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Not every radio listener is looking for an education at rush hour, and college radio continues to struggle to interest more casual music fans.

As Duke's WXDU turns 30, the area's college rock outlets fight for relevance amid online competition 

Erin Black, on air at WXDU in Durham

Photo by Justin Cook

Erin Black, on air at WXDU in Durham

When WXDU first went live on the FM dial in 1983, it wasn't the first Duke University radio station. The school had been broadcasting under various call letters and frequencies as early as 1950.

But at 88.7, WXDU emerged during a pivotal moment—as college radio turned toward college rock, when bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements emerged as figureheads for the nascent world of indie rock. Along with Chapel Hill's older WXYC and Raleigh's oldest WKNC, WXDU formed a triumvirate of local stations that made space on area airwaves for lesser-known and more adventurous music. That purpose persists.

During the last decade or so, however, alternatives to commercial and college radio have proliferated online, from on-demand streams and algorithmic taste profiles to old-fashioned illegal downloads and legal advance album streams. Curious listeners have more options to seek out the music they want to hear, when they want to hear it. College radio, it would seem, is facing serious competition.

To wit, college stations around the country have recently faced closures from many sources. Last year, the FCC slammed West Virginia's WVBC, operated out of Bethany College, with a $6,500 fine for failure to broadcast and failure to file a license renewal. Months later, the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Pittsburgh Public Media signed an agreement to buy the WVBC broadcast signal for $135,000.

Rollins College's WPRK in Florida and Toccoa Falls College's WTXR in Texas were hit with FCC fines for incomplete filing. In 2010, Rice University and Vanderbilt University mulled the sale of their radio stations, KTRU and WRVU, respectively. These are mere examples.

In the Triangle, though, college radio appears to be as healthy as ever, in part because of a willingness to address directly the issue of relevance. "That's how we open our orientation sessions, with the question, 'Who listens to the radio?'" notes Kelly Davis, WXDU's promotions director. "And you can put the emphasis in different ways on that question."

In fact, it's difficult to account for exactly who or how many people are listening to the radio, especially for noncommercial stations. They lack the expensive estimates that commercial stations use to sell ads. But it's easy to find answers to the question of why people listen in the first place, suggesting that radio is still relevant, at least for the most eager and curious music fans.

"It's a music nerd's dream," says David Ford Smith, WKNC's daytime indie rock music director. "I get to listen to dozens and dozens and dozens of CDs every day. I see all this music in a physical form."

Growing up, Smith was drawn to college radio stations like WKNC or KEXP in Seattle. "It was a way for me to find out about music beyond blogs or beyond recommendations from friends," he says.

This sentiment isn't uncommon. Without preset playlists or overly narrow format restrictions, college radio can still offer high variety within a given block of airtime. What's more, the surprise factor of hearing someone else's selections, without the immediate metadata of most Web-based platforms, remains unique to radio.

For Dave Rodriguez, one of WXDU's music directors, that's the key to appreciating a college radio broadcast. "You hear a song and, for two or three minutes, you have no information on who it is. And that's awesome," he says. "You go into it with a totally clear mind. You have no preconceived judgment on what's playing because you don't know what it is."

Sarah Reichmann has been a DJ at WXDU since 1986. She says the role and the relevance of the station hasn't changed much since the so-called heyday of college radio. Now, as then, most students probably listen to commercial radio (or, in 2013, streaming sites), but a college station meets different needs. For her, the station's goal isn't necessarily building a broad audience. "WXDU still collects and catalogs huge amounts of new and old, great and historically important music from all over the world," she says. "I think of WXDU as filling the purpose of a museum or a library and its on-air streaming and broadcasting as an educational service."

Not every radio listener is looking for an education at rush hour, and college radio continues to struggle to interest more casual music fans.

"There are students we won't appeal to, because we can't play them their favorite music as well as they can play it for themselves," says Jake Cunnane, WXDU's general manager and a current Duke student. "My goal for the station is to make every student with any curiosity a listener, and to make sure that even the ones who aren't into what we do know about us."

For WXDU and similar stations, that aim now means working to promote the station through live events, online complements and multimedia products. WKNC has launched a video performance series. WXYC hosts public events in Chapel Hill and partners with the Carolina Union Activities Board to present concerts on campus. WXDU is a frequent sponsor and host of events in Durham, including this weekend's 30th anniversary celebration at Duke Coffeehouse. That party features five reunited local bands—Jett Rink, Pine State, Torch Marauder System, Blue Green Gods and Malt Swagger. Many of the musicians involved are, or have been, DJs, in addition to having their music played on the air.

Stephen Conrad, a current WXDU DJ, says ideas for the lineup sprang from the old concert fliers that wallpaper the station.

"I think it helps current student DJs understand the past of the station and realize just how involved local folks are," Conrad says. "The older generation can rub shoulders with the college kids that are still enthusiastic about the station and local goings-on."

Indeed, forging a bridge between the student body and the community at large has been a main objective of and a benefit to all three Triangle college stations. Filling ranks with community members counters the four-year cycle of students and helps the stations strengthen their places in the local music scene.

Anne Gomez has worked all aspects of that continuum, as a former WXDU music director, current DJ and prolific local musician. She praises the radio's "very strong support for getting the word out on shows, sponsoring shows, playing local music and having bands play live on air."

Indeed, for musicians and labels whose products will likely never find a home on commercial airwaves, college radio still serves as a valuable vehicle for exposure.

But more than promotions—"WXDU's mission is not to sell music or artists," Reichmann notes—college radio provides a harbor for the music-obsessed. That much, it seems, will never change.

"I was not a radio listener growing up," Cunnane says. "For me, it was the community—meeting people who were not only into some of the same stuff I was, but knew way more about it and would talk about it at the drop of a hat."

For Caroline Pate, a UNC-Chapel Hill student and WXYC's promotions manager, that environment provided something she found nowhere else at her new school.

"For me and people like me, college isn't all about basketball and going to Top O every weekend. It's about exploring and finding out new things," she says. "It may not be something the mass population will understand, but I think it's incredibly important to have. If WXYC wasn't here, my experience as a student would be very different. I don't know if I would stay."

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