On The Shrinking Significance Of Alternative Weeklies And College Radio Stations

Posted by: Jon Fine on January 17, 2008

It’s always autumn in certain segments of media right now, and even those still (barely) on the gentle side of 40 are tempted to look out at dusk and think of The Old Days. Or at least that’s true for me, sometimes.

An old pal named Don Smith (a star commenter on this blog who uses the handle of, uhm, Don) recently posted to a private email list some thoughts about the decline of two lodestars of the Indie Nation of the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s: college radio stations and alternative weekly newspapers, a la the Village Voice and L.A. Weekly.

In his post he said so many smart things about those two media forms and their places in the firmament that, well, I’m just going to reprint big chunks of it, in a very lightly edited form:

. . . I am still involved with my college radio alumni organization and there's one thing that's true about both of these institutions, college radio and free weeklies: there was a time when they were the premiere gatekeeper venues for learning alternative information, finding out about alternative music, and experiencing one's first taste of "the media."

The first time I was interviewed, it was for a free weekly and the first paid byline I got was at a free weekly and the first time I heard my voice broadcast it was on college radio.

But my older son, right now, is single-mindedly focused on making his own Lego stop animation films. And he's four. And somehow through asking a lot of questions and people's older brothers he learned how stop motion filming works . . .

(snip)

So... I have reservations that there will be reliable centralized news of any kind in the future when preschoolers are obsessed with youtube. We experienced decentralized music distribution starting in 1999 and decentralized classified advertising (the backbone of the free weekly) as early as the 1997 Ebay boom, monster.com, but certainly with the nationalization of Craigslist. All of this happened a fair number of years ago.

Lately I heard complaints that my alma mater’s college radio station is just running an mp3 jukebox overnight. People stopped doing shows that were inconvenient. I heard complaints that people are putting together their sets at home and submitting them to the server to avoid doing a shift in person.

I remember going to parties in 1995, 96, 97 and talking about creating massive databases of stories, local biographies culled from stories (think of a wikipedia with a gatekeeper) or simply posting all the classifieds online, every week.

My big thing for these outlets now is for someone to click on a space on a map, whether it be a house, restaurant, nightclub via a GPS-enabled system and be able to join a forum discussing any topic related to that space in a four-dimensional sense: walk near Duke Ellington's home and read historic information about that, walk past a club and see their future band schedule, walk near a construction site and get into an argument about the zoning of that space in a forum. That is the future of block-level local news- not traditionally crafted stories.

It's a sad thing, but like the disappearance of the teen club in 1967 and its replacement the "rock ballroom" and the ballroom's replacement, the disco, and then the disco's replacement... things just keep changing.

The underground newspaper had a great run since 1965, but I can't imagine it succeeding in its current form or even Creative Loafing's form.

People keep blogging for free out of boredom.

Reader Comments

Mediadavid

January 18, 2008 2:46 PM

I think college radio has the same problems as radio in general. Who really needs it if you can both create your own favorite playlists on MP3 or podcasts?
Alternative Weeklies are in similar boats to daily papers, although somehow that escaped a lot of us for a while because we assumed they would always attract that highly sought after younger demographic. I'm not an expert in the business affairs of those papers, but I do know I was shocked when Chicago's famed Reader was sold a few months ago to the Creative Loafing folks here in the South.
It seems their readers are aging too. Only the old hippies are left apparently. And not only have they lost huge chunks of their classifieds, but they're also losing the massage parlor and soft porn ads as that market moves to the internet.

Tim

February 5, 2008 10:35 PM

I disagree.
Today, the problem with music is that there's too much of it. In my opinion, this makes College Radio even MORE relevant, especially since people can listen to most stations online. I've listened to Pandora, and tons of other music discovery services that play music similar to artists I like. It's ok, but staying in your comfort zone doesn't always expose you to the unexpected. I prefer to listen to archives of college radio shows on WMBR, KCRW, KPSU etc., where great DJ's act as filters, and unlike commercial radio which I agree DOES SUCK.
Beyond my opinion, consider how many people are trying to save internet radio. Unfortunately, the powers that be want to increase costs beyond reason, while FM broadcasts are exempt from per play fees. It baffles me why the music industry would choose to stifle a one of the best sources for people to hear new records. If you support college radio, check out http://www.savenetradio.org/.

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The media world continues to shapeshift as new forms arise and old assumptions erode. On this blog, Bloomberg Businessweek will provide sharp analysis and timely reports on the transformation of this constantly changing terrain.

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