College radio has been an innovative force since the beginning of the American underground, and the increasing influence and presence of the Internet will not change this. In fact, college radio has been at the forefront of this change during the past five years, broadcasting online and absorbing new audiences and styles while remaining true to its roots.
Columbia University boasts two excellent college radio stations, WKCR and WBAR, both of which fulfill the needs and tastes of students. While WKCR features structured programming focusing mostly on classical, jazz, and world music, WBAR is a free-form, student-run station where DJs play whatever they choose. Weak wiring in the Barnard quad prevented the station from broadcasting beyond Sulzberger Hall, putting WBAR ahead of the curve in embracing the Internet. The station has primarily been broadcast online for years. On campus, WBAR also provides a site for student interaction. It is one of the largest Barnard-based student groups, and its DJs and staff are evenly split between Barnard and Columbia.
The audience for so-called “indie rock” (to clarify, this is not really a genre) has only recently increased partly due to the influence of the Internet, but WBAR has been playing their music for a long time. Their rise in exposure has allowed acts like Animal Collective, a band that performed at a WBAR concert in 2004, to sell 25,000 copies of their latest album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, in its debut week. The group sold out an original vinyl pressing of 4,500 records the week before. The record was released on quasi-independent label Domino Records, home to reissues of classic WBAR favorites like Josef K and Orange Juice. As the major labels flounder and present their audiences with vapid, meaningless content (does the world need another vocoder rap song?), the audience and scope of “different” music has expanded. Also, now more than ever, fans want to be involved and take part in an active and increasingly democratized music scene. As audiences grow, college radio emerges as a source of new music and a site of interaction. Although the Internet has certainly become the go-to place for most of our generation when it comes to music, college radio stations remain institutions of knowledge and sharing. Both radio stations and record stores will continue putting great music within reach of fans, working alongside new technology rather than becoming trampled by it.
For instance, even as music has increasingly leaned towards digital formats, WBAR has remained dedicated to keeping a physical library. In years past, WBAR was a repository of music history. One of the benefits of the station was its vast collection of records and CDs. Today, anyone can find and download nearly any record he or she pleases in a matter of minutes, but WBAR’s place as a source of musical knowledge has not faded away. Our staff and DJs play music that we love across a wide breadth of genres, ranging from underground rap mix tapes and psychedelic reissues to the latest noise 7 inch-record.
As the focus in new music has moved away from physical formats, live shows have gained popularity. Many college radio stations, including WBAR, have embraced this trend, applying their resources and expertise to involvement in their local music scenes. Our colleagues at WFUV (Fordham) and WNYU (New York University) regularly host concerts. In 2006-2007, WBAR organized four shows. Last year, the station hosted six despite bureaucratic obstacles. Performers included The Walkmen, Sleater-Kinney, Oneida, Devendra Banhart, High Places, Prurient, and No Age, among others. Many of the artists we championed have gone on to greater success while others have not. In the end, this does not matter as much as the fact that WBAR gave these artists an opportunity to play.
By reorienting its focus towards organizing and hosting shows on campus, WBAR has become more influential than ever before. Our shows are not only a way for both sides of our sometimes divided campus to come together for a much-needed break and for Columbia students to hear new live music, but they also increase our presence off campus and give back to the community. Furthermore, hosting concerts is one way for us to showcase and boost on-campus talent. We have always sought to help local labels and artists, and our audiences often extend beyond Columbia and Barnard students. Recent Village Voice Pazz & Jop runner-ups Vampire Weekend had many of their first shows at WBAR-sponsored events, and we have continued to present on-campus and alumni talent like Liturgy and Raúl.
The station has also been a meeting place for like-minded and curious students in its nearly sixteen years of existence. Each of us knew about the history of WBAR, which included performances by legends like Ari Up, Calvin Johnson, Bikini Kill, and Daniel Johnston before arriving on campus. We’re proud that our new school is host to such a thriving community of people who care about music as much as each one of us does. The station has been the source of many of our most fruitful and lasting friendships, and working there has taught us more about music and do-it-yourself ethics than the Internet ever will. We know that we are not alone in feeling this way.
Milano Chowkwanyun is a senior in Barnard College majoring in art history. She is the treasurer of WBAR. Jamie Johns is a junior in Columbia College majoring in history. Josie Keefe is a senior in Columbia College majoring in anthropology. Shakeer Rahman is a senior in Columbia College majoring in history.