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US university-based radio stations as an alternative broadcast culture December 3, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in Music Radio.
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University-based radio stations have a long tradition in the USA, and a number of issues trelating to music programming in the twenty-first century are first found in the origins of this form of broadcasting. Some of the earliest radio stations established in the first half of the 1920s were based at universities or initiated by faculty staff, at a time when only 7% of radio broadcasts came from profit-maximising stations (Dimmick 1986), and by 1923 the 72 university stations constituted a major category of broadcaster (Barnouw 1966: 4). State universities were particularly prominent among these early broadcasters, and their leaders tended to share a view that radio was an important part of a wider progressive agenda which aimed (in the terminology of the time) at cultural ‘uplift’. In this they juxtaposed their intentions to utilise the new medium for broader social purposes against those of for-profit broadcasters, who aimed to maximise audience size as a means to attract programme sponsors. The debate is captured in a contemporary commentary, in which a professor of political science at The University of Chicago, Jerome Kerwin, argues that profit maximisation was incompatible with educational programming because, “in order to secure the largest audiences which the advertisers want and will pay for, it is necessary to stage the least elevating types of programme” (cited in Smulyan 1994: 135). Derek Vaillant’s study of the Wisconsin state station WHA in the 1920s indicates that music was an important part of a culturally ‘uplifting’ programming mix. Performances of classical music by the university’s orchestra were central to an attempt to produce music programming noticeably different from what WHA’s first broadcast chief referred to as the “jazz and other worthless material” broadcast by for-profit stations (quoted in Vaillant 2002: 64).

Susan Smulyan (1994) has characterised the period in radio history from 1920 to 1934 as a struggle between organisations representing, on the one hand, the primacy of social objectives versus those in pursuit of profit; a struggle in which ‘commercialization’ eventually won out. The progressive agenda of the early university stations had difficulties surviving in an environment in which federal policy tended towards a ‘corporate liberalism’ that privileged certain forms of ownership, versions of intellectual property rights and the commodification of audiences that benefited for-profit corporate oligopolies (Streeter 1996). Regulatory changes in 1927, and the policies of the Federal radio Commission in particular, made it increasingly difficult for such stations to survive against growing competition from profit-maximising stations funded by sponsorship. In the five years to 1926, 177 licences were issued to educational stations; only 12 were issued in the five years from 1927, and only 38 of the 202 stations licensed in the fifteen years since 1921 were still running in 1936 (Smulyan 1994: 130).

While the historical record of the politics of regulation bears out Smulyan’s analysis, there are another set of dimensions to the issue which were as important for the early college radio stations as they are eighty years later. State universities and land grant colleges seemed to be most successful in keeping their licences, perhaps because of their collective commitment to a progressive mission of education, cultural ‘uplift’, and economic and technological development, and the modernist aspirations of senior staff. However, the managers of these stations still struggled with questions about the processes involved in programming decisions, the relationships between the programming in the university-based stations and that of other broadcasters, and of the relationships between the broadcasters and the communities who could listen to the station. Vaillant’s study of the operation of WHA in the 1920s sets the desires of the station’s staff to be part of a project to “rejuvenate and reform rural culture through educational programmes and uplift” against the reception of the programming amongst Wisconsin’s rural communities (2002: 84). So, while some of WHA’s classical music broadcasts were clearly valued by some listeners, others argued for music which was rooted far more deeply in the cultural values of the rural community.

These examples of debates within organisations pursuing social broadcasting aims (offered by Smulyan), and of programmers trying to resolve the friction between audience expectations and their own objectives (offered by Vaillant), are indicative of the wider, century-long, history of radio broadcasting as an institutional form within the US. The progressive mission of some early broadcasters did survive the initial decline of the university stations, and can be understood to have developed within the campaigns of the broadcast reform movement of the 1930s, and in the establishment of National Public Radio (NPR) in 1967 (Engelman 1996; Mitchell 2005).

However, the post-war transformation of the dominant form of radio, from mixed programming to music radio, happened outside the university-based and public radio sectors, primarily in the commercial sectors. For Eric Rothenbuhler and Tom McCourt (2002) ‘radio redefines itself’ in the US in the fifteen years from 1947. This transformation is apparent in programming, the inter-relationships of stations, and the relationship between a station and its respective publics. For Rothenbuhler and McCourt, it is primarily a movement from a network era to a format era. The pre-war, centrally-devised, mixed-block programme broadcasting gives way to locally-devised, strip-structure programming, using a recorded music and news format but overlapped by a transitional period of diversity and experimentation.

By the point that the hegemonic network system had fully given way to a plethora of small independent stations making local decisions within strict conventions, diversity in programming had significantly declined, and the variety that did exist was organised within conventional formats aimed at specific audiences, mainly of teenagers, urban African-Americans and rural whites. The development of Top 40 programming structures (Rothenbuhler and McCourt 2004) was paralleled by the growth of black music format stations (George 1988; Barlow 1999) through to the 1960s. From these roots, a dominant form of AM pop radio developed, built around personality DJs and a fast rotation of a few records, selected on the basis of market information published in music and radio trade journals.

By 1960, then, a dominant music radio ‘mainstream’ had been established in the USA. Presentation became a highly conventional form, taking many of the mannerisms of black radio presenters, but codifying them into a youth-orientated ‘total station sound’, in which the single elements of personality and recorded music were less important than the overall identity of the station. The centralisation, and later the computerisation, of music programming became a central part of ensuring that the station sound predominated. Although as competition within music radio intensified new formats of music broadcasting were developed (Barnes 1988; Berland 1993), pop AM stations relied on well-worked-through formulas to hold market share. These formulas were only challenged in the late 1960s and early 1970s by stations operating on the FM band.

College radio, as distinct from university-based radio stations, developed in the 1960s, to some degree in parallel with FM radio as a technical method of transmission and as a style of music radio. Both the expanded college stations and the for-profit stations explored new forms of presentation and music programming aimed at a rising, young and increasingly wealthy middle class population that saw itself as part of a music-centric counterculture (Eyerman and Jamison 1998: 106 to 139). This expansion in music radio took advantage of the opportunity to transmit on the underused VHF band, and of regulatory changes which discouraged simultaneous AM and FM broadcasting.

Transmission of sound by modulating the frequency of the radio wave, rather than its amplitude, had been established by RCA as early as 1935, but the technical challenges of broadcasting pictures, the second world war, and regulatory changes over the frequencies of VHF transmission standards meant that a settled system was not in place until it was used to send stereo signals as part of the development of domestic high-fidelity audio playback systems (Shingler and Wieringa 1998: 7 to 10). The retarded social application of FM radio and the relatively high cost of FM receivers created an underused broadcast space that, in contrast to the highly formatted AM broadcasters, allowed experimentation with music programming and presentation that was later to be called freeform radio. In Steven Van Zandt’s mythologizing words, the form of broadcasting that developed as FM in the US was ‘quieter, even though it was louder. Peaceful, while it spoke of revolution. Slower, while we evolved at an inconceivably rapid pace’ (2001: viii). The presenters, and their choices of music, were actively constructed as offering an alternative to AM pop radio where, in the contemporary critique from freeform radio pioneer Tom Donahue, ‘the disc jockeys have become robots performing their inanities at the direction of programmers who have succeeded in totally squeezing the human element out of their sound’ (1967: 2).

These freeforms of music radio returned the control of music selection to the programme presenter, who adopted an antithetical style to AM pop radio, purposely juxtaposing music of very different styles; playing lengthy album tracks rather than high-rotation singles; talking slowly for long periods, or not at all; never interrupting a music track and maybe even leaving pregnant pauses (Keith 1997; Neer 2001). The presentation styles were of particular appeal to college students, who adopted many of the practices in their new low-power campus stations.

By contrast, the main thrust of forms of cultural uplift programming, which had motivated the university-based broadcasters of half a century before, was focused on the development of a national public radio system. In the early 1970s, the newly formed NPR distributed classical music concerts for broadcast by public stations, but they did little to engage with a wider issue of diversity of music (McCourt 1999). However, the trajectories of anti-format broadcasting, alternative provision and cultural uplift were to play out in music culture and college radio over the next-thirty five years, through the idea of alternative music cultures.

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