Since 2006, I’ve been faculty adviser for a college radio station at Louisville’s Bellarmine University. While the Bellarmine Radio’s capable student directors and I focus on day-to-day station tasks, underlying questions regularly assert themselves: Can a thriving college radio culture be made from scratch? What is the role of college radio in an era of ubiquitous media?
Bellarmine Radio has been an Internet-only affair from its inception. As Brian Fauteux convincingly argued in a recent Antenna column, traditional (or “terrestrial”) college radio stations run the risk of losing their community focus as universities sell off valuable FM licenses. These stations then often turn to Internet radio. If college radio’s historical strength was an ability to focus on local culture, then what about stations like ours, which never had an FM license in the first place? Can an Internet station cultivate a local audience in such a diffuse media environment?
I had my doubts. My own connection to college radio was shaped by the pre-Internet scarcity of the music I heard. As a 1980s teen, I went to sleep in my west suburban Indianapolis home, listening to college radio from Cincinnati’s Xavier University. I kept a notebook by my bed to write down the most interesting bands I heard (V-E-L-V-E-T-U-N-D-E-R-G-R-O-U-N-D) and worked at deciphering Michael Stipe’s lyrics when REM was still a mystery.
It all felt like I’d stumbled upon a glorious secret: in the voices of college students I heard, in the information they had seemingly mastered, and in the music that opened up entirely new ways of thinking and feeling. Local commercial radio couldn’t compete, and even 1980s MTV paled in comparison. While my undergraduate school didn’t have its own station, my relationship to college radio continued when I started my own show on Bowling Green’s WBGU, fueled by conversations with generous and inventive colleagues and the university’s wonderful popular music library. After I left for Ph.D. work at the University of Texas, I listened to Austin’s KVRX, but considered my own college radio days to be over.
As a professor, I found myself involved in college radio again. When I arrived on the Bellarmine campus, I found eager students and a formidable task. Students had started the station on their own, but the previous faculty adviser had shaped the station to reflect Clear Channel-style corporate radio. The station was completely automated. We began to transform Bellarmine Radio into a college radio station, in which students would program the station and their voices would be heard on air – preferably live. We listened to other college radio stations, noting what we wanted to emulate (openness, experimentation) and what we wanted to avoid (snobbery, knee-jerk exclusion).
The majority of our listeners are connected to the university. This also includes study abroad students and alumni that check in from far away, sharing how much they appreciated hearing us on the other side of the world. We increasingly have the sense that our local focus in an online context has allowed us to reach a variety of listeners with Bellarmine and Louisville ties in far-flung locales, from Belfast to Shanghai. When my students ask if it’s OK they sound like they’re from Kentucky, I say yes. A given DJ’s Kentucky twang may not work in contemporary commercial radio, but we consider that a strength.
Selling our campus on college radio is an ongoing process. While Bellarmine has undergone dramatic transformations in the last decade or so, it is not particularly known for an adventurous campus culture. Because of this, we spend a lot of time trying to translate college radio to our specific context, explaining college radio’s larger mission. We do this through campus promotional activities and participation in larger initiatives such as College Radio Day. We playfully profess our approach in an unofficial slogan: Bellarmine Radio plays the hits and misses.
It is helpful for any college radio station staff to remember that many students arrive at college each fall having never heard college radio before. In 2011, my radio directors and I collaborated on a column for the student newspaper to explain Bellarmine Radio’s mission. “Think for a moment about your favorite song,” we wrote. “There was a time when you had never heard it before. You had to take a chance and listen for it to become meaningful for you. We would like to introduce you to your new favorites.” In an era when liberal arts colleges increasingly sell familiarity and comfort to attract students, we wanted to assert that college should be transformative – in ways that might be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable. We understand college radio as part of that transformation.
Our radio station has emerged during a period in which college radio’s future seems uncertain. As my former WBGU colleague Jen Waits pointed out in her 2012 overview for Radio Survivor, college radio remains vulnerable to takeovers by university administrations seeking a profit in selling off FM licenses. At the same time, traditional college radio stations reached new milestones, with continued support from universities. In 2012, the University of Minnesota celebrated 100 years of radio on campus.
On our campus, college radio still matters – even online. Bellarmine Radio is a work in progress mind you, but DJs leave their shifts feeling energized. We champion our favorite local bands, peruse Pitchfork and CMJ without letting it dictate our tastes, and ponder dubstep’s circuitous path from London to Louisville. And we are conscious that whether our listeners are across campus or around the world, it’s better to be rooted in who we are – and where we are – at any given moment.