Like a lot of the radio that interests me, I came upon the college Alternative station I heard tonight by accident. Its name was similar to a better-known commercial station. That station wasn’t available online, so I decided to listen. “Sober Up” by AJR was ending. The student on the air ID’d it as the band “Air.” Then he back-sold M83’s “Midnight City” as by “M-B-3.” A few breaks later, AWOLnation became “Owl-Nation.”
The student on the air didn’t get all the band names wrong. He didn’t do anything particularly risible. He made it through a PSA perfunctorily — clearly reading, but not stumbling. He plowed through a dense weather forecast a little too quickly. Mostly the breaks were backsells, and most of them were “that was/this is.”
But even if the broadcast had been more spectacularly bad, there would be no derision here. Beyond victims of actual tragedies, there is nobody I feel worse for than Brian Collins, the college sportscaster tormented for more than a decade for uttering “boom goes the dynamite.” You’re supposed to stink when you’re a college broadcaster. And you’re supposed to be able to do it in relative anonymity. If it were allowed to ruin your life, college radio would have been a serious error in judgment for most of us.
If you also stunk on the radio in college, you’re allowed to laugh at Collins, but only as a proxy for your own early foibles. If you were one of those people who somehow became good quickly, and you still enjoy sneering at somebody who wasn’t, boy, are you ever ungracious about your own gifts. And if you weren’t on the radio or TV in college, there is zero chance that you would have been any better any sooner than Brian Collins. So be nice.
I wondered if there was some way to reach the jock on the air, but he was not indulging in that other telltale trait of college radio newbies — endlessly giving the request line, then complaining when nobody called. Besides, with the wisdom of a lifetime, I have finally come to understand that no one wants to be hot-lined over a mispronunciation. Not even to avoid doing it a second time. And he probably would have thought I was trying to prank him into pronouncing “Air” and “MB3” wrong.
But recently, one of my daughter’s friends came home from college and announced that she was doing a radio show on her Internet station. There are things I’d like to tell her, and the guy I heard on college radio tonight:
For starters, I’m glad you’re there. Because I hear about onetime-prominent college stations that now struggle to fill shifts. My friend who teaches a college course is often happy for a class of a dozen students or more. I’d never known radio to be a particular interest of my daughter’s friend before; I was delighted that radio still held just enough sway to attract somebody not inextricably drawn there from birth.
If your breaks are mostly “that was/this is” now, I understand. That is what I often hear listening to college radio. It is, for that matter, what I often hear listening to commercial broadcast radio. What else do you have to imitate? For many of us, that first on-air break sounded pukey. We thought we were imitating our radio heroes, but it was more the parody of radio that you saw when there was a DJ voice in movies or commercials. But who would even know to do that now?
If you want to talk about something other than “that was/this is,” you have choices. I would be happy to know a little something about your school or your town or your life. My college radio station was full of people who wanted to be Steve Dahl — Howard Stern hadn’t yet come to prominence — and just freestyle, or overshare about their lives and opinions. Those results were often painful (again, they were supposed to be). But I wish I were coming across Dahl and Stern wannabes now.
How about adapting the contents of your tweets? Because however stilted you may be on the air today, you may well be funny on social media. If you can be funny or have content and still be brief enough for a posting (especially the old Twitter limits), you actually understand the essence of on-air communication.
In fact, if social media is a strong suit, feel free to talk about it. As a professional broadcaster, you’ll be asked to do so frequently, and if you have something better to say than “like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter,” you’ll be in good shape. And these days, it may be your off-air presence that gets you hired.
Please react to the music. My daughter’s friend gets to pick hers. But even if you’re on the air playing unfamiliar artists, chances are excellent that friends or roommates have played new music for you before. What did you tell them (especially if you were trying to be polite)? One of the attractive things about listening to college radio well into adulthood is hearing somebody whose passion for the music is not tempered by adult realities.
And, oh yeah, be yourself. But only if you want to. Because radio is famously the liberator of the shy. If what you do on the air has some basis in reality, that’s good. But feel free to enhance it. Scott Shannon would back me up on this one.
And what is your advice for college broadcasters? Please leave a comment.