"Someone stole our radio station in broad daylight," lamented former WRVU DJ (and Grimey's co-owner) Doyle Davis in a Facebook status update June 7, just as news of the beloved station's fate was trickling out. It's the sort of sentiment that defies logic even as it captures the marrow of the matter: Vanderbilt Student Communications may have legally owned the station's call letters, equipment and signal — but the woozy pulse WRVU bleeped out for nearly six decades always felt like it belonged to us.
Only it didn't. VSC restaked its claim and struck a deal with Nashville Public Radio that's way more them and a whole lot less us. We were always rock, but it turns out they were Rachmaninoff all along. And we should hardly be surprised.
If you'll pardon the oversimplification, college radio has always been a kind of revenge of the nerds. It is dorks turning other dorks on to cool shit. It is dork-on-dork action at the height of its dorkiness. It has always been the case that the DJs themselves were the ones bringing the obscure and esoteric to 91 and Vanderbilt with their collective smarts and talents, not the other way around.
Was it possible that Vanderbilt proper ever "got" the sort of kids it was saving, one cool, weird, quirky song at a time? Or the bands it was helping promote? Given the VSC board's distance from the community that rallied to save WRVU, it seems unlikely. Turning a young kid on to punk — or the blues, or early country, or good funk — is nowhere to be found in Vanderbilt's catalog or mission, either stated or implied. Community DJs were the ones clamoring for slots, not students. 91 beamed outside the notorious "Vanderbilt bubble" — the mythical cocoon that isolates students from the city beyond — but didn't pop it.
In other words, the station was never meant to serve the larger community: It was about educational opportunities. And on that score, as much as 91's diehard fans may hate to hear it, the new arrangement may have much to offer. WPLN can now grant listeners a new slot for news and classical on the radio dial, while Vanderbilt students win a relationship with a professional newsroom (via promised internships). That likely does more to enhance the university's enrollment appeal — at least to administrators — than a slot on scruffy old black-sheep WRVU.
So when WPLN president Rob Gordon calls the purchase a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — for WPLN — he has a point. Had no one seized the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was 91 Rock, think how much poorer Nashville would be. In a world of radio consolidation and cookie-cutter playlists — the natural enemies of live DJs and interesting music — while noncommercial radio stations the country over were dying, WRVU probably stayed protected for longer than anyone could have hoped.
Maybe college radio's best years are behind it — anyone paying attention knows you don't need it to find out who the current equivalent of The Smiths are, or to find out about a Smiths album, or to find out about other Smiths fans. You go online, if not necessarily to online radio. At this point, the possibility of college radio outlasting the industrial wasteland of commercial radio has begun to look about as realistic as a Smiths reunion.
But maybe this is time to celebrate, not mourn. Because if you ask anyone to list the things WRVU helped create musically in Nashville, it's obvious we were always on borrowed time. We should be glad we had this good thing as long as we did.
In a sense, this is true of all college radio. It's a forum notorious for attracting the eccentric and offbeat — people with trembling, non-radio-God voices and a chronic inability to correctly read PSAs, yet who were blessed with preternaturally killer taste in music and a soft spot for the underdog. But here, in the midst of this prestigious, conservative university in this little country town, WRVU fostered generation after generation of DJs who helped hoist up Nashville's music scene one watt at a time.
Particularly the seminal rock scene here in the early '80s. Were it not for 91 Rock airing local and emerging bands with nearly religious fervor, acts like the Replacements, R.E.M. and the dBs would have blazed right past this city's fledgling scene, leaving the Jason and the Scorchers and the Bill Lloyds and Tommy Womacks in a vacuum. If not for 91's place among a growing culture of zines, fliers and scruffy punks at Cat's Records and Cantrell's, a groundwork could have never been laid for the Kings of Leons, JEFFs and Features of today. WRVU not only fostered a growing opposition to Music Row's factory, but by bringing acts here with the lure of airplay, it also helped carve out the national touring map through the Southeast that indie bands still follow today.
Ask anyone who reveres college radio, and they will tell you that it offered a magical, unparalleled portal to an otherworld of underground music, the sort of thing you just couldn't get anywhere else. That it existed at all was like some kind of tantalizing secret — proof that something true could cut through all the mainstream bullshit.
Which, almost by definition, made it too good to last.
Maybe we dreamed unrealistically that something so untouchably cool, such a throwback to decades past, could go on even longer than it did. That's what dreamers do. But there's a future to conquer, new worlds and bands to discover — and more importantly, some kinda weird new high-definition channel with no listeners and no identity, save for the six decades of blood and sweat that went into its call letters.
So stop me if you've heard this one before: The year is 2020, and college radios the nation over no longer exist terrestrially in any capacity. But online, there's this one station from this Nashville university you can still listen to, and it streams these phenomenal shows with some pretty interesting playlists. There's this show called Nashville Jumps, and it's amazing that it's even on the Internet at all. ...
Email firstname.lastname@example.org.Vanderbilt's beloved 91 Rock is no longer on the air. Has Nashville lost an irreplaceable institution, or gained an opportunity?
No pigtails Pink, just pig.
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