Number 69 / July 1989:

Nine hundred of the 1300 college radio stations air alternative rock programming almost exclusively. Over 2,500 people attended last year's CMJ Music Marathon. College radio has played a key role in breaking acts like U2, Tracy Chapman, R.E.M., and the Cure. Record companies now hire promo people whose main function is to work records at college stations and to be aware of what unsigned bands those stations are playing.

But it's not all milk and honey. In 1987, riot police lined up in front of the University of New Mexico's KUNM-FM in Albuquerque as listeners marched to protest a format change from alternative to soft jazz. In 1988, Seton Hall University banned 24 metal records from the playlist of its stations, WOSU-FM.

At KJHK-FM at Kansas University in Lawrence, several staffers have been let go, whole genres such as thrash are no longer played, and the playlist is based on the Billboard alternative charts. The result, as Joe Pepper detailed in an excellent investigative piece in the May 29 Kansas City Star, is the station now follows trends instead of setting them.

The university contends the problem is simply that KJHK is out of touch with student body taste. "I don't care if we play Spanish polka music if that's what our students want to hear," says Max Utsler, head of KU's Radio-TV Department. A case of democracy, pure and simple.

Not so fast. KU students, like students at most colleges, have plenty of commercial stations to listen to (Lawrence is just a stone's throw from Topeka and Kansas City). And democracy is more than majority rule--it has to take into account the needs of the minority, too.

It's certainly true that most college stations are programming music that appeals to a small, sometimes even tiny, minority. But, while this can lead to self-indulgent excess, the real issues can't be seen until you place college radio in a context larger than the campus. The value of college radio lies in the fact that it's the only outlet for music in America that isn't dependent on making a profit for investors. As a result, small handfuls of students on hundreds of campuses across the country have been able to program what they want without pressure from a sales department or undue pressure, in most cases, from university bureaucrats. One important consequence has been that bands such as Cure have ultimately been able to reach the audience of millions that liked what they did once they got a chance to hear it. That's more like democracy in action.

Universities belong not just to their students (which no administrator actually believes, anyway), but to those who fund them. Music fans not only pay the taxes that keep the universities in their home states going, they also pay federal taxes which are redistributed, in the billions of dollars each year, to colleges through the Department of Defense. Music fans buy products from corporations, who last year gave out $850 million in research grants to universities.

So we're all in the college radio business together. The notion that democracy means playing what a market research firm says students like is, in reality, very undemocratic. The majority of students at Seton Hall probably don't like WOSU's all-metal format, but WOSU is the only way tens of millions of people in that tri-state area can hear metal. KLON-FM at Long Beach State is hopelessly out of touch with students as it programs an indispensable mix of jazz, blues, and vintage R&B. Yet KLON reaches an audience throughout the LA basin that is considerably larger than the student body it should allegedly cater to. And not only do the likes of WOSU and KLON bring people pleasure, they educate them about the cultural past and present. If that isn't an important function of a university, what is?

Still, precisely because of its non-profit nature, there are more audiences clamoring to be served by college radio than any station could ever deal with. There are no easy answers when it comes to working out the details of a fair system, so let's end by asking questions.

Why doesn't the record industry, which benefits so handsomely from this campus farm system, kick in some serious bucks to college radio? Why should the broadcast industry have its personnel trained for free at universities without giving anything back? Based on those two questions, here's the most important one of all: Why should a university have only one radio station?

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