College Radio

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After spending altogether too much time researching the historical significance of letter-writing yesterday, I pulled out this book that gathers dust on my shelf called Obsolete. The book calls itself "An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By," which I guess is accurate -- it's an alphabetical list containing short, anecdotal histories of everything from adult book stores to landlines to, yes, writing letters. But it feels more like an Order of Service at a funeral: a symbol to mark that something once lived; a last-gasp effort to ease the onslaught of forgetting.

Change is inevitable. I think I bought this book because I figured that having it lying around in 40 years would give way to a fun conversation with my hypothetical grandchildren -- one that would give me ample opportunity to talk about my own life and times. I feel like that's the best part of being a grandperson: you get soapbox priority via seniority, so as long as you have something to talk about, you have a captive audience. I intend to milk that like crazy

I was flipping through this book when I got to thinking about the radio. In college, being cool was all about how involved you were at the radio station. OK, I should probably rephrase that. In college, I misread the social outcasts and misfits who hung around the radio stations as being cool, because they didn't really talk to anyone and they wore yellow jeans. In any case, I looked at the radio station as this kind of Eden for the hip: a place where disaffected irony was king, and unbridled enthusiasm went to die.

Every year I was there, I had a show. I wanted my show to be about music, but also had a talk element that involved making fun of the news, like on The Daily Show. Obviously, I was terrible at this. My news-consumption was sporadic at best, and really the only source I had was The Daily Show, so I ended up just repeating John Stewart's jokes with a sort of depressing loner-girl twist. For two years I was given a midnight slot. No one was listening, except, presumably, the guys down at the penitentiary, who famously always had their radios tuned to our college station. In hind's sight, I have a lot of questions about that. (Did they choose the college station? Did they like talk or music better? Did they think my voice sounded hot? Why did they write Ashley Carrington letters about HER show but never me letters about MY show? Was Ashley faking the letters, as I always suspected?) But at the time, this was not about having anyone listen to you. This was about the possibilities inherent inside of shouting into a conceivably public sphere. This was about enlarging yourself.

Senior year, I had a show with my best friend on earth, Ben Stevens. Here is why Ben Stevens is my best friend on earth: We met in high school, and we never went through a phase of not liking each other. In high school, Ben wore pleated khakis and Teva sandals with socks underneath and he dyed his hair a color that the bottle described as "Cupcake Pink," and he didn't care if anyone thought that was uncool. (Everyone thought that was uncool.) There were times when I screamed at Ben; there were times when I cried hysterically at him and snotted up all his shirts and punched his arms; there was even a time that I kicked in the windshield window on his Geo Prizm. And Ben, who was always calm about everything, was calm about everything. We went to college together. In college, we lived in a house together. Every time I went through a break-up, Ben dropped everything and came over and engaged in lunatic antics with me, no questions asked. Reading back over that paragraph, I have no idea what he got out of being friends with me, except that I went to the movies with him a lot and we both were super-into Indian food, which sometimes takes a special person. I maybe shouldn't question it. He is my best friend on earth, plain and simple.

I have no memory of what we called this radio show, but the idea was that we would play music from "the past, present, and future." So, basically, the idea was the exact same idea as literally every other person with a college radio show has ever had, ever. But the banter was really good. 

People would sometimes call in and engage in our on-air discussions. Those people were always friends of Ben's (he was very good at having friends in college, where I was good at being a serial monogamist with jealousy issues), and having a radio show felt like having a party where you didn't have to really look at anyone. We were living the dream.

The thing about college radio is that it's really bad, but also, it's really good. College kids spend all their time alone brooding, or with three other people (getting high and) brooding. They love to "study at the library," but by that they really mean "read music blogs at the library." It's this age where you have an excellent sense of who you want to be, and you still have a lot of hope that you can be the best version of that person, which allows some degree of competitiveness to set in. If you're going to be good at knowing about music, you want to be better at it than anyone else. So college kids have great taste in music. 

In New Orleans, the college radio station is Tulane's, and it's wonderful. They have more community programming than other college stations, but really, it's mostly the same. The DJs never change the tracks fast enough; you can hear clicking and clanking around the studio during the talk portions; the fund drives feature shy-sounding girls with such dull lilts to their voices that you can practically hear their yellow jeans on the other side. But then they play strange, exciting, subversive music, for hours.

Yesterday I turned on the station while I was basking in ideas of obsolescence, and the show that came on was amazing. The DJ never talked, but she (I assumed it was a she) was playing exclusively huge, triumphant, kind of weird songs that featured female vocalists. I couldn't stop listening. It was like someone had made the perfect playlist for me while I was in a feminist kind of mood. (Which is all the time.)

After listening to six tracks, I finally called into the station. The girl (I was right!) picked up, sounding a little surprised. I imagined the landline in there; the heft of the receiver and the way the phone probably lit up without ringing. I imagined the room full of record sleeves, and the girl alone, trying to figure out the task of changing the song while answering the phone. It all came back in happy waves: the life of a college radio DJ, sending lovingly-crafted playlists into the unknown stereo abyss.

Before I die, FM radio will be obsolete. The transition to XM is slow, but it's aggressive. Colleges will either make the transition, or they'll have to sacrifice their emblematic place in city-wide cultural music conversations. 

But it's not dead yet. I asked the DJ which song she'd just played. This one, she said. I told her I liked her show very much. She was so genuine when she thanked me, it made me want to empty my pockets and encourage her to take the money and ride the next train to New York to find a job as a music journalist. 

I guess what I am advocating for here is to just be present in each passing moment. To enjoy the things that will die before we do, because they will. There's no stopping the inertia of time. In time, every artifact will be a relic; there is nothing that stays forever. In an era where curve of change is exponential, it can be a sweet gift to oneself to stop and be with the corners of the world that will be sacrificed first, and appreciate them for the space they have taken.