The above graphic stands as a nice transition from the previous College Countdown list to the one we’re about to embark upon. The 90FM’s Top 90 list just completed dated from 1996 (going nicely with the edition from 1989 that we tracked through earlier), but the station has a longer history than that, having first gone in the air in the late nineteen-sixties as WSUS-FM. The image above was part of the station’s branding in 1978, and I think it offers a telling glimpse at the state of college radio at the time. 1978 was the year that the dB’s, the Dead Kennedys, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Public Image Ltd. all formed. Elvis Costello came out with This Year’s Model, Wire released Chairs Missing, Tom Waits issued his Blue Valentine and the Clash had Give ‘Em Enough Rope. There were debut releases by XTC, Squeeze, Kate Bush, Midnight Oil, and Pere Ubu. Late in the year, the Cure released their debut single. In Limerick, Ireland, a band called U2 took top prize in a talent show, winning studio time to record a demo. And in Athens, Georgia, a young man by the name of Peter Buck decided to apply for a job at Wuxtry Records, where he’d eventually meet a singer named Michael Stipe. None of that provides particularly good clues as to what college radio sounded like at the time.
Commercial FM broadcasting was less than twenty years old in 1978. In fact, that year was the first time that listenership on the FM band–with its stereo sound and superior audio quality–exceeded that of AM radio. Simply by being on FM, college radio stations were somewhat strange and alternative. Rather than having their own identity, they were tied up in that of broader FM radio, still fledgling enough that it was known for freeform deejays who played lengthy album cuts and ruminated on the state of music with stoner sincerity in the wee hours of the morning. College radio was more likely to emulate that than to push back against it. That was just starting to change in 1978. Arguably a major part of that shift was the emergence of CMJ.
Initially called College Media Journal, the official debut issue came out in early 1979, with Costello gracing the cover. That wasn’t the very first issue, however. Some four months earlier, publication co-founder Bobby Haber retreated to his parents’ basement to create a 32-page, hand-stapled magazine which included an album chart generated from the playlists of college stations nationwide. That first chart isn’t all that distinctive in some ways, looking an awful lot like what probably would have resulted from polling more traditional, professional album rock stations at the time. But nestled within it are hints of the personality of college radio to come, a personality that CMJ would have a mighty part in forming, simply by providing a unified voice for student broadcasters.
And the process of counting down that first album tally begins next Sunday, with the LP that resides at #26 on the chart. Why #26? Well, because I want to write about the album that landed there, and I’m not all that interested in the equivalent releases residing at #27 and #28. After all, this is college radio in the late-seventies we’re talking about. They were on the cusp of starting to bend and then break all the rules. Why not do a little rule-bending of our own?
Anyway, the next Countdown commences next week with one of those artists who would have a hard time getting much more than the most tentative sniff from college broadcasters today. But, again, that’s for next week.