Stay tuned for updates about Live from the Underground, forthcoming.
About Live from the Underground
Live from the Underground explores, through archival research, college radio history through the debates at individual stations across the nation since the 1970s. The papers of student general managers, campus newspapers, administrative records, musical zines and publications: these sources reveal myriad contests over programming, governance, and FCC scrutiny. They chronicle fines for obscenity, community complaints, and power struggles between students over music, or between student and community DJs for representation. Sometimes stations championed diversity; in other cases, they became the target for students concerned about the narrowness of both campus and musical culture. The stations covered include high-wattage powerhouses in metropolitan areas, the signals of flagship state universities, the low-powered signals of small liberal arts colleges in rural areas, and more. While it is impossible to tell in one volume the history of every station or construct a full account of college radio’s history since its inception alongside radio’s technological development, the stations included reveal college radio’s historical diversity and the populations and institutional missions served throughout its history.
But at the heart of this narrative history covering the 1970s through the 1990s, the nation’s political culture resides. The culture wars, as revealed by these stories, involved a battle for the sound of America, which took place in local places and private spaces – but which also reached the public airwaves and reshaped American popular music.
College stations’ participation in these developments points to their possibilities and limitations as cultural arbiters — they facilitate a better understanding of the relationship between politics and culture in the last decades of the last century. Alternative media, a term often applied to college radio, collectively, is never separate from questions of mass media. Just as “the underground” references and retreats from “mainstream” culture, college radio’s denizens remain conversant with the currents of popular culture and politics even when protesting or opposing them. Local stations might nurture or feed off of folk scenes in urban areas or connect listeners to centers of high culture, but college radio remains part of mass media, revealing the blurry definitions of mainstream and underground in the late 20th century.
College radio’s evolution intersects with the story of American culture and media in this era. It reveals the implications of shifting media institutions and gatekeepers, the role of regulation and cultural politics, and institutional investment and student expectations for higher education. But more so, college radio’s history reveals how audiences and fans interacted with markets, institutions, and media to find their voice and expression that appealed to them as public commitment to democratic media and access declined. No one can understand the multifaceted culture wars that continue to rage without understanding the business and politics of these institutions on the frontlines. Campus stations were in the crosshairs of government regulators, increasingly diverse sets of affluent Americans, and local communities underserved by media in an era of austerity that was already causing social services, media outlets, and public spaces to contract.
College radio participated in local scenes and cultures, and stations formed a social network that connected these scenes across geographical space. Young people understood that they could connect with a vast geography of cultural production, yet they also sought to find meaning in the individual and the local. College radio, programmed by the children of the culture wars and connected to a patchwork of underground artistic scenes, participated in a persistent clash, at the grassroots level, between increasingly incompatible—and at times impossible—demands on purportedly democratic institutions.