Sunday, September 21, 2008

The "Handwriting" of College Radio

Yesterday, in my capacity as the faculty advisor for Rhodes Radio, I was a part of the committee charged with interviewing and selecting the next General Manager for the radio station. Because our little Rhodes Radio is still in its infancy stage, in a town with an abundance of colleges/universities yet a paucity of independent/college radio stations, the selection of our next (read: "second") General Manager was an important one. I was relieved to find that the two student finalists were both excellent candidates for the position, and they both gave impressive and mature interviews, which made the decision extremely difficult.

One (of many) reasons that it was so difficult to pick a General Manager for Rhodes Radio is that we needed someone not only with discipline, leadershp, time-management skills, and the ability to navigate a tremendous amount of stress, but we also needed someone with a "vision." As we all know, independent/college radio is an endangered species-- but it's a quirky, strange, and beautiful little animal that I, for one, don't want to see die. The students who are in college now are probably one of the last generations that will remember what it was like to listen to the radio... and that memory is fading fast, even for them. This is too bad, really, because the current college-age generation is also extremely savvy about their musical tastes. They listen to a broader and more diverse range of tunes, partly as a result of being able to surf-and-compile their own "playlists" rather than listening to the repetitive cycles of commercial hits by corporate radio stations (almost all of which are beholden to contracts with record labels and long ago lost anything resembling a "love" of music). But the problem, of course, with this current generation's music-listening habits is that they have become more and more solipsistic, more and more isolated, more and more individualized and, consequently, less and less communal.

College radio is the last bastion of that old, paradoxical approach to broadcasting, which is both "independent" and "communal." That is, college radio is the last place where "communal" doesn't mean "commercial," and "independent" doesn't mean "idiosyncratic." In my view, it requires a fairly sophisticated sensibility to get this, even more to implement and sustain it, and I do not envy the job of the General Managers whose charge it is to do that.

You can imagine, then, how pleased I was to find that our new General Manager at Rhodes Radio "gets" it. Not only does he get it, but he can articulate it, and he seems to have some pretty good ideas about how to achieve it. It's always a risk to go with the "big idea" candidate, because he or she is invariably untested and, hence, unproven. But let me tell you what won me over in this case: In his application, which included an essay describing the candidates' "vision" for the radio station over the next two years, he listed all of the requisite "pragmatic" plans that need to be implemented (fundraising, standardization, promotion, etc.)... but he spent most of his essay explaining why college radio matters and what it should be. He noted the "sense of smart independence" that mainstrem radio cannot and does not offer, and "the DIY vibe that only non-commercial, volunteer radio provides." He described college radio as "the box in the middle of town that gives anyone with something to say a place to stand up and have their voice heard." And then there was this:

Few people on campus get hand-written letters anymore, and yet e-mailboxes are bursting at the seams. Let’s remember what handwriting looks like. Let’s humanize music again Let’s get back to our mix-tape days, where music told you something about the person and the way they worked. Let’s provide students an alternative to their computer-screen-headphone-personal-playlist mentality by making the musical experience more communal than individual.

Yeah, that's something I can believe in. What's more, I think that sort of vision is about the only way to keep college radio alive and flourishing. Because, the truth is, college radio doesn't run on money (which we don't have) or technological innovation (which we can't afford) or mass appeal (which would require a bigger antenna, which we don't have and can't afford), but rather college radio runs on the passionate investment of people who believe in it, who work hard for it, who don't want to see it die, and who care that it still bears the mark of their community's handwriting.


Mark Wadley said...

Maybe I'm biased because he's my roommate and one of my best friends, but I think you picked the right guy—not that you could have gone wrong. I feel like MJG can take what we started and make it better, and I'm glad to help.

christophresh said...

Good: there's about nothing better than campus radio.
We've got one here (WKDU), and it's good, although about all they play the entire weekend is Jamaican music. Reggae, dancehall, gospel, gospel-dancehall, etc.
In Eugene, it was a big block of Spanish language news and musics all weekend.
Viva la Variety!