How did I go from writing about southern industrialists and the New Deal to college radio?

I’ll be the first to admit it: it looks a little strange. My first book is about southern industrial lobbyists who responded negatively to the New Deal and, in the process, ushered in a new construction of conservative policy and politics that made room for the South. And now, here I am, writing about college radio in the 1980s and 1990s.

The thing is, in my mind, there are strong common interests underlying these two projects. Ultimately, they are both about gatekeepers, constructing ideas about cultural authenticity, and about power.

“Gatekeepers” sounds like a natural fit for a book on college radio—but southern industrialists? Dollars for Dixie began because I was always interested, while growing up, in why my grandparents referred to me as their “Yankee granddaughter.” Yes, I was raised in the Northeast, primarily New England. But I felt strong ties to Tennessee, since my dad was from there and we visited often, maintaining strong ties to middle Tennessee. My other grandmother was from the Florida panhandle, and although I never visited there, I nonetheless recognized her southern roots. Then I went to Vanderbilt University. Yet, somehow, I had no reasonable claim to any southern identity. But where did regional identity gatekeeping come from? Who could lay claim to being southern? How long did I need to live there? What foods did I need to eat? What accent did I need to adopt? Were my politics all wrong?

Dollars for Dixie came out of my investigation of the historical construction of region, identity, and politics. Although it’s a book about right-wing, even extremist, activists seeking to maintain their social and economic power atop the southern caste system by influencing federal policy, it’s also a work of Southern Studies. Even as this group lobbied members of Congress to protect the South from minimum wage and hour legislation, or railed against the measures to promote equality in hiring or allow for collective bargaining, they were engaging in a process of memory and myth making about the South. They transformed ideas about the South as a laggard economy, trying to keep up with the more industrialized North, bringing modern life and work to “substandard” workers recently moved from field to factory. They used that image to try and modify the first New Deal to their liking, but they failed.

When they failed, they shifted tactics. They seized on the language of free enterprise and the “discriminated” South beset by federal interference. In this rendering, they refashioned the South as the nation’s “bulwark of democracy,” defending a herrenvolk conception of national—and southern—identity. The South’s un-unionized work force occurred not because of the newness of its industry or the lack of attention from union organizers, but from some kind of innate cultural preference for freedom. In other words, they set themselves up as gatekeepers of southern identity, in a similar fashion as the Southern Agrarians who abhorred the kind of industry these leaders brought to the region but who nonetheless shared with them a defense of region, of the South as distinct from the nation. These industrialists decided who was Southern, what was Southern, and what policy and political party was Southern. No surprise, by the 1950s they saw that they had more hopes in the Republican Party than the Democratic one, despite its leaders’ defense of segregation and white supremacy, which these industrialists held as a priority above all others, as it preserved the hierarchy that their economic system depended on for profitability.

Ultimately, their idea of what it meant to be Southern proved profoundly malleable, and paved the way for regional partisan realignment in the 1960s, uniting images of the South with conceptions of free enterprise and the broad swath of policy prescriptions aligned under that heading (except when it came to lowered tariff barriers in international trade, that is). But nonetheless, they considered themselves the arbiters of what it meant to be authentically southern. They were not alone in this conception, and the identity remains contested, historically.

Certainly, college radio DJs are a very different kind of gatekeeper, dedicated to very different ideas. But they were also champions of certain visions of culture (and sometimes they were conflicting). Some wanted to influence mainstream popular music, others were more focused on building local music scenes and even defying the capitalist culture industry. They are more sympathetic historical characters, and believe me, a lot more fun to write about than a bunch of industrialists defending paying grandmothers in their mill villages $6 a week for piecework.

But both stories are about advocates promoting a definition or sense of an authentic culture, and about obtaining power to do so. We could certainly debate the relative value of these claims, and whether one was more authentic in actuality or laudable. But both groups attempted to subvert established institutions and brokers of cultural identity. Sometimes they worked within those institutions, be it the Democratic Party or institutions of higher education, and sometimes they defied them. Both confronted questions of policy enacted to disrupt their foundations of power and identity, whether it was New Deal wage policy or FCC license changes pushed by interests such as National Public Radio to stamp out ten-watt educational stations across the country.

And, yes, college radio stations established themselves, or at least had ascribed to them, positions in popular culture as gatekeepers. In the 1980s, industry insiders increasingly looked to what they played for the next hits, seeking evidence of bands that could command a following before signing them to a major-label contract. But college radio gatekeeping went much further than that. College stations were not just of one type, playing alternative rock music. They served communities, they operated with missions to educate listeners–and interpretations of that mission ranged widely. College students and their few professional managers advocated for freedom in programming what they wanted against the encroachment of more full-time staff and fewer on-air opportunities for students, or against ceding time to students for community DJs serving listeners outside of campus or college-affiliated audiences.

Many of these stations also defended the construction of a separate market of independent and local music, away from the power structures of the national and global music industry. They advocated for specific business models and alternative institutions of venues, publications, record stores, and music labels and distribution. Not every DJ considered themselves involved in this struggle, but they nonetheless participated when they reached into the rotation stack and pulled out a record, or dropped the needle on an album they had never heard—and they did so because they perceived cultural value in doing so. The audiences might have been narrow, or the music niche in its appeal, but the influence of college radio, collectively, had wide reach.

And myths were also constructed. As Jennifer Waits of Radio Survivor eloquently explains, college radio was and is always much more about musical discovery, but that image is hard to dislodge. In many cases, college DJs ignored a lot of new music—particularly hip hop. (That’s a whole theme in the book, just wait.) Radio Survivor consistently documents the broad work of college radio and its participants that go far beyond the conception of college radio as either elitist music snobs cuing up the most obscure, independent label releases, or college radio as a source of the most authentic voice of communities and American culture. Many stations maintained a more Top 40 or professional sound, too.

So, in both projects, I’m exploring how certain myths about identities are constructed through business, policy, practice, and via and counter to prevailing institutions and political and cultural hierarchies.

But, I’m not going to lie. It is a relief to talk about DJs who love the Replacements and Stereolab instead of industrialists trying to make sure they didn’t have to pay NRA-mandated wages of $13 per week. In writing, the stakes seem much more fun. Still, the implications can get pretty heavy pretty quickly. Whose voice matters? Whose scene will rise to attention? Whose music gains purchase on the airwaves? Who has access to news, information, or community building platforms in an era of corporate consolidation and deregulation in media? College DJs were often just having fun, I know I was on WRVU-FM from 1997 to 2001—but when that station was closed, participants and observers understood that Nashville lost an important local cultural institution.

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