Twenty years ago I joined the staff of my college radio station. By the next year I was in the music department, and before I left the place I had been the music director and program director.
College radio in the early to mid 1980s was an aftershock of the FM radio revolution. Most stations were format-free, and the DJs played what they liked. Since punk rock had been through and smashed up genres pretty thoroughly, us 19-year-old music freaks spun a mess of different things: punk, new wave, electronic, reggae, metal, rap, folk, etc. Since most of us were middle-class white kids, there was a lot of guitar pop, but the term “alternative radio” was not a joke; it really was a format-free alternative to commercial radio and the new and frightening MTV.
College radio, because it reached so many music buyers, had influence beyond its size. Although the stations were weak and unreliable, and the DJs inept, the music was unique and the listeners were both heavy consumers of music and “tastemaker” types who turned their friends on to new music as well. The music industry began to pay more attention to college stations.
As a music director, I would every week call in to College Music Journal and give them our top played music lists. They acted as a kind of minor league Billboard and listed the top 100 in college radio. Usually this was a list of 100 very different songs, but the top 10 or so were almost always some kind of guitar pop: REM, Echo & The Bunnymen, etc.
By the time I left the station in 1987, it was clear that the CMJ Top 100 was the record industry’s farm team. Anyone who ended up in that top 10 was either on a major label or heading there. Some stations reacted to this by refusing to play anything from any major label, causing the playlist to look like the catalog of Gerard Cosloy’s Homestead Records half the time. Others went with the flow and started programming to the Top 100 themselves. This schism bred another format, called “indie”.
At about this time all the college radio music geeks got jobs at record companies, and decided because they were now “professionals” with “responsibility” they should sign acts that were as close as possible to the CMJ Top 5.
Within five years the whole thing was a smoking wreck. There was now a musical genre called “alternative” that consisted of four white guys playing guitars and drums. There was another genre called “indie” that consisted of four white guys playing guitars and drums more dissonantly. College stations themselves were a patchwork of warring genres; you’d hear a block of “punk” and then one of “goth” and then one of “alternative”. And in the end, our reward for all of this was Matchbox 20.
I would like to take this time to personally apologize for my part in ruining college radio and independent music. If you look at the words “alternative” and “indie” you probably realize that they meant something different at some point. I am terribly sorry that they are now pathetic.
My advice to the current crop of 19-year-old music freaks is: DON’T LET THEM MAKE A CHART. And whatever you do, don’t take a job at a record company.