College Radio as a Canary in the Coal Mine

By Jeffrey Melnick

This review is part of a preview of the forthcoming spring issue of Academe, which will be published in full in May.

Live from the Underground: A History of College Radio by Katherine Rye Jewell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2023.

There are so many well-chosen words in Katherine Rye Jewell’s wonderful book Live from the Underground: A History of College Radio that it might seem odd for me to praise the author for her judicious avoidance of one word that is in mortal danger of losing its explanatory and signifying power as a result of its overuse in recent years: neoliberalism. Be assured, however, that this deeply researched and powerfully argued book by a historian who was an undergraduate DJ in the late 1990s is about the depredations of that political and economic regime in the context of the modern university.

As Jewell explains early on, in helping readers to begin to comprehend the landscape of this history of college radio, “Numerous forces squeezed higher education. Students lacking their parents’ opportunity to achieve a middle-class status through stable, unionized industrial work felt pressure to get a degree. Institutions, tasked with training a workforce for a postindustrial economy, acted as economic drivers in surrounding areas. The hospitals, labs, and innovation universities supported—previously thought of as the purview of the state—gained importance amid deindustrialization and urban crises.”

Universities, Jewell contends, began in the 1980s and 1990s to be tasked with “obligations previously reserved for the state” and replacing “public goods” with “market-based or private solutions to social problems.” Her history of college radio is also a shadow history of the warping of higher education through the defunding of higher education and privatization of social services from the 1980s forward. While Live from the Underground briefly considers college radio’s early days—and its roots in New Deal liberal optimism about the place of the university—the real temporal focus of the book is the 1980s, and deregulation and disinvestment are key concepts in its pages.

Jewell’s book joins a few important scholarly conversations at once. It’s another work that focuses on the cultures of college towns and cities (as Grace Hale’s 2021 Cool Town did for Athens, Georgia) and on the culture of independent radio (for example, Robin James’s 2023 The Future of Rock and Roll on Ohio’s WOXY radio station). But for readers of Academe it might be most salient to consider this book as a substantial entry in the interdisciplinary literature under the rubric “critical university studies.” Joining such important works as Davarian Baldwin’s 2021 In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, Live from the Underground goes beyond a granular detailing of college radio’s infrastructure (How did stations function? Who were the DJs? What did they play and why?) to a broader consideration of the plotting of college radio on a map of cultural, social, and political relations tied up with the most consequential discussions about the place of the American university in modern life.

One of the things I value most about Jewell’s book is that she invites us to reconsider what we think college radio even is. The answer to this question seems rather straightforward, but the range of what campus radio stations did in the period she discusses is quite astonishing. Sometimes college radio stations were more or less equivalent to campus comedy improv groups—laboratories for self-expression populated by alternative types and, more than occasionally, characterized by self-indulgence and wild amateurism. But sometimes campus radio stations were more like job-training sites—another way for undergraduate students to use extracurricular activity as part of what came to be called “workforce development” (cue the vomit emoji), along with the unpaid internships that became quasi-compulsory in this era. Among the stories Jewell narrates in a book full of compelling stories are anecdotes about stoned late-night hijinks as well as utterly serious tales of protest surrounding race and representation, as with her long case study about student activists at Adelphi University’s WBAU who strove to save their station from devastating administrative attack.

From the earliest pages of Live from the Underground to its final paragraphs, Jewell makes it clear that campus radio stations embodied “the paradoxes of higher education’s evolving role in US political and cultural life at the end of the century.” As she so poignantly puts it in the introduction, college radio stations “navigated deep divisions and paradoxes regarding the meaning and value of a college education. . . . If college trained students for professions, then stations offered hands-on learning experiences. If higher education was for self-discovery and expression, that protected student-run radio as spaces for exploration.” More than once Jewell, either implicitly or explicitly, warns us against reading Live from the Underground as a declension narrative of the life of college radio—and she offers plenty of evidence (which my ears can confirm) that college radio is alive and well. But there is a different declension narrative, a much more consequential one, that marbles the entire book: Jewell explains in a preface called “Liner Notes” that the book takes up how “Americans considered the nation’s cultural diversity and how these debates existed at the nexus of the business of the music industry, politics, media deregulation, and the changing structure and place of higher education within the nation.”

That nexus, as I probably do not need to tell you, turned out in so many ways to be a dangerous crossroads, and the body count was high indeed. This is a capacious book, so within its pages we learn a whole lot about the daily workings of college radio stations, their DJs, their repertoire, and so on, but we also learn about the impact of the “culture wars” on higher education in the 1980s and 1990s; the irresponsible acceleration of student debt; the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which energized “private-public partnerships”; and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated commercial station ownership. The declension narrative that Jewell is interested in platforming is one about how “the commercial and market functions of higher education, as well as institutions’ ability to fill in the nation’s increasingly threadbare social safety net, besieged the high-minded rhetoric of postsecondary learning as a public good.”

This transformation of US higher education is manifest in Live from the Underground, where we see campus radio staff struggling to understand their place in a larger ecosystem defined by their institutions’ accelerating gentrification (literal and cultural) of surrounding communities. There are hopeful moments in the book, and Jewell makes sure we take note of how campus radio stations act as nodes of local activism (shout-out to the feminists at Tufts’s WMFO, the African American stalwarts at Adelphi’s WBAU, and the queer culture workers at Vanderbilt’s WRVU); these are inspiring stories that remind us not only that radio is, in the words of critic Greil Marcus, “a good, weird machine” but also that college radio stations have served to organize, energize, and radicalize students.

Jewell’s forceful writing and analytical savvy in this excellent and timely book make clear that this is a minor counternarrative in a much darker tale. As the twentieth century came to a close, a perfect storm developed in which “brand-conscious universities justified their existence by the professional skills they provided students,” while, at the same time, “culture warriors lambasted university curricula.” The result, for many college students, is that volunteering at campus radio stations now offered “neither educational self-discovery nor career success.” One of the real accomplishments of Live from the Underground is how it presents this finding—which is all too familiar to many of us who work in higher education—in a fresh, urgent narrative with many points on its political and cultural map that may be unfamiliar to a broad swath of readers.

Ultimately, Live from the Underground is, to trot out a pedagogical phrase that we don’t use often enough these days, “student-centered.” Generations of young people have sought knowledge, fun, truth, and beauty—and maybe a few career skills—through their engagement with campus radio stations, and that pursuit comes across as not only legitimate pursuit but also noble.

Jeffrey Melnick is professor in the American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His email address is [email protected].