Black college-radio on predominantly white campuses: a 'hip-hop era' student-authored inclusion initiative.

Author:Harrison, Anthony Kwame
Position::Essay
 
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Introduction (1)

The Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s opened the door for Black students to attend Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) in greater numbers. Thus began a fifty-year struggle to gain equitable representation on historically white campuses, as well as to achieve the academic and overall success that matriculation in these institutions was thought to bring about. Despite the fact that in 2013 Black students made up fourteen percent of the student population of four-year career-granting colleges and universities--up from eleven percent in 1994 (McGill, 2015)--a significant gap between Black and White graduation rates persists (Casselman, 2014). In addition, recent events like the 2015 University of Missouri protests and Black Lives Matter movement on college campuses strongly suggest that, from the perspective of many Black students, most PWIs maintain unwelcoming campus climates.

In this article, I advocate for the importance of Black-music-oriented spaces at PWIs. To do this, I focus on a specific, yet largely overlooked, historical example: the case of Black-music-oriented college-radio programing--hereafter referred to as 'Black college-radio' (2) --on predominantly white campuses during a period that I call 'college radio's hip-hop era' (circa 1980 to 1993). I maintain that, during these pivotal years, Black college-radio functioned as a student-authored diversity initiative. This historical example, I argue, should be looked at as a model for considering how the promotion of Black-music-oriented spaces on campus can play a central role in fostering Black student engagement, satisfaction, and ultimately success.

In the following pages, I lay out three key discussions that, together, support this position. First, I discuss the significance of Black college-radio programing, most notably hip-hop programing, in the history of college radio. Second, I highlight the period that I refer to as 'college radio's hip-hop era' as a particularly tumultuous time for Black students on predominantly white college campuses. Third, I show how Black college-radio both cultivated and sustained a sense of belonging for Black students at PWIs, which, I maintain, helped to facilitate their satisfaction and success--albeit in ways that are difficult to measure. I conclude by arguing that, despite the waning significance of college radio in the lives of students today, this historical example can animate new ways of addressing current inclusion and diversity challenges by underscoring the value of Black-music-oriented spaces in creating robust Black campus communities.

College Radio and Hip Hop

For over a century the Black intellectual tradition in America has been propelled by the goal of social transformation through scholar activism. Yet, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when many Black Studies programs were first established, their articulated agendas were as much corrective as they were transformative. Standard American education had largely ignored the experiences and contributions of Black people; when they were presented it was through a frameworks of social pathology. Speaking in 1969, anthropologist St. Clair Drake asserted:

The very use of the term Black Studies is by implication an indictment of America and Western European scholarship. It makes the bold assertion that what we have heretofore called "objective" intellectual activities were actually white studies in perspective and content; and that a corrective bias, a shift in emphasis, is needed, even if something called "truth" is set as the goal. (cited in Marable, 2000, p. 21)

This demand for recognition in the face of Eurocentric standards of education led many early Black Studies programs to prioritize cultural topics like literature, art, and history ahead of the social sciences. Scholars working in Black Studies today, continue to identify and 'call out' spaces and fields where Black experiences have gone unnoticed or ignored. One such arena is the emerging scholarship on college radio, which for all intents and purposes has been whitewashed of the existence of Black-music-oriented programming. (3)

Although university-based radio stations have a long history in the United States (Saul, 2000), the distinct brand of 'freeform' music programing that contemporary listeners recognize as 'college radio' developed during the 1960s (Wall, 2007). The 'college radio movement' was very much a response to the dominant music radio mainstream that came of age during the postwar era. Since their emergence, college radio stations have variously blended priorities of antiformat broadcasting, cultural uplift content, and non-commercial alternity (Wall, 2007, p. 40). These combined to form an alternative ethos surrounding college radio, which gets regularly referenced in both its scholarship and everyday conversations about it.

College radio programming is typically organized according to an "open format," daily block (certain genres/themes during certain times of the day) or weekly patchwork (certain genres/themes during certain time-slots each week) structure--thus enabling students, and sometimes community members, to DJ weekly shows in line with their particular musical tastes (Wallace, 2008). The result is an eclectic mix of genres, with the consistent aim to offer music that is not regularly heard on commercial radio stations.

Yet referring to the scholarship on college radio as 'whitewashed' is somewhat of an overstatement. It is perhaps more accurate to say it observes what music writer Jody Rosen (2009) calls the 'D.O.R.F. matrix'--that is, it focuses on dead, old, retro, and foreign Black artists and genres such as jazz, world music, reggae, and (sometimes) blues. What is missing are the music genres regularly listened to by Black college-aged youth. Although one could argue that Black youth are among the paramount taste-makers of what becomes popular music, therefore making their music preferences (genres like R&B, neo soul, and hip hop) too commercial for college radio, I agree with Guthrie P. Ramsey's (2003) observation that, "because of its association with the 'black-folk-vernacular,'" Black music is perpetually "Othered" (p. 19). Even with the commercial successes of numerous contemporary Black artists, there are consistently scores of musicians with sizable followings among Black listeners who fail to garner mainstream recognition. Furthermore, and specific to my argument here, there is a long history within the United States of emerging Black music forms being initially rejected and disdained by the music establishment (Hall, 1997). This can be seen in the initial reception of blues, ragtime, jazz, b-bop, and rock 'n' roll. But the most prominent example over the last fifty years--the most significant genre to emerge in the post-Civil Rights and college radio eras--is hip hop or rap. (4)

For at least its first decade as a recorded music form, hip hop was alternative music. The first recorded rap songs appeared in late 1979: The Fatback Band's "King Tim III (personality jock)" and the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." Yet it was not until 1989 that the music industry recognized rap music by giving the genre its own Grammy Award and Billboard chart (Harrison and Arthur, 2011). Although a handful of popular rap hits were released during this ten-year period, (5) rap music was still alternative enough--by commercial radio standards--that many of the most prominent artists within the hip hop community received little to no commercial radio airplay. With the exception of a handful of major metropolitan radio outlets, during this time, college radio was the only place to hear rap music on the radio. Both college radio and college-campus touring circuits played important roles in supporting and promoting hip hop throughout the 1980s--a period when icons like Run-DMC, Eric B & Rakim, KRS-One, and Public Enemy all emerged. Accordingly, I refer to the 1980s and early 90s as the 'college radio hip-hop era.'

Hip hop college radio shows might not have commenced with the 1979 release of "Rappers Delight." But by the mid-1980s there were weekly hip hop programs on campus stations throughout the country, including: at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (WMUA 91.1FM), the University of Connecticut (WHUS 91.7 FM), Penn State University (WPSU 91.5 FM), the University of Washington (KCMU 90.5 Fm), and the University of California, Riverside (KUCR 88.3FM), to name just a few. (6) By introducing young listeners outside of urban areas to rap music, college radio played an under-acknowledged role in hip hop's national spread. The invisibility of hip-hop music in college radio scholarship is remarkable if for no other reason because hip hop has garnered so much attention in the broader fields of popular music studies and education.

Yet this omission goes both ways in that, with a few exceptions (see, for example, Forman, 2002; Foster & Marshall, 2015), college radio is hardly mentioned in the prevailing hip hop studies scholarship. College radio continued to play a key role in hip hop's growth through the 1990s. In the documentary Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives--which tells the story of the 1990s Columbia University radio (WKCR 89.9 FM) program that many regard as the "most important hip hop radio show ever" (Petchauer, 2012, p. 31)--Lord Sear describes "college radio ... [as] the incubator and feeder to commercial rap success" (Acosta, 2015). During the 1980s college radio was more than an incubator. With few commercial radio outlets playing hip hop, college radio was virtually all there was.

Black Students, White Campuses

The challenges facing Black students in predominantly white institution have been widely discussed (see, for example, Allen, 1988; Feagin et al., 1996; Baker, 2013). In this section, I revisit a specific series of incidents, concerns, and studies that occurred during the mid-to-late 1980s. In developing my...

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