On College Radio vs Progressive Radio in Massachusetts in the late 80s

I’ve been thinking about this subject lately, partly due to the way I’ve decided to frame the text of Walk in Silence in book form.  I did not want to write just a memoir, nor did I want to write a simple book about alternative rock. I decided to make it a hybrid of both, and in the process I wanted to do a bit of research on radio history in general.  I not only want to go over some of the highlights of great alternative rock of the time and talk about my favorite songs and albums, but I want to explain the genre itself–how it formed, how it got there, and how it related to other music (and points in history) at that particular time.  It’s not just enough for me to say why “Under the Milky Way” is my all-time favorite song; I wanted to explain that the Church’s Starfish album was make-or-break for them after years of not-quite-success.  There’s also the fact that in the 80s, the lines between pop music, rock, and “new wave” were a hell of a lot more defined then.

On a more professional note, however, there were two different kinds of stations playing this kind of music at the time as well, and that’s what I want to speak about here.

There was the college radio station: the longtime home to the alternative, the free-form, and the not-quite-professional.  Ratings didn’t matter to college radio, only that they had the funding from wherever it happen to come from, be it fund drives or grants or the listening audience.  For most college stations, especially for colleges where it was more of an extracurricular position rather than part of the curriculum, the student disc jockeys may have at the least been instructed to vary their playlist or play a few core tracks, and at most been given stern reminders of FCC rules and regulations.  Other than that, you could get away with playing whatever you liked.  For the most part, the quality and style depended on whose shift you were listening to.  Some disc jockeys would play hardcore punk or EBM (Electronic body music, a danceable subgenre of industrial rock and championed by many European groups like Front 242), or maybe even that new post-punk influenced rock stuff coming from the UK, like the Smiths and the Cure.

On the other hand–or should I say, up a little higher on the dial–there were the professional radio stations.  Short version: by the early to mid 1980s, there seemed to be a shift in popular radio, and a lot of stations were starting to feel the crunch.  Slightly longer version: considering that popular FM radio was pretty much still in its teens at this time (it sounds weird, but it’s true: popular FM radio as we know it today really didn’t come into wide popularity well until the mid to late 70s), the FM stations that tried to cater to all sounds and styles were beginning to flounder.  Listening habits changed and people wanted to hear more of their favorite styles rather than a wide and often weird mishmash.  The wildly successful pop stations of AM yesteryear were now the wildly successful pop stations of FM now.  The rock stations did well, but they were also splintering, often due to their listenership; some like Worcester’s WAAF 107.3FM with its younger fanbase continued to follow trends to play the latest hard rock, while others like East Longmeadow’s WAQY 102.1FM began to drift with its older fanbase towards classic rock.

Of the latter, a newer subgenre emerged.  Partly inspired by the more adventurous free-form sounds of 70s FM radio, the arrival of Album-Oriented Radio (AOR) in the late 70s and early 80s catered more towards the connoisseur radio listener, the avid music listener who wanted more than just the throwaway pop or the mindless party rock.  True to its name, its playlist prided itself on featuring non-single album tracks, providing the listener with a much wider experience.  As the 80s wore on however, it was found that while AOR had its diehard fans, it was not a moneymaker.  A number of stations reverted back to a rock format, or were sold and completely changed formats.  Those who stayed were often extremely localized, such as Turners Falls’ WRSI 95.3FM (sold in 1996 and moving to Northampton at 93.9) and Peterborough NH’s WMDK 92.1FM, and placed in small but artistic-minded communities.  They may have been small, but they had the upper hand–they were run by music fans who knew their stock in trade, and knew how to sell it locally.

These two local stations never really sold themselves as “AOR” but more as “progressive radio”.  This term may have confused some, considering the word ‘progressive’ often went hand in hand with ‘rock’, and together ‘progressive rock’ often meant twenty-minute hyperbolic workouts from bands like Yes, early Genesis, and ELP.  But by the 80s, ‘progressive radio’ actually meant something different–it was almost a taunt, a term that said ‘we’re better than you–we play music for smart people’, and in its own way it was true.  The passive radio listener just wants background noise, but the active radio listener wants something that will stimulate the brain.  And it just so happened that post-punk sounds coming out of the UK and the collegiate sounds emerging in the US fit the bill at that point in time.  If there were no college radio stations nearby, or none with the wattage strength to reach long distances (especially over hilly central Massachusetts), these progressive stations would offer up the most radio-friendly of it.

And for a good couple of years, probably from around 1984 or 1985 up to 1988, these stations could get away with playing the not-quite-commercial rock.  These bands weren’t being played anywhere else except on college and progressive radio stations.
While college radio was much more open-minded and adventurous in its available playlist, it had its own shortcomings as well.  Part of the whole alternative music scene in parts of the US was its exclusiveness–it was music for the nerds and the geeks and the people on the fringes of society who didn’t belong in the popular cliques.  Morrissey may have sung and the music that they constantly play / it says nothing to me about my life / hang the blessed DJ in response to a UK radio personality who tastelessly followed up coverage of the Chernobyl disaster with Wham!’s “I’m Your Man”, but in the US it took on a slightly different meaning.  For those of us here in the States, it was simply a rebellion against the tired, creatively vacant mainstream.

But what was mainstream, anyway? Especially in the last few years of the decade when more ‘modern rock’ songs were showing up on the Top 40 charts? What was there to rebel against when the keys to our rebellion were now becoming mainstream?  By the early 90s, many college radio stations were refusing to play anything by the Cure or Morrissey or Depeche Mode or REM, simply because they were being played on commercial radio.  They would need to start looking elsewhere for their alternative fix.

On the other hand, progressive radio could still get away with it.  Perhaps it was that, as professional stations, they had to constantly keep an eye on shifting tastes.  Progressive radio is where I first started hearing Britpop, back in 1989 with Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, well before a lot of other stations played it.  They also kept an eye on other subgenres of rock that fit into their playlist, like the folk rock sound of Tracy Chapman, Tanita Tikaram and Indigo Girls, the blues rock of Jeff Healey, or the new funk of Lenny Kravitz.  They were able to balance the commercial with the alternative, and that kept their stations alive much longer.  It also kept the alternative sound in the spotlight, making way for newer “adult alternative rock” stations such as WXRV (The River) 92.5FM in Haverhill.  It also helped usher in more “new alternative” sounds–bands that may lean towards the mainstream, but are decidedly not intellectually vacant pop.

 *

Over two decades later, I’ve been noticing a slow but significant return to departmentalizing the different genres of rock on FM radio.  It’s partly due to the advent of the internet, and it’s also due, as it always has been, to the shifting tastes of its listeners.  For a brief time in the 90s, alternative rock became so polarizing that on the one hand we had all-commercial rock radio on one end and very anti-commercial rock radio on the other.  Now, however, we’re starting to see specific subgenres again, and they’re being played on both college radio and on indie rock stations, sometimes within the same hour.  We’ll hear the bizarro tUnE-yArDs alongside the catchy pop of Capital Cities alongside the folk rock anthems of Frank Turner.  Listeners can access the sounds not just on FM radio but on satellite stations, online-only stations, streaming sites and even playing their mp3 library set to “random”.  But thanks to these same things, we can set our listening preferences so we’re only listening to weird left-field rock or synthpop or folk rock.  We’re not just bound to the FM dial anymore, but we can bound ourselves to just how wide or how narrow we want our music to be.  Radio may continually shift in its never-ending search for new sounds and higher earnings, but as always, it comes around and settles in new and more interesting ways for us to listen.

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