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US radio programming and alternative music culture December 3, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in Music Radio.
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The musical genres of jazz, world, alternative and indie rock, folk and Americana tend to be in the margins of mainstream music radio in the US, but interestingly, they are particularly prominent in the programme schedules of the college radio stations I studied here. In North American radio, each of these genre terms cover a wide range of music, while still not embracing the full range of music made available by the genre-ordering structures used in music cultures outside radio playlists. It is necessary, then, to understand in what sense these could be understood as alternative musical forms, and why particular recordings are included in a programming category, while others are neglected.

Chris Atton (2002; 2004), through an engagement with the key texts of media structural analysis, has shown how neglected the notion of alternative media is, and maps the idea of an ‘alternative media’ within discourse on culture and political society. His attempt to produce an analytical definition which emphasises media subject matter and organisation, and covers artistic and subcultural, as well as political practices, is very helpful. However, as he himself shows, so wide are the range of practices that can be defined as alternative that it extends beyond the unconventional and radical. In this study, I do not seek to provide a definition of ‘alternativeness’ against which the radio stations I studied can be compared. Instead, I want to explore in some detail how the development and contemporary operation of radio broadcasting within the USA has constructed various and particular notions of ‘alternativeness’ as they are applied to music and radio. Following Michel Foucault’s (1972: 49) methodological directive, I am more interested in teasing out the discursive practices which constitute alternative radio as a cultural object.

Any notion of alternativeness must, of course, have a binary ‘other’ against which it is set. In music culture, these senses of alternativeness are built around a notion that there is a ‘mainstream’ which dominates music culture. This metaphor is itself interesting, and contains within it two senses. First, that – in the range of music possibility that runs analogously from bank to bank of a waterway – there is a central flow where the culture runs most clearly and speedily, without the eddies and complex clutter of the margins. Second, that this mainstream runs down from the source in a continuous flow. The mainstream is the common current of thought or practice.

While this analogy is widely used in both vernacular discussions and more systematic academic analysis, the concepts and the way they are deployed receive little scrutiny. For instance, while Raymond Williams (1976) established an approach to discussing the ‘Keywords’ of culture and society, he did not include the concepts of alternative and mainstream; and neither did the authors who updated the work (Bennett, Grossberg et al. 2005). Primarily, this is because the selected keywords are the terms through which intellectuals ordered their analysis of culture, rather than the terms used by the participants who practiced it.

The very notion of a mainstream is constructed by two parallel processes. One, in which an idea of the common current is an assertion of the values of the norm in society: ‘common sense’, ‘what we like’, ‘not esoteric’; the other, in which a mainstream is constructed as an ‘other’ against which values of difference, freedom, and non-conformity can be asserted. These values of difference are in themselves variable, and not necessarily compatible. Most relevant to the discussion here are the polarisation of the exotic from the everyday, the exciting from the indifferent, the substantial from the lightweight, the experimental from the formulaic, and the authentic from the manufactured.

While earlier studies of college radio have used a core notion of alternativeness, and one at least presents clear evidence that college radio staff use phraseology similar to that utilised by the respondents in my own research, these ideas remain undeveloped in the presentation of the research data. We can see this clearly in, for instance, R. Wilfred Tremblay’s (2003) investigation of college radio faculty advisors’ attitudes to the future of college radio. He quotes station staff as champions of programming around ‘alternative music, blues and jazz etc’ (: 173), and concludes that there is an acceptance of ‘the traditional college radio ideology: to be an alternative to commercial radio’ (: 179). He also reports that localness was an important driver within the stations, and that such programming independence, rather than national networking, were often seen as the basis of future success (: 180). Similarly, Samuel J. Sauls (1995; 1998) has discussed college radio and the formation of alternative rock music in two descriptive conference papers which summarise journalistic commentary on college radio. Neither researcher, though, takes the opportunity to drill down further into the ways in which differences in programming and presentation practices order this idea of alternativeness, and then make it manifest in the broadcast.

In essence, this is the task I set myself. Following three quite distinct radio stations over a five-year period, I examined the changing programming and presentation practices within each station in some visits and discussions with key staff in 2003 and 2006, and by scrutinising their playlists, programme schedules and broadcasts on a yearly basis from 2002. During my visits, I watched presenters at work selecting and broadcasting the music in their live shows, and went through the music programming practices with key station personnel, including the senior management, programming staff, presenters and faculty advisors. In our discussions, notions of alternativeness were a common theme. As I will show later, my findings reveal considerable variation in practice and output, and incremental but significant change over the five-year period. My analysis shows that these music programming practices drew on the differing repertoires that operate in the wider music cultures associated with the forms of music played.

In more straight-forward terms, there is not one type of alternativeness; and the distinctive sense of alternativeness articulated by the jazz, world, indie rock, folk and Americana music played on the college stations was as much rooted in the cultural histories of those musical genres as it was in the way they were programmed and presented. In addition, the cultural uplift agenda of the 1920s’ university-based stations, the progressive mission that underlay the birth of NPR, and the counter-cultural radio form of the 1960s are all also apparent to different degrees in the way that the alternativeness of the music is articulated within the stations and on air. The music itself, the programming practices, and the presentation styles, then, operate as a ‘homology’ which, paraphrasing Dick Hebdige paraphrasing Levis-Straus, we can understand as the ‘symbolic fit’ between production values, subjective experience, and musical forms (Hebdige 1979: 113). These become apparent if we explore the way that college radio deals with genre styles of indie rock, jazz, and world and folk.

In the 1980s, the association between college radio and certain forms of rock music became so strong that the homology was articulated in the term ‘college rock’. In a retrospective attempt to capture the trajectory of the term, All Music Guide presented it as a ‘confluence of new wave, post-punk, and early alternative rock’ with better selling bands with ‘thoughtful lyrics and socially conscious idealism’, ending in 1991 with the introduction of many of the bands into commercial station playlists after college rock staple Nirvana gained international commercial success (AMG 2007). Certainly, by 1987, the New York Times linked college stations with emergent forms of rock, and six years later presented college radio as key to the development of what would become known as grunge (Pareles 1987; Schoemer 1992).

The ordering of alternative rock codified the experimental forms of free form radio that developed in colleges in the early years of FM into a more organised, and probably more widely palatable, radio format, just as the introduction of station programmers on commercial FM stations had built its elements into the AOR (Adult Orientated Rock) format (Neer 2001). Keith Negus suggests that the growth of interest in college radio by record companies during the late 1980s moved the stations away from the domain of enthusiasts and a maverick image (Negus 1992: 103). The codification of college radio as a format is most apparent in the development of CMJ as a taste leader amongst station staff. Key to the sense of rock music’s alternativeness in the accounts is a merged sense that the music is exciting, substantial, authentic and occasionally experimental, set against a view of music programming on commercial radio as indifferent, lightweight, manufactured and formulaic.

By contrast, jazz programming has tended to construct a sense of alternativeness by following a pattern set within a paradigm established by academic critics constructing jazz as a tradition of great artists, whose performances they actively disassociate from the commercial music industry in which they were created (Ulanov 1952; Stearns 1956; Williams 1959). In doing so, they remade jazz as ‘America’s classical music’. Jazz programming, and presentation on the jazz shows that developed at NPR and college radio stations from the mid-1970s, reflected the ideas of a historical canon and the discographic detail found in the critics’ journalism and books. In particular, the programmes gave little attention to the new forms of music which developed out of the black arts movement, and the retelling of jazz history by black cultural critics (Jones 1966; see Looker 2004).

Jazz programmes were often the cornerstone of college radio’s specialist shows, most often found in the evenings or at weekends, and presented by knowledgeable station staff with large record collections of their own. These programmes presented jazz’s alternativeness as ‘substance’ in contrast to the ‘lightweight’ of other popular music. Most significant was the idea of a mainstream jazz as a tradition which had to be learnt, and into which individual artists had to be placed (Gennari 2006: 207 to 251). It allowed for the idea of a peripheral avant garde, but favoured a textbook rendition of the music’s past. More recently, jazz’s tradition has been recontextualised by the
adoption of the ideas of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, who have articulated the music’s development within African American culture (Ellison 1964; Murray 1976; Ellison and Murray 2000). These perspectives have been influential within jazz education, on musician and educator Wynton Marsalis (via cultural critic Stanley Crouch), and on wider notions of jazz as a concert, or repertory music. This has placed jazz, along with classical music, comfortably as part of a discourse of cultural uplift, and it is in this context that it is most often programmed and presented on college radio.

Folk music, and particularly its reinterpretation by Bob Dylan, was an important element in the 1960s counter-cultural movement which lay at the heart of what Keith has characterised as ‘underground radio’(Keith 1997). The association of folk forms with progressive politics has a long history (see Denisoff 1971; Eyerman and Jamison 1998), where folk is asserted as possessing an authenticity that is contrasted with the manufactured nature of mainstream popular music. From the 1970s onwards, a similar association, rooted in the activities of field musicology and song collecting, built around the vernacular forms of other peoples. Marketed as ‘world music’, it connects to the idea that localised music from different parts of the world is more authentic than the international repertoire that is played on stations with for-profit owners (Taylor 1997). World music works in radio programming terms as ‘exotica’ against the ‘everyday’ of American life, and is presented as part of cultural uplift in widening personal horizons beyond the limitations of North America. It is significant that such programmes hardly ever include music from the homelands of prominent minority groups within the US, and reggae, for instance, is preferred over contemporary US black music forms.

I want to argue, then, that a sense of an alternative music culture is built up out of a series of discursive practices around music, which are then reinforced in the programming and presentation of the music on air through remnants of the ideas of cultural uplift, progressive politics, and counter-culture that have pervaded not-for-profit radio in the US.

This is an extract from a longer paper on college radio in the USA which will be published soon in the Radio Journal

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