We Were Dorks: Remembering College Radio

Derek Sivers has advice about how musicians should promote themselves to the college music market. He starts with this:

One thing to get straight: don’t confuse college radio with college gigs. The kids that run college radio are the real music fans. The ones deeply into music for music’s sake. But the ones with the big budgets for entertainment and activities are called the “Student Activities Office”.

Which is exactly right.

I joined my college’s radio station in my Junior year. We had a pale white guy with long blonde hair who was really into heavy metal, a guy who dressed in black and listened to the Cure a lot. We had young women listening to The Shins before Garden State came out. A friend of mine had a show for microtonal music.1 I spent my airtime playing old New Order songs and even had a weekly show where I played video game music.

We were all dorks. Big music dorks. We had no cool people. If they joined they left within a month or two.

Occasionally the radio staff would DJ parties for clubs across campus, but nobody seemed to appreciate us. To their credit we were bad DJs. We were good in that we thought we were playing some awesome tunes, some new music that needed some ears. But that’s not what party DJs are supposed to do, I learned.

“Can you stop playing techno?” I was once asked. Lady! This isn’t techno–it’s drum n’ bass! I thought you guys wanted to party!

We weren’t even a popular radio station. Our listeners were mostly friends of ours. Some weeks there were rumors about how the FCC was listening, so we’d have to be extra careful to watch our language on air. That was exciting.

Around my last semester a few people had started a sex chat show, but no way they were getting laid, right? They were dorks. If they were having sex regularly surely they wouldn’t be hosting a late night sex chat show. And their callers? Probably not having sex either.

Tons of new music came in every week and we’d have listening parties every Friday afternoon. Just a pile of CDs and a whole lot of dorks in a room. And we were judgmental. Nothing was ever good. For me it wasn’t so much an opportunity to hear new music as much as it was a way for me to try to make some jokes at the expense of someone who worked their ass off making a record that I spent under two minutes listening to. I was a jackass.

We were dorks.

A friend of mine was struck by one CD we got of a solo jazz/folk musician. He loved it so much he got in touch with him for a on-air interview. Their conversation before they went live went something like this:

Musician: So how many people do you think are listening?
Friend: Oh, maybe five.
Musician: Wow! Five thousand people?!
Friend: No. I mean just five.

Down the hallway were the people in charge of student entertainment. I knew some of them from music business courses I took. A few were wannabe rock stars. There were some people in both the radio station and the entertainment services, but they booked the gigs.

The radio people? We were dorks. We just played songs we liked and thought it was fun hearing our voices on the radio. If you want to play the college music market, send these dorks your CD, but you should talk to the entertainment people.

  1. If you really want to know more: Microtonal music on Wikipedia