you have become valuable enough for us to purchase. Now we just want you to change what you’re doing!”

      There’s an old joke in there by replacing “purchase” with “marry,” no?

  6. As a former college radio DJ, myself, I can’t recall the last time I listened to a college station.

    That’s partly because of the situation in DC: WMUC: 10 watts, WHUR: Commercial and complete shit, WPFW (not college, but might as well be): jazz and Marxism, WAMU: NPR, WBJC, classical (mostly good) and WGTS: Jebus music. Oh, WGTB, we miss ya. But, it’s mostly due to the fact that I barely listen to FM radio any longer.

    WTMD in Towson is good and occasionally I’ll try to reel in WRNR out of Annapolis (R.I.P WHFS), but that’s only when there’s nothing good on Sirius and I’m tired of MP3s in the car. Otherwise, I’ll stream at home.

    1. According to Shreek, the only radio you listen to is Rush Limbaugh. Therefore, you must be lying.

    2. WTMD in Towson is good

      That’s the station I listen to in the car. It’s much better than any other radio outlet around here, but it’s basically a professional public-radio outfit doing freeform-lite, not a student station pushing the envelope.

      1. Yeah, it’s not amazing, but considering what’s out there now, it’s about the best thing on.

        student station pushing the envelope

        When I was up in Boston in the late 80’s the BC station was pretty good. Clearly a pro outfit, but they were playing stuff that ‘HFS glossed over. WMUC in College Park was just a playground for the disaffected and their own playlists. It’s probably still that way.

        I wonder if they still have the album archive at ‘MUC? Probably not, but it was 2 floors of holy shit!, going back 40 years.

        I get most of the new music I like from streaming sites. The “sounds like” algorithm is pretty hit or miss, but every now and then it shows me something new and worthy. I then go out and buy it.

        1. You still buy music? Try Spotify and rent it for a small monthly fee.

          1. Yeah, I’m weird like that.

            That said, we’re only taking a dozen or so albums a year.

      2. For every student program pushing the envelope, there were 3 student programs that were there for the student to get practice rather than for you to listen to. I’ve heard some great student programs, but most of them were sustained mostly by alumni with a student anchoring them to the institution, as it takes a while to get good at it. As if the varsity got good by keeping graduate ringers on the team.

        Post Serial out of WCWP, Brookville (100w, C.W. Post College) in the 1980s was hilarious. If you’ve listened to Rush Limbaugh, you’ve heard Post Serial alum Mike Mamone’s work, because he produces it.

        1. That’s how WFMU got to be where it is today, BTW. The college that owned it let the students run it nearly 100%, and they in turn soon turned that role over to people who had no cx to Upsala College, so it was the college’s station in name only. Then one of their number got up a foundation to take it formally independent as well as de facto, so when the college closed a few years later the station could survive & prosper.

  7. If I was to do it all over again, I think it’d be fun to start a student club dedicated to building and maintaining a college radio station. My school had loads of student engineering organizations – go-karts, solar racing, rube-goldberg, UAVs, etc. Why not an organization that maintained a radio station? Not to mention, building radio equipment would be a lot of fun.

    I don’t think there would be a problem with air time. Purdue’s student newspaper, The Exponent, is the only independently owned student newspaper in the country (if I remember correctly). My professors frequently referred to it as “The Excrement” so you know it had to be good. While I was there, it featured a “Sexual Position of the Week” that always caused quite a stir.

    1. The Exponent, is the only independently owned student newspaper in the country (if I remember correctly).

      That’s definitely not true.

      1. Ah, then I don’t remember correctly.

        But it was a big plus because the school couldn’t censor anything the paper wanted to print.

    2. OK, but most of that could be (and indeed was supposed to be) satisfied by amateur radio.

  8. I still listen over the internet to college radio (including WCBN). Everything else is stale by comparison, and a real human putting on a show beats automated streaming services every time.

  9. The local college radio station here has been NPR for as long as I’ve been aware of it. I’ve never heard a college radio station of the type I always read about or see in movies.

  10. The radio station of my alma mater – WRAS – was partially taken over by Georgia Public Broadcasting. A 2 year $150,000 contract gives them control of a 100,000 watt radio station for 14 hours a day.

    It’s kind of sad because it was a station I cut my teeth on. They introduced me to a wide variety of music. But I really don’t listen to them that much anymore. Could be part of the problem.

    The best part is that the local NPR station is not happy about it.

  11. Radio?

    Who cares?

    Radio is dead; it’s almost starting to realize it, too.

  12. BTw, I have WFMU’s stream on while I’m posting this. Haven’t been able to listen to them on air here for years because of a commercial pirate on an adjacent channel.

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