WiS Notes – College Radio

When I started my research for the Walk in Silence project last year, I’d decided to write some personal notes and reflections on how college radio affected me in the late 80’s.  It was a brief overview of what I want to cover in this book that lasted for twenty-five installments, a sort of a detailed outline of memories, thoughts on influential (to me) bands and albums, friendships, and such.  I’ll be posting these sporadically on the site over the next few weeks or so.


Back in the day, once I understood the schedules, I’d look forward to the kickoff of another season at the college radio station.  The first time I understood it, after that initial discovery, I looked forward to hearing WMUA—I picked it up again in the autumn of ’86, about the same time I’d actively started keeping an eye out for neat stuff on USA Network’s Night Flight to videotape.  This was soon after 120 Minutes started, something I wouldn’t habitually watch until about mid-’87.

But with college radio, when you first discover it in the spring you semester you don’t get much of it.  Still, it sowed the seed of teenage rebellion.

To me, looking back, college radio in the mid to late 80s was akin to progressive radio—in terms of “progressive” meaning its radio term of being album-track friendly rather than chart friendly.  A precursor to AOR, in a way.

Once the new school year started, college radio usually didn’t kick in until the end of September—a month’s worth of students settling in, the station manager setting up and running interviews, listening to auditions, and so on.  Back then, many of us listeners were twitchy, waiting for the first day of going live.  In a roundabout way this delay makes sense, in terms of what’s played.  Rock music sells quite well in the fourth quarter at record stores, so there’s a good chance that a new college radio season can mean a lot of good stuff coming out an being played straight out of the shrinkwrap.  At the same time, of course, alternative college radio prided itself on being vehemently anti­-commercial, so many music directors went out of their way to look for something that was great but not necessarily a big seller.  A double-edged sword, to say the least.

Still—there was always that exciting thrill of waiting for the station to come on the air.  Back in the pre-internet days, you actually had to wait for things, and that was part of the fun.  Like waiting on new releases, for instance…back then, you’d hear so-and-so was in the studio or coming out with a new album in the fall, and you never heard a peep of it until the promo copies went out to the stations.

This in its own way was a mental high for me as it was my own way of thinking “hey, someone else who’s in my mindset is coming soon!”  After losing my friends to college, this was a tie-in, a reminder .

That first time was interesting.  If I recall correctly, the CCE [Clarence Clemons Event–more on that later. –Ed.] took place in spring 1986.  My dates are wrong on some of my cassettes, as I know for a fact that the first “college radio tape” had to be autumn of 1986, and the second one soon after.  I’d originally thought the CCE might be autumn 1985, but that’s when the song came out.  Still—once I knew college radio existed, I knew enough to expect it when the school year started.  I’d be prepared with blank cassettes (or used tapes, recording over older stuff with the mindset that I was growing up and moving on to better things).  At first I had the older kitchen radio, then moved onto the “jonzbox” as well as one of my sister’s radios she wasn’t using.  At least two, if I’m not mistaken.

One radio—the jonzbox, a well-worn cassette/radio—was on my desk and tuned to various stations.  It had a six-foot extendable antenna that I bought at Radio Shack (and I think survived for many years until some idiot in college bent it).  The front plastic facing had a strip of paper taped under the dial, covering the AM  band numbers—come on, who listens to AM anymore?—marking the general settings of all the stations I listened to, or at least the ones that came in.

Again, my house was in a valley so not everything came in great.  Local stations came in clear and sometimes even bled over other stations—cheapo radios still do that.  The college stations I liked were tricky, because they were usually low-watt and therefore the local NPR station (WFCR out of Amherst) sometimes overpowered anything near it.  Added to the fact that my family owned a cheapo police scanner, which caused stations to drop out if the radio signals crossed (even worse if it was in scan mode—it would mute a song for a half-second at every pass).  Thus the mega-antenna.

The mindset I remember, like I mentioned above, was that of excitement that I was hearing this stuff again.  At that point, I’d grown out of trying to fit in, grown away from the circle of friends I’d had since childhood.  I did occasionally hang with my friend Kevin, especially my senior year (I’d known him since junior high), and also with Kris (I knew her since grade school—her dad was my fourth grade teacher as well), but most of the others I’d known for some time were floating into the background.

My junior year was the best since I got along famously with so many in the class ahead of me.  They had discovered college radio about the same time I had, so we had that in common for starters.  For all of us, I think we all had that idea that this was something that was a notch beyond the normal pop stuff.  It had substance, it was art, and it wasn’t disposable.  For us, that meant that the things we liked, the things we put our hearts and minds into meant something.  That was key for us, having grown up in a small town.  To put it more bluntly—we rose up above the yokels and the rednecks with our art, with our music, and our intellect.  Because really—if we didn’t have that in this town, what the hell else did we have to live for?

Personally, listening to college radio gave me the impetus to rise up against my own misgivings.  I’ll be honest—even though I may have “hated” the jocks and the popular cliques in high school, a lot of it was my own doing, and I believe that’s true for a lot of people my age that grew up in the 80s.  Life may have felt like a John Hughes movie, but in reality it wasn’t (the exception being The Breakfast Club, in my opinion still his best film)…those movies were caricatures.  My ire was fueled by my social status, and I  hated that I didn’t quite fit in.

Discovering college radio was like an eye opener, a veil finally pulled away to show that there’s a hell of a lot more to life out there than what we were temporarily binded to.  Becoming a part of its universe was like being accepted into that bigger world.

30-31 August 2010

Walk in Silence: References, Homework and Sounds

[Note: This was posted on my LiveJournal blog a few days ago, but thought I’d share it here as well.]



First off, I have to share this absolutely brilliant quote about from Bob Mould in his autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, which talks about his tour with Husker Du in the early 80s, which I believe brilliantly captures what I’m aiming for in this book:

“We were quickly discovering that the East Coast had a unique mentality that might be summed up best in two words: college rock. A lot of it came down to the clustering of high-quality schools in the Northeast, particularly in the Boston area, where the tour took us next. There were many more college radio stations in the Northeast than in the Midwest, and they gave rise to the likes of the Bongos, Violent Femmes, and the dBs, bands who had a more accessible, more melodic sound than hardcore.”

Seriously, I need this as the preface quote.

The research for Walk in Silence continues apace, with much reading and note taking.  I probably should be doing some more pencil-marking in the books I’m reading, but I’m one of those book geeks who cringes at doing that.  (Which is funny, considering how my Dad’s been doing that for years with his own hometown history research.)  Still, I’m finding a lot of interesting information that I can play with, and I’ve ordered a few books from Amazon that should be coming my way soon that could help.

It’s kind of interesting, looking for the history of college radio.  Not college rock, per se–one just needs to look for biographies of the genres, bands and scenes, and there are many–but when it comes to college radio in particular, it’s kind of a desert when it comes to books, or even online resources for that matter.  There’s a few books out there on the technical and historical sides of college radio stations, and there’s a ridiculously huge number of band/scene biographies…and crazy as it sounds, I’d like to marry the two in this project.

Why, you might ask, would I want to do something like that?  Would anyone really care about why some backwater college played The Smiths instead of Kylie Minogue, or The Cure instead of Van Halen back then?  But that’s part of why I want to write it:  because if that backwater college hadn’t played the Smiths or the Cure, they may not have been as huge and influential here in the States.  Sure, some of this music filtered through in other ways–hardcore and punk pretty much survived on DIY and word of mouth–but a lot of these bands that I’m focusing on weren’t DIY punks from LA or DC or wherever.  I’m not focusing on the hardcore punk scene anyway–there’s quite a glut of those books out there already.  I’m focusing on British post-punk bands and local American bands that were rarely carried in chain stores because they weren’t fast, big sellers.  They were bands that caught the ears of the collegiate crowd in the early 80s and were played on their stations, and maybe by some fluke (or some brilliant producer or director) showed up on a tv or movie soundtrack.  In my opinion, it wasn’t so much the hardcore punk as it was this particular post-punk genre that became the basis of today’s indie rock, and I think that story needs to be told.  We’ve already celebrated “The Year Punk Broke” in 1991/92, but again–that’s just a subgenre of a much larger musical movement.  I’m not looking to tell the story of its grand entrance into the mainstream; I’m looking to tell of the story of how it eventually got there, something that’s very much glossed over.  My idea is to explain why this music came to be important in the mid-to-late 80s, show its origins, and how it eventually became the norm.