Ten Guidelines for Operating an Interesting Radio Program

Let’s start with what differentiates Commercial radio from it’s non-profit cousins like College radio. The first, most obvious and probably most important distinction is College Radio is free from the putrid stench of advertisements. While every once in a while you’ll certainly hear an Under Wright for a local business, you will never hear an ad. Some hard liners may insist there is little, if any, distinction between an advert and an under wright, save some hypothetical theory, but I promise you the difference is huge.

Under wrights merely tell you about a local business, the services they offer, and how to contact or find them if you’re interested in doing so. They’ll never issue commands or make lofty claims about how a particular product or service will change your life (not to mention you’ll never hear the words “There’s got to be a better way”). And perhaps most importantly, under wrights do not instill within you a false sense of emptiness.

Advertisements, on the other hand, strategically manipulate your emotions. They communicate a sense of lack within you and offer up their product as the means of filling it. Advertisements tell you that your clothes are outdated, that your hair is ugly, that your skin is repulsive, that your body smells terrible, that your car is a POS, and that your furniture has made you the laughingstock of your neighborhood. Then they tell you that you can solve these annoying, first-world problems by simply making a purchase at one of their stores.

Three weeks ago Pitchfork published a Kevin Lozano article about College Radio in which he writes:

In an ideal world, college radio can best reflect what local broadcasting should strive for: freeform programming that’s community organized and unentangled in market-based obligation. It is also a continually replenishing talent pool for the industry at large, and every part of the musical ecosystem can count former college radio DJs among their staff. This network is indispensable… It’s also in serious jeopardy.

Starting around 2010, a growing number of colleges began transferring their FM broadcast licenses to larger conglomerates for a short-term economic windfall. Running a terrestrial radio station, commercial or noncommercial, is an expensive enterprise—paying for a broadcast tower, equipment repair, and a variety of music licensing fees is the price of admission. Transferring or selling an FCC broadcasting license offers a quick influx of money, but once a license leaves the hands of an institution, there is no getting it back.

In recent years, it’s become a regular occurrence for colleges around the country to transfer their licenses to larger broadcasting networks, quite often affiliates of NPR that churn out the dulcet tones of “All Things Considered” simulcasts and preprogrammed playlists. Vanderbilt University’s WRVU, Rice University’s KTRU, Georgia State’s WRAS, and the University of San Francisco’s KUSF are just a handful of the stations that have been gobbled up.

While each case is informed by different circumstances and buyers, they are united by the administrative opinion that students don’t really care that much about radio anymore (and that fast cash can be made). Vanderbilt Student Communications, the nonprofit that ran WRVU, decided to sell their broadcasting license after running a poll that suggested fewer students were volunteering at the station and listening to on-air radio. The license was sold for $3.35 million to a local NPR affiliate, which uses the frequency to broadcast a 24-hour classical station.

A similar situation played itself out in San Francisco, when USF decided to sell their license to a classical radio network run by USC for $3.75 million in January 2011, shutting off the broadcast without much advance warning and escorting the volunteer DJ and staff out of the station while they changed the locks. THOUGH vigorous protest from both community members and students followed the sale, the space that once housed the station was eventually turned into dorms.

But the biggest blow to the college radio [scene] was probably the 2014 takeover of Georgia State’s 100,000-watt WRAS tower by Georgia Public Radio. WRAS was one of the largest non-commercial stations in the Atlanta metro area, and it was an early backer of acts including R.E.M. and OutKast. But in May 2014 the university announced that it was ceding the broadcast schedule from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. …the loss of free-form and locally sourced programming in [these cities] … means there is an increasingly uniform sound and voice informing the day-to-day listening habits of metropolitan areas across the country.

One of the reasons this is happening has to do with Music Groups. Of the approximately 15,000 radio stations in the continental United States, more than 12,000 of them are owned by one of the Big Four Music Groups –Warner, EMI, Sony BMG, or Universal. 80% of the US music market as well as 70% of the world music market are controlled by these Big Four. Music Groups are conglomerate holding companies that control many different facets of the recording industry under a corporate umbrella; they control music publishing, as well as recording, distribution, radio stations and even record labels – all typically retained under the brand name of a Music Group.

There are many reasons College Radio avoids the Top 40 charts, chief among them the “art by committee” tendency dominating today’s music-as-business mentality in the corporate world.

What is more, corporate radio stations not only have identical playlists that repeat several times a day from coast-to-coast, but the order of those carbon-copy playlists are often identical from station to station.

What’s more infuriating, or frightening, is the advertising world’s impact on journalism. The introduction of so-called “sponsored content” and “native advertising” erodes the credibility of the fourth estate by blurring the line between news stories and advertising. Thankfully, programs like the Outer Limits on KBGA are so dedicated to the craft of journalism, we’re willing to do it as part of today’s volunteer army of citizen journalists – one of the last bastions of authentic reporting.

Kevin Lozano continues:

Greg Weston, president of the nonprofit organization College Broadcasters Inc., which organizes professional workshops and events around the format, is adamant that college radio is here to stay. “Being independent and non-commercial and the voice of actual people and not the voice of a corporation is more important than ever,” says Weston. “People are not going to let college radio die. We’ll do whatever we can to keep it going.”

By empowering students to add their voices and opinions to the airwaves and connecting listeners to new ideas and artists, college radio fosters creativity, promotes emerging musicians, and serves as a platform for students to engage with one another…college radio’s most lasting influence is that it can still change someone’s life. There has to be a place that is a little dangerous, scruffy, where mistakes are made… And from that rawness comes the music that changes everything…

To many, the format’s supreme virtue is that it entrusts young people with responsibility and grants agency that is vital not only for creative expression but also skill development.

“The authorship you get at a college radio station is impossible to replicate anywhere else,” says Hannah Carlen of Secretly Group. “You just don’t get anything like it at an internship, where you’re putting little droplets into a much bigger bucket. At your radio station you’re doing the whole thing.”

Having illustrated the context in which we, as content creators, find ourselves today, let us now examine the Outer Limits’ Top Ten Principles for Operating an Interesting Radio Program. Developed initially in 2011 by Zarvoc and Dawg Majik, these core principles continue to bear fruit today.


1. Never play a song that is or has ever existed on any top 40 chart unless you’re planning on altering it in some way.  Furthermore, avoid the top 40 chart like the plague. It’s bad enough that we’re listening to our parent’s music, especially considering the fact that there is more new music being produced right now than is ever possible to ever listen to or even to catch up with. Many listeners are tuning into alternative media sources to escape the monotony of the top 40 charts.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. It is acceptable to play some corporate-owned music under certain circumstances, because so much of what we know is owned by the Big Four, and a lot of that is objectively “catchy”. Purity standards for avoiding Top 40 charts are also debatable if you’re altering a pop song by means of pitch shifting, track reversal, or vinyl scratching. It can even be classy if you’re merely borrowing a poignant chorus line to make an intellectual point that is embedded within an audio essay  – as we often do. Obviously there are shades of grey with regards to tasteful acceptability. Just remember that corporate-owned radio stations are obligated to play top 40 singles. Music Groups require the monotonous repetition in order to continue ensuring a steady stream of revenue from CD sales.

Top 40 is not about art. If it were, King Crimson would be more well known than the Rolling Stones; despite releasing dozens of prolific concept albums, few have ever heard of King Crimson. This is likely to do the fact that they do not conform to corporate models – i.e. songs that are 3.5 minutes long which comply strictly to the predictable and outdated verse-chorus paradigm. For the same reason extraordinarily talented groups like the Secret Chiefs 3, Shpongleand darshan Pulse stand shrouded in relative obscurity. But you will find, as we have, that this obscurity is a good thing; it keeps true art from becoming overplayed and washed up like all of the pop music in existence that we’ve heard ten-thousand times before. It also prevents the art from drowning in a fetid swamp of corporate money. The best things in life are often closely guarded secrets.

Music as an Industry intentionally destroys anything resembling art for the sake of profiteering. It is about selling records since people like what they know. Part of this stems from a societal delusion that today is yesterday – the tendency for the sentimental to long for familiar emotional states from freer and more jovial moments in their lives. We all possess an inherent tendency to become addicted to familiar emotional states, and one consequence is the possibility of spending the rest of our lives listening to the same 40 songs and drinking the same brand of beer until the day we die. Such would be to waste our lives.

Life is too short to simply chase familiar experiences again and again when there are an unlimited number of different experiences and unborn emotional states to engage with and share. Life is too short to drink shitty beer, and is likewise too short to listen to the same boring, predictable songs again and again to the point of tedium. But as stated earlier, the cannons of top 40’s war on art are aimed at your wallet – not your heart. The more a corporate station can repeat a song, the more likely it is that the Music Group that owns the rights to that song can sell a record and add another point to some rich brat’s stock portfolio.  

If you can’t bear to make it through your radio show without playing a top 40 single, I suggest consulting the vast reserves of the KBGA library and exploring a bit. You are literally surrounded by thousands of disks you’ve never heard before. For this reason, you have to go out of your way – in the most literal sense – to play something that doesn’t belong on KBGA.

Another useful way out of the tedium of yesteryear’s consumerist views on music is to consult with people who know a lot about music. Your community is rich with self-proclaimed music snobs, many of whom conglomerate around cultural centers like KBGA. And on the whole, there are over 7 billion humans on this rock we call Earth, and hundreds of millions of them are producing new music every single day. Given the intimidating tidal-wave of new songs coming out each year, there is absolutely no excuse to play the same washed-up garbage pumped out by the mainstream ever again. Much of what is produced overall can be considered sub-par I will grant you, but how much of it isn’t? If even only one-percent is glorious, that’s still thousands of amazing albums you have never heard before. If you’re willing to do just a smidgen of research, you’ll find that rooting through the shit is well worth the effort to find the diamonds you’ve never heard before – and if you enjoy that kind of work, don’t hesitate to become a Music Director for KBGA because that’s exactly what they do, and the station receives thousands of new albums every month.

2. Do not apologize to your audience, even if you’ve made a critical error. It points attention to a blurmish that your audience might not otherwise have notarized… “Oh oops – I’m sorry, I meant to say, might not have otherwise have noticed.”

3. Try not to repeat your content. It kills the mood of spontaneity and categorizes you in the minds of your listeners as a passive listening experience which is designed to comfort the listener and works as background noise that is easily shut out or talked over. An active listening experience on the other hand, generates interest, enhances creativity, and challenges and informs the listener. With this in mind, try not to repeat your content. Also it’s important not to repeat your content, because it kills the mood of spontaneity and categorizes you in the minds of your listeners as a passive listening experience. Try not to repeat your content, please.

5. Neither you nor your audience will ever really know what kind of music you like or would prefer to listen to. If you don’t keep exploring new territory you’re depriving your audience and yourself, of the adventure of discovery. Because curiosity is bliss. It originates from the unknown, asserting its existence in your mind for the first time.

8. Listen to your work, especially your diction. There is no way to gauge yourself accurately while you are performing. It’s instructive to try to be objective and listen back later as if you are a third party hovering slightly above your own head. We’re always our own worst critics, but the opposite is also true.

13. What might otherwise be chalked up as a mistake or an unsuccessful experiment often sounds better than what you’d originally planned. Embrace novelty! Relinquish delusions of perfection and purity, for they do not exist. What you may end up realizing is that your ego was never really in control in the first place. Synchronicity is all around you. Lean on it. Learn to stop worrying and love the bomb!

21. “By, uh, acting nervous, or trying to t-tiptoe around the audience to keep from annoying them…umm… you’ll, like, invariably end up annoying them? C-confidence can’t be faked…you know?

First, the million-dollar price tag must be violently ripped from your work at the very beginning. Intentionally strive for imperfection. Drive a nail right through the center of your designer coffee table. If you’re attempting to pull of the perfect metaphorical heist, your expectations will be counterproductive to your efforts and wind up leaving you angry, exhausted and trapped in a metaphorical jail cell of existential incarceration – awaiting imaginary charges of fanciful grand theft or spiritual breaking and entering.

You can’t make an Om without breaking some Egos.

34. Push the envelope! Safety is profitable but outrage is inspiring. Art can’t be created by committee! Don’t do what you know works, because today is NOT yesterday, and if it worked before you’ll only bore your audience by rehashing it. Remember – it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

55. Believe in self consistency. Guidelines are meant to be followed as long as you are the one who created them. Design formats, believe in them, then create rules to destroy them and never look back. Borrow, but don’t steal. Lead, and don’t follow! Art is not the final product – it is the process of creating it. The final product is but a snake skin, shed through the process of ecdysis. A dead snake skin can only attempt to describe what is left at the end of the experience, but the experience itself is the essence of the majik of life.

89.9. Listen!

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