What's changed—and what hasn't.
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College radio has always been an unslick, spit-and-baling-wire affair, surviving on the strength of its volunteers' and listeners' enthusiasm. At my old station, we were pretty sure the studio's control panel had been welded together from archaic dishwasher parts, but the staff happily argued for hours over the merits of records pressed in editions of 500 copies, and we'd stay on the air for nine hours straight if the DJs scheduled after us had overslept.
Most of American radio has changed drastically in the decade and a half since I left college—it's been taken over by a few huge conglomerates, fiercely battling each other for market share. College radio, though, is almost exactly the same as it's always been—run on a shoestring and fueled by earnest devotion—because there's no money in it: Most college stations have noncommercial licenses. What has changed in the last 15 years is the cultural impact of college radio. Back then, having your song broadcast after a scratched-up Sex Pistols LP played backward by a 20-year-old DJ cramming for her midterms was a step on the way to the big time: If you got played enough on college stations, it was a pretty sure thing that you'd eventually graduate to commercial radio and much wider exposure. That's not true any more.
In the '80s and early '90s, college radio was an incubator for bands aiming for success in the commercial format that was first called "modern rock," a name that gradually gave way to "alternative rock." College-radio play was perceived as a necessary proving ground on the way to the big time. Before commercial stations would touch them, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, the Clash, the Smiths, and dozens of other bands started out asfavorites at college stations, which generally preferred new sounds to old formulas. All of them eventually became staples of commercial-alternative radio, although some had to wait longer than others—Costello, for instance, appeared on the cover of the first issue of the college-radio magazine CMJ in 1979 but didn't hit the Billboard Top 20 for another decade.
Then, in 1991 and 1992, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" altered the landscape. The major labels, eager to replicate the mainstream success of Nirvana, spent a fortune signing up anybody with a pulse and a distortion pedal and hyping them to college stations. (A tiny fraction of that money trickled down to the stations themselves, but then again, it doesn't take a lot to buy a college student—some undergrad music directors would roll over for a pair of tickets to a concert and a couple of Rolling Rocks.) The early '90s alternative-rock bubble eventually burst, as a lot of the crappier post-grunge bands that majors had signed up began to be ignored by both college and commercial radio. Anybody remember Radish, the subject of a way-too-enthusiastic New Yorker profile in 1996?
Eventually, major labels became a lot more selective about what "underground" rock bands they'd sign. That caution lingers to this day. While there's still a bidding war every few years over a band like the Strokes, most big labels have figured out that they're likely to get more return on their investment from hip-hop, tween-friendly pop, and older listeners' favorites like Santana and Sheryl Crow.
The majors never abandoned college radio altogether, but their partial retreat has been a boon to independent labels. Indie-rock bands had found a home on college stations since the early '80s, but they took awhile to make it to the top of the college charts—the first independently released college No. 1 was the Spinanes' Manos (Sub Pop), in late 1993. In the mid-'90s, though, the indies took over in a big way—only six of the current top 20 albums on college radio are on major labels, according to CMJ New Music Report, and No. 1 is the self-titled album by Broken Social Scene, on the small Canadian label Arts and Crafts.
It's odd, then—at least on the surface—that a lot of the bands that have done exceptionally well on college radio over the last decade are still absent from the airwaves outside campuses. Sleater-Kinney, Stephen Malkmus, Bright Eyes, the Decemberists, the New Pornographers, Tortoise, and Sufjan Stevens are all major stars on college radio and solidly popular as touring artists—but you'll almost never hear them on a Z100. There's a reason for that, and it doesn't have a lot to do with what they sound like.
Case in point: Death Cab for Cutie. The Seattle emo band has made the jump from college to commercial-alternative stations in the last few months—their "Soul Meets Body" is currently a Top 10 hit on Billboard's modern-rock chart. Why them and not the Decemberists, say? The answer is depressingly simple: After years on the indie Barsuk imprint, Death Cab moved to Atlantic Records for their new album Plans. The cost of promoting records to commercial-rock radio stations is so high that effectively only major labels can afford it, so it's nearly impossible for a band to cross over without major-label support. It's also true that college radio's swing toward music released on indies has diminished its cultural power: The cult heroes it creates still might become stars eventually, but there's no guarantee of that anymore.
But the great thing about college radio is that it doesn't need to care about being "important" or popular—which is why its fans are still drawn to it. Kingmaking power or no, it's pretty much the only kind of terrestrial radio that still operates according to its music directors and even its DJs' personal aesthetics. College radio is local and individual, and the digital audio revolution has barely slowed it down. You can download songs from a dorm-mate or someone halfway across the world (or, all right, an actual online music store), but that only works if you already know what you want to hear. The point of college radio is that you get to hear things you didn't already know about. And that means it's one of the last few parts of American media that still has the power to surprise.
Douglas Wolk is the author of Live at the Apollo.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.