Here We Are Now, Entertain Us: The Current State of College Radio

Early on a Friday morning, Ashlie Anctil sits in Studio A of WTBU, Boston University’s student-run radio station. It’s 8 o’clock, and most students are still sleeping off Thirsty Thursday hangovers, but Anctil’s black iPod blares the pop-punk whine of Avril Lavigne, the only disruption of the peaceful quiet.

Anctil sits back and waits through a few more songs before taking a break to introduce her show and chat with the few – if any – listeners tuning in at such an early hour. She swivels in her wheeled computer chair, glancing at her surroundings: fliers advertising station programming – “Under the Covers,” “The Rock Block” and “BU in the Morning,” are just a few that stand out of the colorful collage – which line the grey corkboard-like walls. CDs fill the floor-to-ceiling shelves along one wall of the studio – Bob Dylan, My Chemical Romance, The Shins. A small box of old-school, vinyl albums, mostly rap and hip-hop, is strewn on a table nearby.

“You’re listening to WTBU, the Beat of Boston University,” Anctil says into the puffy black microphone as Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” winds down. “You just heard Avril Lavigne, Yellowcard, some new Britney Spears, and John Mayer.”

College radio may look the same as it did 10 years ago – but it doesn’t sound or run the same. Bands of the 1980s and 1990s like Nirvana, 10,000 Maniacs and R.E.M. experienced success on college radio stations before their songs were played on mainstream stations. But with the advent of file-sharing services and websites like MySpace that allow unknown bands to showcase their music without the help of radio waves, college radio stations have been struggling to find their niche.

WTBU has turned to sports and talk shows to combat mainstream radio consolidation and a decline in listenership, what Anne Donohue calls a “disaster for avant-garde music.” The station’s sports programs – Wednesday night’s “Terrier Talk,” Monday and Friday’s “Sports Block,” and BU Terrier game broadcasts – draw listeners from all over the world, often parents and friends of the athletes, via webcasting.

“College radio can go where no one else is going,” because there are fewer restrictions, says Donohue, the station’s faculty advisor. She is also pushing for the foreign language department to begin doing specialty shows and for the station to get an HD stream on real radio where they can play especially good archived material.

The programming switch is of a larger trend in all radio: music stations losing listeners. Gone are the days when fans would wait intently, ear to the speakers, to hear a favorite band’s new tune. The hipsters and music lovers out there don’t need the DJs and station managers anymore.

“[The Internet is] giving fans the opportunity to decide what they want to listen to and be exposed to, rather than leaving that to radio executives,” says Kali Giaritta, singer and founding member of The Ascetic Junkies. “It also gives artists the opportunity to make a name for themselves without a record label.”

However, Giaritta, a BU alum and former WTBU DJ, made sure her band’s CD was sent to WTBU. While she doesn’t buy the hypothesis that a college station can “break” an artist and start his or her career, she thinks they are still important, a “vintage” version of Internet music sites.

“If you think of college radio as more of a big music club where kids go in and explore new music and share it when they find something good,” Giaritta says, “then I think any artists with enough talent has an opportunity to make a name for themselves in an area where that ‘music club’ loves them enough to share them with friends.”

Some college radio stations, however, have made it hard for new acts to get airtime, as they are heavily controlled by the whims of programming directors whose ears may not find the acoustic scream-o sounds of some new band out of East Nowhere appealing.

“We play it if we like it,” says the website for WERS, Emerson College’s radio station. “Calling our DJs…will not get it played.”

The station has a weekly two-hour show dedicated to new music and indie artists, but in its submission guidelines, the station’s site warns that they “are under no obligation” to even listen to all of the CDs they receive.

KFJC, the radio station of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., on the other hand, listens to all submissions – but soon that may not matter. A movement is afoot to turn the station into a National Public Radio training station to increase student interest and justify the cost of remodeling the studio. In the face of declining enrollment, the college’s Board of Trustees thinks a more professional program could help draw students.

“On a cost per student basis, the station serves fewer students and produces less enrollment and graduates than [other] programs,” says station supervisor Doc Pelzel. The two-year college is losing students to four-year communications programs.

It’s the slow death of the old-style college station, the one where most things mainstream were shunned in favor of the new, the unheard – the soon-to-be cool. KFJC currently markets itself as “homebrewed freeform radio fortified weekly with new sound and forgotten music injections,” according to the station website, whose listeners are those “who love to say to themselves: ‘What the Hell did I just hear?’”

But Anctil says she sees a benefit to the plan for KFJC. All college radio stations give aspiring young voices a chance to get on-air experience, but a more professional program, especially one backed by an NPR station, would make that experience worth even more.

“[College radio] is a crash-course in real life,” Anctil says. “You come into the studio, [and] you put it all together.”

Donohue agrees, saying, “College radio should be a learning place. You should be able to make mistakes.”

But much like the musicians hoping to make it onto the airwaves, the DJs of college radio are without a safety net: they’re free to play what they want, but they are also open to criticism and definitely not guaranteed any listeners or callers making requests. In that respect, it’s like a real radio gig.

“You’re on your own,” says Anctil as she starts another set, led this time by a song from the Aladdin soundtrack (the self-professed “Disney addict” always includes a healthy dose of Mickey music in her shows), the track’s two voices singing about new horizons and a totally explorable world.

Bet they weren’t thinking about trying to survive on the college radio scene.

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