For the first time since 1997--not counting listening for traffic reports when I worked in Chicago--I have been listening to the radio. Not internet radio, which I find an iffy proposition. Nor, worse, streaming services. As the ipod has been sidelined with some occasional connectivity issues, and the cd of Underworld's Second Toughest in the Infants finally having worn out its novelty, I turned to good old broadcast-from-a-tower, received-by-an-antenna radio. It's been quite the revelation.
After one Taylor Swift song, a few acceptable R&B numbers, and far more Christian talk programming than I would have guessed, the scan function landed on 88.1, which was playing a very weird song. The very lowest end of the dial is usually reserved for pirate radio stations, so this was promising. As it turned out, the station was something even better: WKNC, NC State's radio station. A charming and very amateur interview with a local bluegrass band later on in the same car ride confirmed this as a winning option, and it has become my listening method of choice on subsequent trips.
The advantages of live college radio are best explained in comparison to their opposition. Internet radio is as good as the underlying station. WFMU has a good radio simulcast because it is a good station; the average station owned by a conglomerate with a playlist determined nationally will not. Sirius and XM, in virtue of their narrow identities as stations, tend to play the same sort of thing over and over again. One requires many stations in those cases to get minimally acceptable variation. I've never had the feeling that Pandora and its ilk are anything but antiseptic: if I must go to the trouble of telling a service what I would like them to play, I might as well make my own playlist and only hear songs I want to hear. The radio solution is a station that is only likely to play songs you want to hear, but not repeat any of those songs so many times as to get sick of them.
The dirty secret of coolness, especially in its college expression, is that it never changes. This is the way--and pretty much the only way--that someone like me, now no longer remotely cool, could stumble on the hipster coffee shop at Chicago as the 'comfortable' option. There will be new expressions of its themes, but these follow the same general trends: garage rock, appropriations of 1950s song styles, some light electronic music, the occasional screamer band, the edge of hip-hop, some country (both authentic Hank Williams Sr and all possible alt- configurations), guitar pop, and the slightest bit of world music.
College radio, then, is a solution to the problem of radio: a predictable but not repetitive collection of music that will hit far more often than it misses, but requiring no work of the listener.