Radio Days — Priority Emphasis

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

At least in my era, I think the college kids who stewarded the airwaves at their campus radio station generally operated with an aspirational self-perception that they were cutting-edge musical tastemakers. We didn’t just play records, you see. We played records before anyone else alit on the realization on how good and cool they were. The devious editors of CMJ, the trade publication that served college radio, knew how to play to the competitive spirit that inevitably whirled up from those smug-adjacent instincts. When I started at the station in the late nineteen-eighties, CMJ devoted two pages in the middle of each biweekly issue to a section called Priority Emphasis, printed on eye-shattering bright yellow pages so it couldn’t be missed.

Each Priority Emphasis section featured ten recent releases that were earning notable levels of airplay on left-of-the-dial stations coast to coast. Following a synopsis, which read a little like the simpler version of the proper review that appeared an issue or two earlier, there was a sentence that rattled off the call letters of all the stations that had elevated the record in question to the upper reaches of their respective charts.

More often than I care to admit, I grabbed the new issue of CMJ when it appeared on top of our mail bin and tore straight to the Priority Emphasis page to see how many entries devoted a little space to calling out my station’s call letters, WWSP. I feel a similar reluctance in owning up the the number of times I was chagrinned that the titles selected for the feature didn’t align with the modern rock offerings we embraced most quickly and intensely. It didn’t matter how many times we appeared on those pages. I always wanted at least one more.

Not too deep into my tenure at the station, CMJ discontinued the Priority Emphasis section. For my mental well-being, that was probably for the best. The perceived ratification of our taste wasn’t necessary, after all. We ran a good station and curated a highly worthy music library, especially for our modest market. And yet, I couldn’t quite help myself. I still craved to see our little broadcasting outpost get a printed acknowledgement here and there in the pages of the CMJ with the more modest echos of the Priority Emphasis page that cropped up from time to time. Sometimes, the fates even swerved straight in our favor with a featured record that could have been selected solely to suit our well-established preferences. Those were fine weeks.

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

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