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Scan the low end of the radio dial on a typical Tuesday night and this is what you might hear:
At CJAM (99.1 FM), a man with a Southern drawl gives a "big howdy to Lollipop, Oliver and Flopsy" before introducing the "first bona fide rock 'n' roll song recorded" — Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" from 1951.
On WHFR (89.3 FM), avant-garde jazz fades with static and overlapping bible talk from Yes FM — a Christian station out of Toledo that shares the frequency.
Reggae strains of the Wailers on WCBN hit you if you're toward Ann Arbor, but if you're in the northern suburbs you might hear a local folk music calendar on WXOU — both at 88.3 FM.
If you're around the University of Detroit, you might be able to barely pick up CST Radio (WCST 91.9 FM), the sound of spoken word poetry sputtering from its transmitter.
College radio has a reputation for the eclectic bordering on esoteric in its programming, and metro Detroit's stations are no exception. Still, they strive to offer both a learning environment for students and a service of quality programming to the wider radio audience.
There are eight college-based radio stations with broadcast signals that reach some part of the Detroit area. Three, however, are not "college radio in the traditional definition of student-run," says WEMU (89.1 FM) general manager Molly Motherwell. Instead they function as local NPR affiliates, which requires a certain attention to professionalism — perhaps at the expense of experimentation.
While WEMU, out of Eastern Michigan University, as well as WUOM (91.7 FM) from University of Michigan and WDET (101.9 FM) from Wayne State University, are university-sponsored, they are not student-run. Motherwell says WEMU does employ students as interns and support staff, but they cannot be on-air hosts.
Students do have opportunities for training and on-air presence at the five other stations — CJAM from the University of Windsor, WHFR from Henry Ford Community College, WXOU from Oakland University, WCBN from the University of Michigan, and WCST from the University of Detroit.
Some have signals that reach not far beyond their campuses, and others reach much of the metro area. For the latter group, "college radio" proves an imprecise term for their broadcasting.
"We like being called college radio, but we also like being called independent radio," WHFR general manager Susan McGraw says. She says college radio can have a bit of a stigma: "Either you're like maniac, terrible, crazy stuff or you're very protected by your administration."
To get away from the college radio stereotype, focus on community listeners and radio-makers becomes important. Vernon Smith, program director at CJAM, says the station wants to "stay very relevant to our local communities, in terms of local music and a lot of things outside of English-language programming." CJAM broadcasts an ethno-cultural block on weekends that includes shows in Slovak, Arabic, Portuguese, Macedonian, Serbian and Croatian.
In addition to attracting community listenership and volunteers, college stations are also heavily invested in involving the larger community by promoting local music.
CJAM just launched a new Detroit music show, "Motor City's Burning," hosted by Willy Wilson. Playing alongside a Windsor-focused program, listeners will get three hours of local music every Wednesday.
Wilson has been in the Detroit radio business for years, as a DJ at WDET and as promotions director for the Magic Bag. He says since commercial radio has become "stagnant" and WDET lost a lot of its arts and music programming, college stations "were the ones breaking the new artists."
Wilson says "college radio is this last bastion of real music, because of the way commercial stations have squeezed everything into a specific format slot." He also respects that college stations "truly find out what the community has to say and put that into what they play."
McGraw says part of the function of a college station is to play the "middleman" for local bands and record labels. "A local band will take a song to a music company and the company will say, we won't take you until you've been on radio." She says WHFR even used to have quotas for playing a certain number of local artists per program.
Jason Voss has been running WCBN's Local Music Show since 2002, when he was still an undergrad at U-M. He often hosts in-studio performances, and many bands played his show before they even had records out. He has featured Nomo, His Name Is Alive, and Saturday Looks Good to Me early in their careers. "Every band that's played for the last eight years has gotten a CD of their performance," he says, and for many, that CD is their first real recording.
He says his booking focuses on bands that are "about the love of making something creative with your energy over bands that are more trying to break it or going for a sound to hit the commercial appeal."
Anti-commercialism certainly informs how college radio programmers and DJs see themselves. "There are radio stations in our region, they know who they are, and they are basically computers in the room," Smith says. "As far as I'm concerned that makes them irrelevant."
Yet the relevance of college radio, too, is challenged in an age of podcasting and music widely available on the Internet. If college radio was once the home of the offbeat and obscure, listeners now have wider access to that type of programming online. All of these stations both broadcast and stream their programs live on the Internet.
"We're a terrestrial radio station and, in this day, you could accuse of us being vintage or maybe a little bit old-school," Smith says, but, "for all its warts and blisters, live radio is what it is; it's our passion, it's what we're putting out there."
Voss flips the question, saying, "there's so much more access to so much more stuff and it's changed the position of college radio, but, really, I think I don't see why there's much need for mainstream commercial radio anymore." He thinks people could listen to the songs commercial stations play just as easily on their iPods, whereas, "there's all kinds of stuff on WCBN all day, every day, going deep into various strains of music ... and exposing people to that."
University of Windsor undergrad Sarah Morris has her own French music show on CJAM and works as the volunteer coordinator there. She says people get interested in the station because they're trying to find out more about Windsor's arts and culture scene. She thinks on-air, live broadcasting still appeals to people for a simple reason: "Radio's sexy! If you're choosing to sit by yourself doing something, that's OK, but if you want be part of something larger than just your podcast, there's something sexy and nice to think about."
McGraw still considers access an important factor in students' and community members' interest in college radio. "We've carved out the niche of what we do, what's possible in broadcast, but I think we also have the resources. We have a captive audience on campus and in the community, and access to music labels and new music and equipment and so on to make it happen."
Perhaps most indicative of college radio's contemporary relevance is precisely the listenership and community support from nonstudents.
Morris says nonstudent volunteers tend to make a longer-term commitment to CJAM, even though they are trying to become more relevant to University of Windsor students.
Voss says he doesn't know "how much [WCBN] is on the radar of the campus population at large." McGraw believes WHFR's "core listener groups are community-based rather than student-based."
Smith says student versus community involvement is "not something that I really spend a whole lot of time worrying about. The main thing is people are coming here and we have quality programs, and I know we're going to be relevant to both communities."
College radio, at least in metro Detroit, isn't just for the students, but for anyone with a radio or an Internet connection.
Simone Landon is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.