Friday, July 01, 2011

College Radio

Apparently, college radio has fallen on hard times. This should come as no surprise, since radio generally has fallen on hard times.

I was a denizen of college radio in the late 80’s, just before the music we played broke out as “alternative.” In those days, a new release by R.E.M. or The Replacements was a Very Big Deal. (I vividly remember the disappointment when Don’t Tell a Soul came out.) It was a blast, but it was the kind of blast that relied on a specific historical moment.

In those days, platforms on which to be heard were scarce. Radio stations were few, and the web didn’t exist. (The internet did, but for most of us, it didn’t go much beyond email, and even that required going to the campus computer center for access. Few of us did.)

The freewheeling FM radio scene of the 60’s and 70’s had collapsed by that point, and the web had yet to be born. That meant that college radio had a niche all its own. For all intents and purposes, it was the only place left for experimentation. Since listening options were few, you could be staggeringly incompetent and still find an audience. That freedom to fail meant that you got a chance to improve. (Admittedly, it also made for an, um, let’s go with “eclectic” listening experience.) If you were in a geographically isolated area, you had an audience largely by default.

The advent of streaming audio and podcasting has fundamentally changed the environment. Now, platforms are plentiful. If you want to do a show, you don’t have to find a radio station willing to give you a timeslot, get your FCC license, and pay your dues in the wee hours. You can just get an app and a microphone and go for it. And your potential audience isn’t limited by the broadcast range of the typical low-power FM station; the whole point of the world wide web is that it’s worldwide.

By the same token, though, the default audience is gone. There’s such a surfeit of listening options out there now that the challenge isn’t finding a microphone; it’s finding listeners. Back then, the fear was that you’d get shut out by gatekeepers; now, it’s that you’ll get drowned out by other providers.

While that shift is mostly good from the audience’s perspective, it does make it harder to get that key audience feedback during the early I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing stage. And while we were sometimes prone to bouts of self-importance -- cough -- there’s also something intoxicating about feeling like you’re the last holdout of artistic freedom. We may have been full of ourselves, incompetent, and painfully naive, but at least we felt like we mattered. Now, that crucial sense of “we matter” is harder to come by. There’s no shortage of podcasts out there.

Inevitably, college radio stations have been caught in-between. Fewer people listen to FM radio than they once did, since they have the options of satellite, Pandora, Slacker, podcasts, and whatnot. The music industry that once provided stations with free music has fallen on hard times, too, so the gravy train of content isn’t what it once was. Many stations have migrated online, but with a few exceptions (WFMU!), it’s just not the same. It feels like newspapers moving online; they’re just delaying the inevitable.

Ironically, just as the programming of college radio has become less valuable, its spectrum has become much more valuable. Cash-strapped colleges are increasingly selling their spectrum to forestall other cuts. As much as I’d hate to see it happen, I can absolutely see the logic. Back in the day, spectrum was cheap and content rare. Now content is cheap and spectrum valuable. The entire economic underpinning has capsized.

My college still has its station, and I’m glad it does. But it’s feeling more like a tribute to the past than a farm team for the future. When the local station is the only listening option not owned by Clear Channel, it matters; when it’s one of thousands of streams available at any given time, not so much.

Back in the day, the one threat to college radio I absolutely did not see coming was abundance of listening options. At that point, we were concerned about consolidation and gatekeepers. Now, the very plethora of options that college radio held dear is drowning it out, and suffocating its reason to exist.

Farewell, college radio. You had a hell of a run, and I’m proud to have been there for part of it. But the problem you solved has been solved in other ways. In the spirit of the late 80’s, I’ll pour out a wine cooler for you, before I fire up some podcasts for the drive home.

Program note: I’ll be taking the Fourth of July off; the next post will be on Tuesday the 5th.