Early this January I was writing up a section of my book project on college radio about Rice University’s KTRU in the 1980s. KTRU-FM’s records include both paper and sound: their online collection of on-air programming is one of the more extensive in college radio history. I visited the physical archives in June 2019, in a bit of a whirlwind trip, but I have a good collection of photos. (Alas, I somehow overwrote my images of the 1985, 1986, and 1987 “Gripe” book of DJ commentary from the studio—these are amazing to have to capture backchannel conversations that happened in radio stations. The archivists there are helping me get access.)
But much of what went out over KTRU’s airwaves, along with other stations, remains lost. Some playlists or rotation schedules remain in the archives. Some DJs and listeners taped shows, with cassettes stored away in dusty boxes in attics. There are numerous efforts to gather and preserve these, particularly hip hop shows that featured live performances. Some have ended up in institutional archives and made available online.
Copyright issues remain a challenge, however. Live performances are in a gray area, with permission to rebroadcast or allow for listening online remaining with publishers/record labels. Interviews, such as those housed at Rice, are easier.
But what about the sound of college radio? Archivists are uninterested in preserving recordings of student DJs mumbling their way through song announcements. The labor involved in preserving those is more costly than what is gained in preservation. But something is lost: there is a sound and practice of amateur radio. The process of production is important to understanding radio and sound culture, as Shawn VanCour establishes in his book, Making Radio: Early Radio Production and the Rise of Modern Sound Culture. In examining the practices and processes of radio production styles, the development of sound culture emerges through attention to “the professional knowledges and practices that authorize and sustain these productions.”(9) Amateurs often had no desire to join professional networks and reproductions, but many did or were nonetheless conversant with them and contesting their structures and established practices. Sure, they were having fun, but these signals with expanded wattages and presence on the public airwaves still had influence.
During the 1980s, although college radio stations remained mostly run by amateurs and volunteers, they nonetheless participated in the broader development and production of popular culture, and they were sites of conflict over what that culture would sound like and contain. Although we cannot make recordings of radio shows that featured recorded music available in the same way as interviews, and many of the soundcheck and in-between song announcing remains lost, there is still value in exploring the sound of these playlists. Former DJs I’ve interviewed, including those from KTRU in the 1980s, understand that the “college radio sound” often excluded Black artists, similar to MTV. Those notebooks that I need copies of contain extensive debates about that issue, which I’ll explore in more depth in my book on the construction of college radio’s modern sound and reputation, currently titled Live from the Underground: A History of College Radio. But what is clear: this era of college radio production and programming practices revisited and extended longstanding questions about pop culture and its creation, what we could catalog as part of the culture wars of the 1980s but also intricately linked to questions at the center of American culture, cultural production, cultural industries, and cultural fields.
But, doing the work of this history does let us revisit some fantastic music and playlists, as the one that I did here, reconstructed from a playlist found in the archives at KTRU. In it, the frayed pages of the archives come to life—and I continue to work to record oral histories and stories about what went on behind the scenes and sounds of college radio.
Update: I meant to also highlight archival projects ongoing, including at Harvard’s Hip Hop Archive. I’ll save the extensive list for another post, later!