College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1996, An Introduction

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A recent Onion A.V. Club article posited that 1992 was the year that college rock died. It’s clear that the author, Noel Murray, is talking primarily about a very specific sound, the rootsy, chiming music that was largely inspired by the massive success R.E.M. had–really from their very very first full-length album–over on the left end of the dial. Murray notes that college radio largely repelled strict categorizations of genre, having room for what seemed a wider variety of musical styles, but the bands that the mourns that were crushed under the steamroller of Nirvana’s success are almost uniformly those that probably got their record contracts because their guitars had the same rising tang as the little ol’ band from Athens, Georgia. Hell, one of the bands he invokes, Guadalcanal Diary, was so keenly aware of their obligation to the (slightly) earlier band that it inspired the album title Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man.

In a way, I think the article may be on to something even bigger. It wasn’t just the insurgence of the Seattle grunge sound–and, even worse, the multitude of bands like Bush, Silverchair and Filter that desperately, clumsily tried to ape it–but the sudden emergence of a widespread radio format to support it and indeed clamor for ever more material to help bridge the gap between Pearl Jam records. There was a time in the mid-nineties when “new rock alternative” was one of the fastest growing formats in radio, bested only by sports talk, which has fared far better in the long term. I was working at one of those new rock alternative stations during that time, and I saw firsthand how our programmers, based out of a national consulting agency instead of our own local offices, were immediately strangling the life out of what college radio had previously down, largely on their own. Creativity and variety was basically repulsive to the decision-makers, who instead believed deeply in the power of bludgeoning redundancy. That might have been relatively harmless if student programmers’ instinctual aversion to anything broadly popular had kicked in more strongly, more quickly. Instead, Bush’s unbearable Sixteen Stone was college radio’s top album of 1995. A rising tide raises all ships, but it also sometimes swamps decks with fetid water.

I graduated college in 1993 and lingered around continuing to volunteer at my broadcast alma mater, WWSP-90FM at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, until late 1994. To my ears, the sounds coming from the station were still quite respectable during this brief span. I well recall listening to the year-end Top 90 countdown on the evening on New Year’s Eve 1993 and being satisfied, even impressed, that the Smashing Pumpkins album Siamese Dream topped the list (even though it could be argued that their success was also a byproduct of the multi-platinum sales of Nirvana’s Nevermind). The question is, then, if the radio station reflected the change I perceived (or maybe feared) that locked into place shortly thereafter. Luckily, the year-end countdown persisted for a few more years, providing some insight. 90FM was always a little more open to commercial music than fellow student-run stations that were quick to discard artists at the first whiff of broader success, meaning they were probably a little more likely to be susceptible to the guitar zeroes that the major labels were putting their weight behind.

I’ll say this: the countdown certainly doesn’t start in promising fashion. On evidence of the albums at 90 and 89, if college radio wasn’t dead, it was definitely coughing up some bloody phlegm in 1996. But we’ll get to that when the countdown official gets underway next Sunday.

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