...we've got the means to make amends. I am lost, I'm no guide, but I'm by your side. (Pearl Jam, Leash)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Heather takes a field trip to the college radio station

Remember when you were a kid how you got to go on all kinds of neat field trips to see how things worked? Whether it was the bank or the fire station, I loved learning about how the world operates with all the behind-the-scenes goodness.

For that reason, I decided to schedule myself a little field trip to the local college radio station, KEPC. I love listening to their variety (recently in one set I heard: Springsteen's "Pay Me My Money Down," followed by "The Only Lie Worth Telling" by Westerberg, "Playing In The Distance" by Grand National, and rounding it out with "Long Road" by Pearl Jam), and I have long-wondered how radio had changed since the last time I was in a college radio studio, KSCU at Santa Clara University back in the day ('93 or '94 when I was in high school). I wondered how technology has impacted operations, how songs are selected, what's hot, etc. Sharon Hogg was just the gal to help me out.

Sharon is the station manager and one of the main instructors in the radio program at the college. She gets to do the fun work of deciding which songs to add to rotation on a weekly basis, and with the help of an intern, programs the massive system called Simian that runs everything. And like all good music lovers, she has a Beatles poster on her office wall, even though she claimed that there was no Beatles in rotation at the station. The grizzled engineer disagreed, and we found 5 tracks that they do, in fact, play (most from later albums). With a rotation of 57,000 songs it can be easy to get confused. Sharon showed me all around the station, answered my interminable questions, and made me want her job.

To answer my first question, most of what KEPC plays (like most radio stations now) is all pre-programmed. It's not as I may have pictured at one halcyon moment; sitting behind the soundboard, taking requests, stacks of records to my right and left, thinking to myself, "Hmmm, what would go good with this song? What should we throw on next?" No, my friend. It's a hard and fast science nowadays.

All the songs are on .wav files on a massive computer system; no more actual putting CDs or records or anything else in and out of players during the show. And get this - the system is programmed with what is essentially a mathematical system: Sharon tells the system roughly how often to play a song (for instance, that Grand National track --which I love-- is fairly new and hot, so it is scheduled to play once every day-and-a-half). She also dictates the general overall order: One older song, followed by two newer songs, then one brand-new addition, etc. The behemoth brain of the radio station can be programmed to run for weeks with no one even in the station (like during Christmas: 5 weeks of pre-programmed!). Good luck calling in with that request (when there is a DJ in house, they can play one request per hour).

New songs are added into rotation weekly. They get about 20-25 new CDs a week (but she didn't know about music blogs! I filled her in) and the intern compares what they have received with the college radio and AAA charts. Most of the songs they add each week come straight from the charts. She gave me copies of this week's charts from CMJ -

...that's the top 20 from the Radio 200 Chart above.

And those are the top 20 songs from the AAA (Adult Album Alternative) Chart.

There is leniency to add local bands, personal favorites, etc. On a yearly basis the station has to submit playlist information to ASCAP and BMI, which charges them a certain amount in order for them to have the rights to play those songs (I think she said about $700/year). All DJs are students and, obviously, unpaid. The format of the radio station is consistent all the live-long day: No "Electronica Hour" or "Emo-Screamo Saturday Night" shows. She said it just got too crazy and they standardized all their music across the spectrum for consistency.

Some of my impressions: Is radio losing its immediacy and its connection with the individual listener? It all seems to be so mechanized, based on formulas and charts, pre-programmed systems. While there is some freedom and flexibility for sure (especially up at the station manager's end because she can add anything she wants) overall it is pretty structured for the little people, the DJs. The business model is tightened up towards perfection. But perfection doesn't always equal passion, and that's what I think listening to and sharing music should be about - that free-flowing blending of favorite songs, where the DJ's personality can come through. I know that at KEPC the DJs are obviously encouraged to let their personality come through in what they say, but that is rigidly segmented into time slots and station breaks, and if they don't personally like or know anything about the music they are playing, how can they be passionate?

Perhaps the freedom-seekers are shifting more towards mediums such as podcasting, blogging, or satellite radio where everyone from Bob Dylan to blogger Chris from Gorilla vs. Bear can have a show to suit their specific tastes.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts, especially those of you who may work in radio. Is radio just changing to suit the slick production of our times & giving us what we want? And in doing so what is happening to the relationship with the audience? Is traditional radio becoming obsolete, with customizable internet radio stations, satellite radio, iTunes and iPods with the ability to store 10,000 songs and listen to them in any order you choose? Do we still need traditional radio?

All that being said, it was a very cool visit. I loved digging through their new CDs for this week (got me some good ideas) and if they ever call me, I'm definitely ready for my show. Here's the obligatory touristy shot (ha!).

Pump up the volume.



At June 27, 2006 5:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Talk hard.

At June 27, 2006 6:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris Martian is fucking shit.

At June 27, 2006 6:42 PM, Blogger Pete said...

The college station you visited probably gets a lot more leeway on what to play and personal preferences.

Most radio stations, especially Clear Channel-owned ones, don't work that way at all.

Payola has made a triumphant return in recent years, and the FCC has done little to stop it, which is repugnant. (You can google it and find any number of recent cases).

So what we're listening to what record companies have largely bought and paid for, and not based on the merits of the artists.

Even if it is not payola, mainstream radio is stiff.

I've got a friend who was a DJ at 105.9 here in Denver. He recently left, because the corporate structure gave him a playlist, told him pretty much exactly what to say and when, and then started recording his shows in advance. So it wasn't even really "live" radio.

He recorded all his shows for the week in two eight-hour shifts.


FM radio has indeed lost touch with its listeners. Like dying newspapers, the executives have made a lot of decisions based on what they think the readers/listeners want to hear.

And that is to continually give us more top 40, and less of anything that might venture outside of that and therefore be risky, because they could alienate as many people as they might attract and lose advertising dollars.

Forget about exploring anything new, anything different, and anything other than the mainstream hits from a particular artist.

So we hear the same recycled Coldplay, Beatles or Rolling Stones hits over and over and over ...

Does that make mainstream radio less relevant? Yeah.

Again like dying newspapers, radio is a mass medium trying to reach what is now a niche-driven market.

Thanks to technology, I can listen to XM and find a particular station that fills the precise niche I am looking for.

I can load whatever I want on my iPod and listen free of commercial interruption.

I can come to blogs like yours and get a sense of good new music or talented artists ignored by mainstream radio.

So there's little incentive to turn to mainstream radio.

(I say that with the exception of The Mountain and KBCO here in Denver, two pretty good stations).

The market will decide the future. I don't think FM will ever go completley away, but it's hemmoraging listeners.

Hopefully, the boring and bad stations -- fingers crossed, ClearChannel -- will go away, and the ones that can provide compelling programming will remain strong.

If you want more info on why Clear Channel sucks, start here:


At June 27, 2006 8:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Random thoughts/feelings on the topic:

I was a college radio DJ in North Carolina from 2001 - 2004. Fortunately, I had the freedom to play whatever I wanted, as long as it was clean or edited. In the beginning my shows were loose and improvised, but when I read a book by the legendary New York DJ, Richard Neer, called, FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio, I began to apply what I learned about early free-form radio. I'd structure my shows a lot like a Grateful Dead concert, where you have single, shorter songs in the beginning, and then seamless sets for the second half. Then, you close with some high energy favorites.

When I recently went back and visited the station, it seemed things had changed. Students have to spend up to two semesters with the rotation music (in this case the rotation music is awful by most standards) and rarely are they allowed to have an eclectic show. They seem to be forced to pick their niche and stick to it. It's really too bad, because I wish others could have the amazing time I had producing a unique radio show each week.

These days for free-form radio I listen to WFMU from their website, wfmu.org. Though I don't always like what they play, I always appreciate just how free it still is. That's what I want in my airwaves

At June 27, 2006 9:50 PM, Blogger Pete said...

Sal makes an excellent point. WFMU rocks, especially if you like garage-band rock.

Check out their staple show, Three Chord Monte.

And wow, I didn't realize my first comment here was so freaking long.

At June 27, 2006 11:35 PM, Blogger WIUP's The Sunday Sampler with Marc Morrison said...

I can only speak from my own experience as a current DJ at a university radio station (WIUP-FM, Indiana, PA)...I was surprised to see your that your local college station went to a programmed format (is this a trend?), and feel lucky that we're pretty much given free rein at WIUP to create our own shows, and able to play what we want, within broadcast standards, of course. No doubt our station is more of a looser operation, but it sure is a heck of a lot of fun. I don't think I'd enjoy having to play this or that or having the computer select for me...there's so much great music out there, and it's kind of disheartening to me that a college station would opt to streamline like the majors do, given the relative freedom of a noncommercial outlet.

Here's a link to some of my recent playlists for my shows--eclectic, to be sure (though in my mind, they flow fairly well, anyway) and it seems, my main creative activity nowadays!


At June 28, 2006 6:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I deal with the media all day and what struck me about this post was not the fact that even college radio is losing its ability to be the radio that music lovers listen to, but rather that you did some real, honest journalism. Go somewhere, involve yourself in the experience and then later write about what you learned. In almost all cases, as Pete notes with the demise of print newspapers, daily journalists are lazy and look for the easy story to write, giving readers almost no insight into something that they didn't already know. Same thing with Payola radio. Thank heavens that the 'net came to resurect mass communication. And, Heather, thanks for your time putting this blog together. Not sure if this makes, sense - just go with it.

At June 28, 2006 8:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

KEPC is radio preset #1 in my car. Their weekend playlists are great, and I love the earnestness and "unpolishedness" (yeah, I know, not a word) of the DJs. They're very real.

At June 28, 2006 6:40 PM, Blogger Idaho Dad said...

I was a student DJ at the University of Idaho's radio station, KUOI-FM, in the late 80's. KUOI has always been free-form, completely student-run. The songs I played on my weekly 3-hour show were all my selection. For three years, nobody ever told me what I could or could not play. And it's still that way today - total creative freedom for the DJs.

You can stream KUOI here.

At June 28, 2006 6:46 PM, Blogger John Left said...

So that's how they do it. Interesting, insightful post.

I always wanted to be a disk jockey. I almost was, for a brief moment, in high school. Our school's "radio station" was the P.A. system during the last hour of the day each Friday. A buddy of mine was the announcer. He let me take the mike just long enough to make a song request. I asked for "Like the Weather" by 10,000 Maniacs. (I was in love with Natalie Merchant then.) A total head-banger, he cut me off, didn't play the song and never let me near the microphone again.

Great stuff! Drop by my blog, which concerns music this week, if you get a chance.

At June 28, 2006 11:35 PM, Blogger Gamer C. said...

Darn it Heather, I envy you. I dream of going to a radio station, even becoming a DJ or radio host. Excellent post all around.

At June 30, 2006 12:15 PM, Blogger The Trick said...

I don't know anything about radio, per se, but if it's the hands-on stuff you like, you'd be fascinated by our local campus station. It's a small budget station (really small) and I don't think their setup has changed much in the last decade or so. I've guest-hosted some shows with friends and it usually involves a lot of the CD stacking and track browsing that you envisioned. The rules leave tons of room for DJs to play whatever interests them or suits the format of their show. The only requirements are those relating to Canadian Content (there's a specific percentage Canadian stations must meet) and new music from the "high rotation" play box. Unfortunately, the station seems to face closure on a regular basis due to lack of community support and funding. And yet, it's usually one of the few listenable options on the dial here.

At July 21, 2006 2:56 PM, Blogger neonspecs said...

Well, I can assure you that some radio is still rocking. UCLAradio.com, while only online these days, is exactly what you desire! DJs can play whatever they desire. No show is like another. Requests are heeded (if the DJs doesn't hate the request!) and people actually win contests all the time. While summer programming isn;t as strong, I'd check it out during the school year (starting the first week of October). There's a show for everyone.

At October 09, 2007 10:56 AM, Blogger writRgurl said...

You should check out the Univ. of Mo. St. Louis student radio station at www.umslradio.com. We are run by students and have artistic freedom as long as we stay within FCC guidelines. We have that passion! The only time pre-recorded music is played is during slots that do not currently have a DJ--and DJs make those recordings. We are online and broadcast on the campus grounds; hoping to expand our signal soon.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Stats tracked by StatCounter