Kate Jewell wasn’t too surprised to learn that her most-streamed artist of 2023 was a band she’d loved back in her days as a college radio DJ. From 1997 until 2001, the Vermont native cohosted a show on WRVU, the student-run station at Vanderbilt University, where she was an undergrad.
Those were banner years for Sloan, the Nova Scotia power-pop band that has remained one of Jewell’s favorites.
“I still like the comforting sounds of yore,” she says.
But “comforting” may not be the first word that comes to mind when discussing college radio. Since at least as far back as the 1960s, college radio has challenged its listeners to stretch their ears beyond the limited playlists of the commercial airwaves. From punk and hip-hop to ethnic and avant-garde music, student-run radio stations have been “a place where ordinary Americans can come together and discuss what they want the nation to sound like,” says Jewell, a history professor at Fitchburg State University.
The author of “Live from the Underground: A History of College Radio,” a new book from the University of North Carolina Press, Jewell was moved to write a definitive history of the medium after her old station, WRVU, sold its broadcasting license to a local public radio station in 2011. It was one of several stations with university ties, including KUSF in San Francisco, to decide that decreasing listenership — instigated by the rising popularity of streaming services — made the stations expendable.
That attitude, as Jewell points out in her meticulously researched book, does a disservice not only to students hoping to learn the art of broadcasting, it also ignores college radio’s long history of new music discovery and critical community programming.
“We need institutional support for cultural production, whether or not it has market value,” she says.
The Boston area plays a prominent role in Jewell’s book, which is out Tuesday. Launched in 1975 at MIT’s WTBS (now WMBR), the program that came to be known as “The Demi-Monde” has been widely cited as the first in the country dedicated to punk rock. The show’s host, Oedipus, was the first DJ to interview the Ramones on the air, in 1976, when the band traveled for the first time outside their native New York. Within a few years Oedipus, of course, would become program director at WBCN.
Other stations breaking new ground in the Boston area included Emerson College’s WERS, which for years ran nighttime shows dedicated to reggae (“Rockers”) and hip-hop (“88.9 at Night”); Harvard University’s WHRB, which launched a country music show, “Hillbilly at Harvard,” way back in the 1940s; and Boston College’s WZBC, which hosted two members of Nirvana on the day their epoch-making “Nevermind” album was released in 1991.
In Boston, “the club scene was so close to the college scene,” explains Jewell, who earned her PhD at Boston University. “There were so many different types of stations in a small metropolitan area, they all had to distinguish themselves from each other.”
But the stations sometimes worked in solidarity, too — organizing boycotts, for instance, when a few record labels tried to institute subscription fees for their new releases. In 1978, Robert Haber, a Brandeis University graduate and alum of its radio station, established CMJ (College Media Journal), the industry tip sheet for college radio programmers. With its annual Music Marathon in New York City, the company enjoyed considerable influence as the college radio of the ‘80s evolved into the “alternative” rock radio of the ‘90s. (“Alternative, ugh, I hate that word,” former WFNX DJ Kurt St. Thomas says in the book.)
After growing up in rural Vermont, where radio choices were few and far between, Jewell arrived for school in Nashville a blank slate.
“I came into college radio without any preconceived notions,” she recalls. All she knew was that WRVU — where fellow DJs hosted programs for gay and goth audiences — felt like a haven for the counterculture.
“I was never fully of it,” she says, adding, unsurprisingly: “I was always kind of observing.”
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @sullivanjames.