Radio Days — Then and Now: Retro College Countdown edition

This series of posts covers my long, beloved history interacting with the medium of radio, including the music that flowed through the airwaves.

countdown and then

For over twenty years, a good friend of mine had held down one of the Sunday night shifts at our mutual alma mater college radio station, WWSP-90M, at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Because he’s a kind and generous soul, he sometimes gifts me with the opportunity to take over for a week, and there was just such an occasion last night. Often I do a straightforward version of his established format, playing a mix of new and old college radio–friendly songs, hence the name of the show: Here and Now. Last night, I had something different in mind. I defaulted instead to the format of the show that held the same time slot, on and off, from the late nineteen-eighties to the early nineteen-nineties on the station. For one night only, I brought back College Countdown.

As I explained some ten years ago when College Countdown was introduced as a regular Sunday feature in this digital outpost, College Countdown aired on 90FM on Sunday nights, using the Top Cuts chart published in CMJ, the trade publication serving college radio, to emulate the format famously practiced by Casey Kasem and others. For the retro revival last night, I got my hands on Top Cuts chart from the same week thirty years prior, allowing me to count down the forty most-played songs on college radio that particular week.

It is a mightily difficult show to preside over, requiring time on mic between every song, hardly a commonplace approach on the left end of the dial. And I wanted to honor the true origins of the show, which — again mirroring the Top 40 radio equivalents — peppered in information and trivia about the acts appearing on the chart. I probably could have deployed those sorts of facts straight from the tippy top of my head back in the day, when these tracks and their corresponding albums were fueling every one of the many shifts I took on, but my memory’s current foggy state required significant preparatory research to remind of all the things that I previously knew well. And there was one more challenge. Although forty songs in three hours should be easy to pull off, especially on a non-commercial station, a frightful number of the tracks on this chart were notably long, meaning I was pressed for time, racing to complete the show in the allotted time. I needed to produce a tight, focused version of the show.

In the end, it worked out, and it was an exhausting, exhilarating night. For posterity, I’ll share the list that dictated the playlist, with a few Countdown-style annotations — albeit highly personalized — thrown in for good measure.


CMJ’s Top Cuts for the issue dated August 31, 1990

40. Soup Dragons, “I’m Free”

The first of two Soup Dragons songs on the chart, both debuts. These tracks were from the band’s third album, Lovegod. The summer of 1990 was the only time during my five year of college that I went home for the summer, and I remember Lovegod as one of the albums that represented a glorious return to my college radio station after a painful layoff. I remember a vinyl copy propped up against my battered stereo through the whole fall.
39. Katydids, “Heavy Weather Traffic”
38. The Heart Throbs, “Dreamtime”
37. The Neville Brothers, “River of Life”
36. The Jack Rubies, “Mona Lisa”
35. Concrete Blonde, “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)”

The first of two songs from Concrete Blonde on the chart. On the air, I noted this song appeared on countless Gen X Halloween mix tapes. That’s not a joke. I believe it in my heart to be true.
34. World Party, “Put the Message in the Box”
33. The Strawberry Zots, “Get Me to the World on Time”
32. The Breeders, Happiness is a Warm Gun”

The first of two songs on the chart from the Breeders debut album, Pod. It’s also one of two Beatles covers. For acts without guaranteed attention from college programmers, there were few surer tactics for airplay than giving college kids the handy opportunity to play a song they knew.
31. John Hiatt, “Child of the Wild Blue Yonder”
30. Jesus Jones, “Never Enough”

The first of two songs from Jesus Jones on the chart, both from the band’s debut album, Liquidizer. Several months later, the band released their sophomore album, Doubt. At my radio station, it was absolutely dominant, becoming the most played album of the year,
29. The Red House, “I Said a Prayer”
28. Yo La Tengo, “The Summer”
27. Bob Mould, “It’s Too Late”

This was the first single from Mould’s second album. My station tended to heavily favor brand new music (while other station’s trailed a little bit, making new albums earn their place at the top of their charts), and there was a tremendous affection for the Minneapolis-based artists that were some of the most prominent of the college rock era. Those details help explain why a week in which most other college radio stations were warming up to Black Sheets of Rain, Mould’s album topped out chart.
26. Jellyfish, “The King is Half-Undressed”
25. Hothouse Flowers, “Give It Up”
24. Aztec Camera, “The Crying Scene”
23. Was (Not Was), “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”
22. The Charlatans UK, “The Only One I Know”
21. The Breeders, “Hellbound”
20. Jesus Jones, “Move Mountains”
19. The Jazz Butcher, “She’s On Drugs”
18. Soup Dragons, Mother Universe”
17. Boom Crash Opera, “Onion Skin”

This song was huge at our station, but I think it basically stalled out on the CMJ chart at around this point. If my recollection is accurate, we were right and those other folks were wrong. This is a perfect college radio single.
16. Soul Asylum, “Spinnin'”
15. Concrete Blonde, “Joey”

While I was away from my college radio station — my summer of exile, as I painfully recall it — the success of this single, which peaked in the Top 20 of the Billboard chart — was like a lifeline.
14. Railway Children, “Every Beat of the Heart”

This was a big hit, taking the top spot on the Billboard chart devote to commercial alternative rock stations. It was a big enough hit at our station that it was labeled with a green dot, our marker of a highly recognizable song that would lead off an hour to hopefully hook wandering-inclined listeners who maybe got caught up in the newscast. For last night’s show, I played the old station copy, and the label of the album jacket gave me reason to believe it hadn’t been touched since it moved from new music rotation to the stacks thirty years ago.
13. Sonic Youth, “Dirty Boots”

The first of three songs from Sonic Youth. Their album Goo came out that summer and absolutely dominated the charts. In the issue that includes this chart, Goo was in the top position on the album chart, one issue away from the all-time record for duration in holding that spot.
12. Candy Flip, “Strawberry Fields Forever”
11. Iggy Pop, “Candy”
10. The Stone Roses, “One Love”
9. Sonic Youth, “Tunic (Song for Karen)”
8. Happy Mondays, “Step On”
7. Gene Loves Jezebel, “Jealous”
6. Iggy Pop, “Home”
5. David J, “I’ll Be Your Chauffeur”
4. Devo, “Post Post-Modern Man”
3. Jane’s Addiction, “Stop!”
2. Sonic Youth, “Kool Thing”

And this song had been on top of the Top Cuts chart since its release. “Kool Thing” debuted at that position in early July and stayed locked there for the rest of the summer. It took another emerging icon of college rock to push them to the runner-up spot.
1. The Pixies, “Velouria”

Bossanova, the third album from the Pixies, was on the verge of release, timed to welcome college kids back for the new school year. “Velouria” was the lead single, and it helped cement them as the major act of the moment in college radio.


Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Radio Days” tag.

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