The more things sound different, the more they seem the same on college radio. A longstanding alternative to commercial formats, "free-form" student-run radio is a variety show for adventurous listeners with eccentric audio tastes, including occasional dead air, local references, irreverent comments and unpolished delivery to remind you that this is, indeed, amateur radio.
In an era when the airwaves are ruled by distant conglomerates that shift programming formats according to ratings and jam as much advertising in as listeners will tolerate while "public" radio adopts a largely talk, syndicated format, Metro Detroit's college radio stations (including CJAM, broadcasting from the University of Windsor) offer a fresh sound.
Radio has become "overly commercial and is turning people off," explains Marie Dereniewski, program director of WHFR-89.3 FM, sponsored by Henry Ford Community College. The station programs contemporary music, from indie rock to blues, jazz and classical, as well as experimental and "noise." Dereniewski hosts "eQuinox," which features "obscure electronic noise… a little bit of classical – stuff you don"t hear every day," she says. "There are groups who make their own instruments which cause a lot of feedback. Not much of it makes sense, but it's music to my ears."
College radio djs create deliberate soundscapes that reveal as much about themselves as entertaining listeners, says David McIntyre, station manager of WUMD- FM, the University of Michigan-Dearborn station which is exclusively online. "Beyond nostalgia, being behind a microphone and only having your voice and your words to represent yourself, and the music you play, gives people a sense of who you are." There's also a sense of anonymity in radio, he says. "You have a handle (program title) and a voice and your music. That's all you identify yourself as."
McIntyre is the "Slumberjack" and airs his personal taste in music – indie rock, singer-songwriter, "old music." He will often play artists like Harry Chapin, Ryan Adams and Woodie Guthrie on the same show.
"When a dj can show the influences of an artist, it helps you with a better understanding," McIntyre explains. "If you"re playing Meryl Haggard – old style country – then play some alt country, you're showing that there"s a connectedness. As old as radio is, there still are updates of what was popular then and what's popular now. You can do that without having to say anything."
College radio today is similar to what was aired on college campuses in the 1970s. While the music has changed, its risky diversity remains the same. WUMD, which wasn't around when the MC-5 recorded "Kick Out The Jams," uses the song title as its slogan. WCBN 88.3 FM, the University of Michigan Ann Arbor station, proclaims its legacy with the slogan: "Freeing your mind for over 30 years."
Dereniewski, whose station claims a 23-year tradition of "Making waves," developed her interest in popular music listening to classic rock with her parents. "I got really sick of the top hits and wanted to listen to something really different. I turned to alternative stations… I was craving something else…"
While college radio serves the needs of its campus community – commuter or residential – Internet streaming reaches people throughout the world. "It's good to be streaming," says Brent Rioux, general manager of WCBN, but it's also important to broadcast locally. "We maintain that we're a traditional station. It's easy to start an internet radio station… to have a bond over the airwaves with the local area is harder to achieve. It's old fashioned."
While WCBN may identify with its Ann Arbor community, Dearborn's WUMD, as a commuter campus, is less about serving a geographic place and more about connecting with a regional consciousness.
"It's a sterile environment here," McIntyre says of the physical campus. The station streams in the school's cafeteria during the day and on the Internet, which gets 10-50 hits a day, some from as far away as Russia, Australia, and England. "We try to be a focal point of campus life. It's not just about music," he says. School sports are a major feature of the programming. Also, to connect with its commuter community, djs take their music on the road to bars and parties with a mobile sound system."
Hnery Ford's WHFR, also serves its commuter campus with online broadcasting, Dereniewski says. Station personnel promote the station heavily in the community and offer live musical broadcasts as ways of remaining connected with the local listeners.
As an "educational service," WCBN lets students practice their craft for commercial or artistic reasons, according to Rioux. Generally, college radio programmers and djs don't do what they do because there's career potential. "It is educational in the sense that a class in painting might be," Rioux says. An art class may not prepare you to create visual art, but enhances your appreciation of the art form. Likewise, college radio helps students develop their sense of the aesthetic, in this case working through an old medium – like pen and ink drawing.
McIntyre's interest in radio extends deep into the past – to short-wave radio. In a way, it's not dissimilar from social networking on the Internet: short wave transmits signals into the unknown and connects with another human signal in the distance. There's a sense of mystery and something very human in the connection. McIntyre communicates with a friend in Chicago through shortwave, rather than cell phones or email.
For Rioux, college radio offers a creative outlet that also helps prepare him for work with animation. He is intrigued with the possibilities of what Steve Allen called the "theatre of the mind." Although much has changed since Orson Welles terrified American listeners with his 1938 "War of the Worlds," the medium still offers considerable creative opportunity, he says. For example, some WCBN djs work with audio collage, sampling media, condensing it into scrambled audio collage, and then broadcasting it. "You couldn't do it anywhere else," Rioux offers. "The sort of landscape that is created with theses sounds relies so much on the imagination to fill in the gap.
"For me it was very important that I did a show that used radio specifically as a medium and did what radio could do that other mediums couldn't do," says Rioux. His program is called "The Show and Tell Machine."
"To do a show that's improvised with different characters all voiced by myself in an imaginary landscape was a dream come true, that I have this power at my fingertips – I don't have to draw it, I don't have to work tirelessly on details visually because it's all there if you listen carefully; the sounds are there, the characters are there, the conflicts, the stories are there without any other medium visually," Rioux explains.
Echoing the magic of Marconi and the free spirit of the '60s, college radio remains an innovative, alternative audio medium. While music changes, the purpose and principles remain the same.
According to Rioux, college radio is like assembling "all of the weirdos, people with debilitating social problems and crazy record collections…and you put them in a poorly ventilated basement and they fight over everything, but they have a common goal of doing something different, something strange, to get it out there if only to relieve themselves. Are they doing it for themselves or for the public? It's both. You're purging these weird record geek demons while, hopefully, interesting someone along the way."
Dennis Archambault is a frequent contributor to Metromode and Model D. His last article was Teachable Moments: John HartigPhotos: Brent Rioux, general manager of WCBN, settting up for broadcast
David McIntyre, station manager of WUMD- FM, the University of Michigan-Dearborn
WUMD-FM's common area
WUMD-FM continues to grow their library, while storing and accessing it via hard drive.
WUMD-FM DJ / student on the mic"Plugged-in" at WCBN, Brent Rioux All photographs by Metro Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.