April 9, 2014

Never Say F#ck On The Air: And 8 Other Ways College Radio Will Ruin Your Life

At the end of this article, there’s a mess of links to some of the best stations in the nation.
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Shutterstock

I’m done with Spotify. You can keep Pandora. I want no more iPod shufflin’. I don’t need ‘em anymore! I had a come-to-Jesus and I’ve returned home … to college radio.

Like, seriously, who do you think will make a better playlist for you: some nineteen-year-old sleep-deprived rap-god cypher king or a computer algorithm? Can Spotify ever develop better taste in new music than an internet-obsessed bubble goth kawaii queen?

Exactly. No. Nuh uh. So yeah, I switched back … to college radio. You can stream it online. There are tons of great stations across the nation. And it feels like falling in love with music … erryday!

How could I have forgotten about you, college radio?

For two years, I worked as a DJ on a college station. To hear mention of the call letters, KDVS, triggers memories like acid flashbacks. I instantly begin to recall all those days and nights spent in the bowels of a university building, in a listening room, going through stacks of records, parsing towers of CD jewel cases, sorting through a whole pile of cassette tapes, whatever-you-got, to craft the perfect playlist for a weekly three-hour show.

You’ll find college radio DJs take their music super-seriously. Like, I once played a beautiful Ella Fitzgerald song on my morning jazz show. I repeat, this was a Monday morning jazz show, in the a.m. drive-time slot. After my show, I was told, “never do that ever again.” The station’s general manager informed me, using what I would call brisk language, “listeners can hear Ella everywhere.” I thought, but did not say, “What? Are you drunk? Where can you hear Ella … anywhere?” If I were him I would’ve said you can hear her at Starbucks and I would’ve won. But he said nothing. He relied on his authority as the station’s general manager to end the conversation. A risky move with me since I don’t cotton to authority as a replacement for logic, but I ceded the point. I liked the guy, and so, I promised him my show would henceforth be an Ella Fitzgerald-free jazz show. Strange as it sounds, this made him happy.

The general manager’s attitude is right and a good thing. That fanatical, zealous attitude forces college radio DJs to seek out artists that you, the listener, have likely never heard. How deep is your music knowledge? How musically curious are you? These are the two measures of your worth as a DJ, the x and y-vectors of your coolness. As hipster as that may sound, it’s a damn good thing … for the audience.

If you have a college radio station near you, I strongly recommend, you go volunteer/work there. You will not regret it. If you aren’t so lucky as to have a nearby college radio station, well, you folks can do the next best thing, you can listen to one.

If you are lucky enough to become a college radio DJ, or if you were one, you’ll likely agree, the most important advice one can give you is: don’t say fuck on the air. Just like in life, there is a time and place for everything. On radio they call the it safe harbor, it’s the hours from 10 pm to 6 am, the time when cussing and lewd language is permissible. This is why Loveline is on so late. But you might be surprised how hard it actually is to never cuss when you’re speaking on a hot mic. Or maybe that’s just sugar-mouths like me. Either way, it’s a valuable lesson to learn. Respect the space you find yourself in.

Second most important thing: no dead air time. You gotta always feed the beast. It needs sound – either music, or you talking, or a station identification you have queued-up, a PSA, something, anything… just no dead air. Learn to anticipate. Improv with breezy confidence. But for god’s sake, man, feed the beast some sounds.

And last but not least, as far as ground rules go: don’t have sex on the air. Friends, well, more like people I knew, they did that, and apparently, that’s like a jail-able offense. The DJ who let the fornicating couple come down to the station and have sex on-air lost his show. (opinions were mixed if this was art or perversion, I said, it was punk as fuck). Turns out, the FCC is not cool with American citizens live broadcasting radio porn. And they call this freedom.

Now, here are…

8 Ways To Have Your Life Ruined By College Radio

1. You know the secret joy that comes from making a trucker’s night (and you can do it with your pants on)

When you get a phone call from a long-haul trucker who’s passing by on the interstate, a man driving empty freeways, and he just wanted to call in to tell you the song you just played made his night, well, unless you’re Ayn Rand, you feel those invisible ripples of your daily little choices. You hear how the tiniest things you do reverberate throughout the world and connect you to others. And sometimes the person at the end of the connection is a lonely trucker. You get to see how the simple act of picking your playlist changed that same lonely man’s night. A college radio DJ feels how their smallest choices profoundly affect others in the world. Music is emotion is power. Handle wisely.

2. A bunch of college radio DJs = if Comic-Con geeks were given an open bar

If you ever wanna see firsthand the true face of life-long obsession — go and spend any weeknight with a roomful of wine-drunk college radio DJs. Their wine-stained smiles and passionate red-eyes will make you think those vinyl-lovers are somehow distinguished, at least more so than your common comic book store nerd. And that’s where you’d be wrong. Those college radio folks are zealots’ zealot. They’ll argue about music the way Latin revolutionaries once argued about the future of Communism. Don’t be surprised to see someone break furniture, throw a drink, punch a child or storm out vowing never to return. Shit gets hectic when you’re arguing Kool Keith vs. MF Doom.

3. You might meet a Nobel Laureate or former President in the lobby

The VIPs of the world often make appearances at college campuses. This isn’t strange at all. What is strange is reminding yourself not to think about the president’s penis, or cigars in warm wet places, or blue dresses, because you’re a journalist, damnit. You’re there to get the story – to cover a speech. Of course, this doesn’t work. You cover the speech by the former president (penis) and you think about what you’ll say (blue dresses) and you try to think of a fresh angle to analyze the president’s words (cigars in warm places) and you realize this is what journalism is all about. Thank you, college radio!

4. You’ve played, and won, the always-fun-game of “What The Hell Is That Smell?”

At the station I worked at, there were three-hour long shows through the night and into the early morning hours. That’s where you started. Your first show always seemed to be a 3am – 6am date with the Devil. Nevermind the pale moonlight. Because you have to show you mean it. Not everyone belongs on the air, cramming their way into listeners’ earbuds.

Now, if you give a full-grown human being three hours to fill a room with their personal musk, you will find most folks will be up to the task. They will fill the room with their personal fragrance. Some folks more so than others. There was one DJ, I swear to cheeses christ, the DJ booth after his show … the air smelled like he ate nothing but barbecued skunk nachos and refried pork butt sandwiches.

For the first fifteen minutes of our show, my co-host and I would guess. He was particularly good. He’d usually isolate each aroma in that mélange of stink. He’d pick out the scent of Doritos. And sure enough — in the trash — there’d be an empty bag. He’d detect the fragrant mustiness of mammalian sweat stains, imagine something like the ape house at the zoo. And we’d sniff one of the leather chairs and boom – we find the ape house. It’s a fun game. What the Hell Is That Hell Smell?

5. You’ve actually listened to Captain Beefheart, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Dr. John

These names aren’t just funny or strange names. You might’ve heard someone say them, once, or maybe you’ve seen referenced on The Simpsons or on Tumblr, or maybe you’re kinda worldly and you know all three, but in the orbit of college radio, if you stick around awhile, you will end up listening to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. You will hear Lord Buckley lay his patter. And you will hear Daniel Johnston get emotionally bent with a piano. And Odetta scold New Orleans. Someone will play these geniuses for you. And other ones, too. They will insist you hear them. Or they will suggest an album, like Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, and if you like that one, they will recommend an album by a man you’ve never heard named Manitas de Plata. If your Spanish is worse than mine, it means Silver Hands. A great name for a great artist.

You will listen to these artists because they are all unbelievably good and this is what makes you a college radio DJ. In a matter of months your musical palate will expand like you had chefs for friends and they were constantly inviting you over for dinner parties, only these chefs are DJs. And now you’re becoming one, too.

6. You can get addicted to music but don’t worry because there’s no rehab

Just ask Amy Winehouse. What? Too soon? Okay, fine. All apologies. Come on, that one was fine. Whatever. My point is, after thousands and thousands of hours of listening to music, songs from all genres, music from around the globe, and particularly time spent feasting on whole catalogs of your “new favorite” bands, when you say that ghastly phrase, “I prefer their early stuff,” you really fucking mean it. You’ve actually heard all of the band’s albums. You’ve even heard most of their good bootlegs.

Working in college radio isn’t like work at all. It’s more like you are a heroin addict. You hang out mostly in-doors with other sunlight-deficient people, you mumble in a language few outsiders understand, you sell your old stuff to feed your new addiction, you get excited about “new shit that just hit town,” and you’ll likely drift away from old friends and spend strange nights with other music junkies; and when you’re not listening to music, or playing music for your audience those invisible people out there in radioland, you’re sprawled on couches telling stories about the best shit you’ve come across recently, last week, last month, and of course the best ever. If you become a college radio DJ, you will most likely become addicted to music. This is a good thing. It’s costly; as all addictions are, but nevertheless, it is a good and fine thing. (It just makes moving difficult.)

7. You meet the strangest, most delightful people

And I totally mean that. You meet the strangest, most delightful people in college radio. Like, there was a guy who was this totally punk rock transfer student from Japan. In that order. His name was Hiro. And he slept at the radio station, on a couch, and everyone was cool with it. Late at night the station was pretty empty. There’d be whatever DJ was on the air, plus, maybe some scattered DJs in listening rooms; and there, on one of the couches, would be Hiro, sleeping like a drunken sailor. No one knew where he went on the days when he didn’t sleep in the station. But he had a show. So he was one of us. And thus, he could do no wrong. College radio basically follows the Pirate code. And in person, Hiro was a charming dude. He played classical music on his show, and it was the coolest classical show I’ve ever heard. So, y’know … who knows? You might get lucky and meet someone like Hiro.

8. You can play dress-up like a five-year old and you don’t have to change your clothes!

There was a DJ and her show was, like, one of our station’s flagship shows. She was a legend-in-her-own-time. She was also one of the coolest, nicest people you’d ever have the pleasure of meeting. I loved her show. I loved her. But not that way. More like the way someone loves Nutella. She was wicked good. She called herself, Miss Marnie Hotpants. Her show was a floating dance party that you could find on your car radio or listen to online. Each week, I imagined her in the craziest outfits, hosting her radio dance party. Then one day, I was in the station and I saw her doing her a show in, basically, a hoody and pajama bottoms … and I don’t think I could’ve loved her any more. She was a one-woman dance party and she played dress-up in your mind. Tres genial!

If you’re looking for commercial-free music that you can stream online, rad new music you can listen to at work, in your car, wherever the hell you are, pause your Pandora and check out college radio. If you have the musical blahs, college radio just might be the antidote to the symptoms of Spotify syndrome.

Here’s a Top 15 list (in no particular order) of the best college stations around the nation.

Happy listening!

  1. Loyola Marymount University — KXLU 88.9 FM
  2. Evergreen State College — KAOS 89.3 FM: Known for the best call letters in the country … KAOS is a legend.
  3. UC Davis — KDVS 90.3 FM
  4. University of Oregon — KWVA 88.1 FM
  5. UC Berkeley – KALX 90.7 FM
  6. Texas A&M — KANM 1580 AM: Find ‘em on the AM dial … and they’re more eclectic than you would suspect. They have damn good music taste down there in Texas.
  7. Concordia University — CJLO 1690 AM
  8. The College of Wooster — WCWS 90.9 FM
  9. Ithaca College — WICB 91.7 FM
  10. University of Puget Sound — KUPS 90.1 FM
  11. Emerson College — WERS 88.9 FM
  12. Rochester Institute of Technology — WITR 89.7 FM
  13. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — WRPI 91.5
  14. New York University — WNYU 89.1
  15. This last one is not college radio, but it’s one of the best stations in the world. And if you don’t already, you should know about …WFMU 90.1/ 91.1 FM

College radio is the healthiest addiction you’ll ever have. You’ll love how it ruins your life. Happy listening! TC mark