As I listen to the entire catalogue of They Might Be Giants, I get nostalgic for my days working in college (or in my case, campus, radio). I’m not saying that I hadn’t heard of TMBG beforehand, but they and many other artists wouldn’t have met my ears on such a regular basis — if at all — if I hadn’t worked for a couple of years manning a sound board and spinning some CDs.
My best friend Richard actually got me in the door at CFMU. He was a co-op student there in our last year of high school. We went to different high schools in the same region, but had known each other forever. He knew I’d like being in the atmosphere and (probably) that I’d be good at whatever they wanted me to do. So I filled out a volunteer application (hey, volunteer work is still work…even more rewarding than paid work in a lot of cases) and began to catalog their music library, run reel to reel tapes when asked and basically got to hang out with a wide variety of people — a collection of people with such assorted tastes, backgrounds and interests that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else on the planet.
There was the jazz DJ who would throw in regular professional wrestling updates between sets, the classical music DJ who had an affected accent that probably wasn’t as affected as he made it out to be and the much-younger university crowd that were there either for the free schwag, the vibe, the music or all three. I wasn’t exactly the university crowd in terms of actually being a student there, but I definitely fell into that last category by all other accounts.
I eventually got hired to work there thanks to the generosity of a few grants and was charged with making sure no one swore on-air before 10 pm (recorded music or otherwise) and basically man the airwaves if a host was unable to — or didn’t — show. I also had to play the prerecorded shows that were produced earlier in the week on reel to reel. These were often musical genres I hadn’t given much thought to in the past, but thanks to a regular nighttime bluegrass show I got to know Earl Scruggs’ stuff pretty well. I can’t tell you off-hand some of his signature tunes, but if one was to be played in my presence I’d know of it pretty quickly.
My musical horizons were expanded a great deal by working in college radio. I hadn’t really given much thought to anything outside of my social circle before, but the timing of my introduction to college radio couldn’t have been better. Grunge music was emerging. Which, you could say, begat what is now mainstream alternative music (although I hate to say that, to be honest).
While college radio mainstays like Big Star and the like were still getting regular airplay, artists like The Melvins and Mother Love Bone were finding their way into the same kind of rotation. Sure, Nirvana and Pearl Jam were there as well, but as they became more popular they became less likely to be heard on our station. That’s because we could only play 1 hit out of every 100 songs we aired. A “hit” was qualified as a song that had charted on Billboard or anything remotely similar. Once it hit those charts, it was technically a hit. That posed a problem for some hosts, but my job was to find stuff that didn’t fall into that realm.
So I’d play the less popular tracks on these albums — or go into their history a bit deeper. When I was temporary Music Director I had the opportunity to screen everything that came our station’s way. My ears had heard anything that was aired as a “new release” that summer. It was pretty cool to be able to have a hand in programming the station — I remember growing up and devising my own Top 20 charts.1 It was also pretty cool to be able to turn down some of the music that came our way. This was rare, but when an obviously white supremacist band sent us a disc, I passed.
I also had the chance to write and produce some of the ad spots the station ran. This was before the days of Garageband. I had an editing kit that was not on a computer of any sort. It consisted of a metal block that had indents that were designed in a way that allowed reel tape to fit in between, some rolls of tiny white tape and an assortment of razor blades of varying sharpness.2 Putting together a spot was not only a labour of love, it was really hard labour. I wouldn’t change any of it.
I’ve thought — and been encouraged — to get back into it our here on the west coast. But I’ve been there. I’m actually concerned for campus and college radio these days thanks to the digital world we now live in. I think the college radio station is still relevant, if not for the music alone — for the community it creates. The eclectic mix of people that work together to make it all work is hard to find…and beat. It’s a collective environment that allowed so many to have a voice. While the love of music — and current events — may be what connected us initially, it’s the overall spirit of radio that kept us coming back.
I learned a lot about music during my time in college radio. I met a lot of cool people, some of whom I still talk to regularly.3 I was exposed to a variety of cultures and a collaborative environment outside of the school system for the first time there. I learned to appreciate the process of creation there as an adult. It was a truly great experience.
Sure, the technology is different now, but the vibe is the same. If you’ve worked as part of a college or campus radio station before, you know what I mean. If not, they’re always looking for help. Start small and build — like with anything else. The rewards are lasting.
Just like my fondness for They Might Be Giants.4
1They’d have been Top 40 charts like Casey Kasem did, but I had stuff to do.
2To be fair, it was more along the lines of varying stages of dullness.
3Like this guy.
4On that note, if you’re in the Victoria, BC area this week, you should check this out if you’re also fond of TMBG.