Contrasting the sounds of college radio

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The main sounds of the radio stations at three Michigan universities. Mac Demarco is representative of Impact WDBM (Michigan State University) and their indie rock fan base. Photo: Anna Hanks’ Flickr through Creative Commons. Artwork: Terri Powys.

 

As streaming services surge, a passionate crowd of student-run radio stations remain across many college campuses in Michigan. From curating playlists to handling on-demand phone calls, these broadcast stations dedicate long hours to ensure a well-thought-out listening experience. A look at the sounds of Impact 88.9 WDBM, 88.3 WXOU and 89.1 WIDR shows that there are some promising trends in the sounds of college radio.

WIDR brings in the sounds of Western Michigan by showcasing a primarily punk-rooted broadcast. Mid-Michigan, represented by WDBM, has a heavy circulation of indie-rock or independent rock that isn’t defined by just one sound. Finally WXOU reels in southeast Michigan and metro-Detroit with a more urban tone that focuses mainly on hip-hop.

Each station maintains a unique and distinct catalogue.

Jesse Taconelli, a journalism sophomore at Michigan State University and the music director at MSU’s Impact WDBM, said that his station is the only alt rock and indie rock station in the area.

“I’m definitely interested in modernization and pushing the limits of what music can and can’t be on the radio,” he said. “Our sound right now I would definitely define as indie rock, but it’s my job to make sure that it’s indie that’s refreshing, cool and meaningful to the listener.”

Indie, or music that is independent from a major record label, is at its peak popularity, especially on college campuses. Listeners enjoy the idea of smaller artists who establish a fan base rather than popular artists with the means to distribute their music virtually anywhere through a large recording company.      

Looking past genre or marketability, radio stations also cater to call-in song requests frequently on the air.  

“We were originally a punk station that was on the cutting edge of the punk movement in the 80s, and we have listeners who have stayed with us since then,” Taconelli said. “A song that targets back to them is Salad Days by Minor Threat.”

By staying loyal to original fans, WDBM maintains a steady following from mature listeners regardless of music era.

“But the nature of requests have since changed,” he said. “There’s newer stuff, like anything by Sandy Alex G is in good rotation here. Mac Demarco is also up there and he’s a huge heavy hitter for our station.” These two artists alone represent a major section of the indie rock range.

Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker reflects the psychedelic rock sound at WXOU (Oakland University). Photo: Abby Gillardi via Flickr through Creative Commons. Artwork: Terri Powys.

Fundamentally playing hip-hop, underground rap and trending artists on the charts, Oakland University’s WXOU offers a more balanced range to cater to many different tastes.

Drew Marczewski, a senior in communications at Oakland University and general manager at WXOU, says that most people on campus tend to listen to party music or the top 40.

“Around the station, people are into a lot of stuff that you would see in Pitchfork Magazine, mostly indie, alternative, psych and underground rap. We try to balance tastes when we DJ.”

As far as popular artists on campus, like at  MSU’s WDBM, Mac Demarco’s name pops up again. Marczewski lists a few musicians and albums worth noting as popular content for WXOU:

“I associate albums like Tame Impala’s “Currents”, Mac Demarco’s “Salad Days”, Protomartyr’s “The Agent Intellect”, and the last two Beach House albums with Oakland University and WXOU,” he said. “I was introduced to them by our former music director Anthony Spak around the time I first got involved with the station.”

Unlike MSU’s Impact, WXOU has a more urban sound.  Hip-hop’s revival is catching speed on college campuses especially with artists like Kendrick Lamar and Brockhamtpon constantly releasing so much content.

“I’d say among the general student population that current Hip-Hop is the most popular. Among our DJ’s, Psychedelic, Lo-Fi and Shoegaze are the most played,”  Marczewski said.

WIDR (Western Michigan University) featuring Courtney Barnett’s alternative rock style. Photo: Fred von Lohmann via Flickr through Creative Commons. Artwork: Terri Powys.

Western Michigan University, home of WIDR in Kalamazoo, follows roots of rock music similar to Impact WDBM. In comparison to WXOU, WIDR also plays Sandy Alex G regularly during broadcast.

“Sandy Alex G is frequently played on the WIDR wave,” said Tony Mitchell, business director at the station. “Kalamazoo has a very diverse taste. I would say emo and punk are the most prominent, but in the past few years since I started at WIDR dream pop and styles of music coming from artists like Alex G and Courtney Barnett have been on the rise.”

Western’s radio station is the first to mention pop music. Short for popular music, it  can range from anything like easy listening top hits to deeper cuts that play in avant-garde nightclubs. “Some of the commonly played genres at WIDR are indie rock, synth pop and hip-hop,” said Mitchell.

Regardless of taste of what’s hot and not, these stations agreed that representing their audience is extremely important.

“We play a variety of music that represents a bunch of different tastes,” said Mitchell, WIDR’s business director. “We pride ourselves in our ability to expose our listeners to new music.”  

Said Taconelli from MSU’s WDBM: “Impact tries to cater towards being such a diverse community, there are a lot of different walks of life here on campus and we want to play music for all of them.”

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