In the student centre of an idyllic Western Massachusetts college – up the ground floor staircase, past the inciting smell of half-baked cookies and ethically sourced coffee – you will find a dingy two room studio tucked away from the now distant hum of students. A quick swipe of a student ID and you are granted access to the world that lies beyond.

Band merchandise, consisting primarily of posters and stickers, collage the doors and walls, while metal shelves housing CDs and vinyls are sprinkled with coloured sticky notes that showcase the thoughts and whims of its latest denizens.

During the academic year it houses more than just physical copies of artistry, it serves as a refuge for the 40+ students who choose to devote their time to the organisation aptly named WMHC (Mount Holyoke College’s student radio station). The oldest historically female-run college radio station in the nation, it has truly seen it all: from the heydays of college radio in the late eighties and early nineties to the creation of streaming services. It’s a station that, like many other college radio outlets, is reflective of a fringe culture that society has deemed fading or even obsolete.

College radio had the potential to be a radical space for sharing ideas and building communities and movements … there was something about that possibility that intrigued me

In the past year alone College Music Journal (CMJ), which served as a conduit for college radio stations across America to interact with one another became obsolete. Its dissolution into the abyss led many to lament and eulogize the form, including those within the music industry itself. Hannah Carlen, radio director at the collective, Secretly Group, home to Bon Iver, ANOHNI, Angel Olsen, and others, told Pitchfork earlier this year that “There are fewer stations whose airwaves matter. It’s heartbreaking to say. Station staffs really matter and DJs really matter, but it’s less and less likely that someone is going to hear something for the first time on college radio.”

In fact only 9% of listeners aged 12-24 use AM/FM radio as their source for keeping up with new music according to a nationwide survey on media consumption last year. But despite facts like these college radio still remains necessary. Not for its influence on the airwaves, but for the values it champions: freedom of speech, experimental drive, risk-taking, and rawness.

However, it’s a platform which seems to be dominated primarily by the male opinion. While researching this topic, I came across a litany of articles all written by men, which made me question why aren’t seeing more minorities, specifically females speak up about the issue? Having gone to a women’s college myself, and simply existing as a female within the 21st century, I am well aware of the patriarchy and how the music industry is notorious for being dominated by white cis-gendered men, but to acknowledge this fact is jarring nonetheless.

My experiences within my community of DJs and college radio were consistently empowering and validating

More jarring is the antiquated justifications as to why women are choosing to forego careers in radio or in music, such as the inability to commit the time necessary to raise both a family and perform their job or they simply lack of assertiveness to survive as DJ on air. It’s the type of blatant sexism that you would hope would only exist in the past, but is more prevalent than ever.

It’s up to the younger generation of women to change the discussion. Especially in an age where women in media are often relegated to sidekick status or even forgotten from the narrative, college radio exists as one of the few spaces where females and/ or gender nonconforming individuals can safely express their views and foster a community.


Below are the questions and responses I generated from the form I sent out, (for references to ‘Hannah’ it is not Hannah Carlen quoted above):

Why did you choose to become part of college radio?

  • Hannah (she/her): “It was the first org I saw at Mount Holyoke, and it made a lasting impression. It felt like such a lasting and fun community and I wanted to be a part of it.”
  • M. (they/them) : “radio is rad! i’ve always loved music and one of the chief ways i found new music as a kid was by surfing the radiowaves at odd times to find more groovy tunes.”
  • Emma (she/her): “I had always loved music and wanted to be a part of the radio community – when I had toured MHC, I saw the radio station and knew I wanted to be involved”
  • Ariela (she/her): “I had this idea that radio DJs were super cool people and I wanted a little bit of that coolness to rub off on me. I think I also had this vague idea that college radio had the potential to be a radical space for sharing ideas and building communities and movements and there was something about that possibility that intrigued me. I liked that it was open to me to have a specialty show where I could engage in discussions about topics that I cared about and thought were important to start dialogues about.”
  • Allegra (she/her): “I love music and talking about music!”
  • Sara (she/her): “I had never heard of college radio until I got to MHC, I was intrigued by the fact that you could have your own real radio show on the air. I went to the info session, and toured the radio station, and I knew I wanted to try it out, it looked so cool to me, something I had never seen before.”
  • Sydne (she/her): “I grew up in a rural city where radio was really important, and music was a way I connected to friends in high school. So when I went to college I was immediately drawn to WBAR (Barnard’s college radio station) and had a radio show all 4 years.”
  • Najwa (she/her): “I wanted an extra-curricular activity related to music, one of my true passions. I also wanted a platform to promote anyone and spotlight any cause I wanted to and speak my mind. Down the line I got into DDJ controllers and began to mix live on my radio show.”

 

Why do you feel like college radio is important especially within times when its influence seems to be fading?

  • Hannah: “After the 2016 election, it became clear to me that I had a platform to voice my opinions, my art etc. and that not everyone has that privilege. Radio is a means of communication that at its basis creates an audience. That can be really powerful, even despite the changing forms of media. Radio will always have a power and magic to it. It was one of the first ways to bring entertainment into the home to experience together. That’s important to me.”
  • M.: “radio has such a rich history! My uncle told me that when Berlin was separated by the wall, East and West Berliners were able to communicate and overcome the physical barrier of the wall through radio, because the wall couldn’t block it! Especially in the age of increasing privatization of media, institutions like public libraries and radio democratize access to all. Radio isn’t just awesome for sharing your taste in music, but as a technology and method and tool for open access to information!”
  • Emma: “It was something I did for me more than anything else. Perhaps that sounds selfish, but it was so incredibly fulfilling for me to play my music with my best friend and just focus on that. I think it’s an amazing opportunity for expression. Being in the radio station was a form of therapy- I laughed, I cried, I felt completely present in the moment.”
  • Ariela: “College radio is so so important because I think it does provide this unique venue for broadcasting music and opinions that are not a part of the mainstream. So much of commercial radio these days is the same music by the same voices. Don’t get me wrong, I love pop radio a lot, but my favorite radio shows in college where those that introduced me to music by people I wouldn’t have stumbled across on my own, mainly musicians and artists who were POC or queer or exploring unique topics with their music. I liked being challenged to find artists that wouldn’t normally get exposure on the radio and by contributing to the process of promoting their music. I could make active choices to only play women artists of color on my radio. I think it’s interesting that other DIY forms of expression (like zines for example) are making more of a comeback with current radical spaces, but that radio hasn’t always had that same success and I hope that college radio isn’t fading because I think there is still an incredibly important space for it.”
  • Allegra: “It really helped my self confidence. Being in that booth allowed me to have a voice that I never felt like I had before.”
  • Sara: “I think it’s important because it’s a way to communicate within the college community. I think it’s a way to exchange ideas and give voice to the people in the school. When you are in the studio, that’s your space, and you communicate to the rest of the community what you want to say. People may decide not to listen to you, but unless for comments from listeners, that’s your own time to express what you want. I also think it’s important because it teaches you how to be confident when speaking and communicating with other people. And I think it teaches you how to be respectful. It’s true that you can say whatever you want on radio because that’s your space, but because you don’t know who is listening, I think it teaches you to be respectful of all your listeners.”
  • Sydne: “Couple different reasons. On a personal level, it’s a way to share and develop your taste, as well as practice public speaking, performance, and one’s “voice”. In the industry, college radio is important because it is the underground, the pulse of undiscovered music. Kids know the cool shit first.”
  • Najwa: “College radio can soar to top-quality and break into mainstream radio like Emerson, MIT, and Harvard radio. But if it’s not exactly like the programming and technical level these stations have, it’s still unique. On the air, programming is a labor of love. Events sponsored by colleges and the radio organizations have the potential to unite the surrounding community and bring quality music to college students and others who this may be inaccessible to.”

 

How did your experience as a minority affect your experience?

  • Hannah: “I have a lot of privilege, so to me it felt like just a fun extra curricular for a long time. Only as General Manager of radio station did I first feel disadvantaged as a woman. When I was setting up DJ equipment for a party, one of the security guards tried to explain how to set it up more effectively because he DJed part time and thought I needed some help. I didn’t.”
  • M.: “It’s strange – my show is almost entirely music (and I barely talk on it), but I did get comments from people who were like “Oh, why do you play so much music with female singers?” – this was never something which had occurred to me as weird? But, retrospectively, I did have to put in a conscious effort to be able to curate a library of a lot of great women musicians. Another thing I’ve gotten, especially from the white people who have listened to my radio shows in the past, is that my playlist seems so “eclectic” (but they say it in that special way that white people say “eclectic”, with the same inflection with which they say things like “ethnic” and “oriental”) just because i didn’t just play sad boi with guitar type tunes. Like, hey, guess what, people make music all across the world!!!! I also hate “world” music as a category, what does that even mean? It lumps all music which isn’t American and British into the same category – because obviously Kenyan drum music is the same thing as Indian indiepop.”
  • Emma: “We talked about whatever the fuck we wanted, when we wanted, and that felt so liberating. It was a time carved aside for me and my friend to narrate our lives and share our stories. It was revolutionary to, quite literally, have a voice. As a woman, opportunities to speak can be limited. At Mount Holyoke and especially in the station, they weren’t.”
  • Ariela: “I am a queer Latinx woman and I think that it made me more cognizant of whose voices I was highlighting. I worked on a live segment of my college radio that hosted local musicians to play live. My experience of the music scene in the Pioneer Valley was super white cis dude centric, but with the program I was able to reach out to and highlight artists who didn’t fit that description and who maybe don’t have as much visibility because of their identities. I thought it was important that college radio at a women’s college was used to emphasize the work of women and non-binary folks above others.”
  • Allegra: “I definitely felt comfortable being on radio as a minority… People were super welcoming and respectful”
  • Sara: “I think that being a non native english speaker, affected my experience. At the beginning especially, I was worried about my accent on air, and was always nervous when reading the sign on and sign off, because I was afraid listeners would not understand me. I also had to think a little more about what I really wanted to say, because I knew that my vocabulary was not as florid as in my native language, therefore I felt I was often using the same words. I remember being worried about playing music from country, thinking that people would not like it, but then I understood that you could play whatever you wanted, because that was your time and space. Also, my listeners gave me good feedback about my music choices, that made me feel more confident.”
  • Sydne: “Well, I was at a radio station at a women’s college (Barnard) that was open to all genders and students from the greater campus community (Columbia). I was surprised that the leadership positions were split 50/50 women/men (including Columbia dudes from across the street). By surprised, I mean dissapointed because I continued to apply for leadership positions for years and was never brought on staff. Though my male counterparts were.”
  • Najwa: “I identify as a pansexual Arab-American woman. I do not present as queer so that does affect the way I am seen in the world. I went to a women’s college, so our radio waves felt like a safe space for us no matter where our identities intersected. But trying to get DJ gigs outside of this, people would often tell me I was good “for a female DJ.” That definitely lit a fire under me to prove myself.”

 

Did you feel like in college radio you could safely express your identity without fear of prosecution?

  • Hannah: “Yes, I do. I had a small audience that allowed me to feel that way but I think I’m lucky to have had that.”
  • M.: “At Mount Holyoke, yeah! i recently joined a larger university’s station- i feel like there are more regulations and rules and, i guess, people are not as accepting? or, at least, they’re more reserved?
  • Emma: “Absolutely! Like I said, we talked about whatever the fuck we wanted to.”
  • Ariela: “Yes, I never felt censored by my community.”
  • Allegra: “Yes! Definitely”
  • Sara: “I felt like I did. I think that being in the studio space, that for those couple of hours a week becomes yours, allowed me to feel comfortable and therefore express myself freely. I also felt that I was expressing myself mainly to the MHC community, and I felt that was a safe space. Also, knowing that people could only hear me and not see me, gave me a sense of security in expressing myself.”
  • Sydne: “I definitely could on my show, but there was a weird cult culture (in our station-wide meetings) where I felt judged and also very uncool.”
  • Najwa: “Yes, for the most part. There are political issues in the Arab World that I wished I could express myself on more freely. On my current radio show, Back2Beirut, I definitely feel like I can express myself freely because Insight Radio (www.insightradioapp.com) is run by people of color. Shout-out to Lazy Loon!”

 

During your time as a DJ, did you experience any sexism from promoters, bands, other DJs? Explain.

  • Hannah: “I have a lot of privilege, so to me it felt like just a fun extra curricular for a long time. Only as General Manager of radio station did I first feel disadvantaged as a woman. When I was setting up DJ equipment for a party, one of the security guards tried to explain how to set it up more effectively because he DJed part time and thought I needed some help. I didn’t.”
  • M.: “not really. just sometimes from random people who happened to learn that i had a radio show, they would say things like “oh your show must be all girly pop and top 40s, right?” but those people are jerks.”
  • Emma: “No! Thank fuck.”
  • Ariela: “Yep yep yep I had some gross interactions with one of the dude bands who we had on our Live at 5 program. There was a lot of being surprised that I was comfortable running the station, comments about me carrying gear, and some general uncomfortable sexual comments that I zero percent wanted to be a part of. All while a few members of the band proved themselves low key incompetent by forgetting important items of gear and exhibiting an inability to modulate their volume.”
  • Allegra: “Nah”
  • Sara: “I didn’t. I did not have much communication with promoters and bands, but when  I did, I was fortunate to not experience any sexism. As for the other DJs, I have to say that I always felt very comfortable and respected in the WMHC community, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that MHC in general is a very respectful and open minded community.”
  • Sydne: “Nah. Again – I was at a women’s college. But while I was interning at a real radio station in Utah I definitely did experience mistreatment and sexism. My supervisor gave me more and more responsibilities, but when talking to his own supervisors/peers he would not recognize my work or stand up for me.”
  • Najwa: “The events I would throw would mostly be male performers and sometimes they acted a little diva-esque. When I go out and perform at night clubs, sometimes male DJs would boot me off mid-set. The last event I played was run by QPOC and it was a much better experience (S/O Survivor Arts Collective)!”

 

Did your experience influence your decision whether or not to pursue music or other creative ventures as a career or as hobby?

  • Hannah: “My love for college radio pushed me to try new things and not be afraid to voice my opinions.”
  • M.: “nope! i love radio and have continued to pursue it after college!”
  • Emma: “No, but it reaffirmed my love for music”
  • Ariela: “I’ve never been particularly musically talented so I never have really had any intention of pursuing music, but I did enjoy a lot of the gear/tech aspects of working the radio station. I’ve thought many times about joining my local community radio station (and still might!) so I guess the answer to this question is still pending.”
  • Allegra: “I now have a podcast which is cool, and I’m super comfortable talking on camera or on podcasts as a result. Plus I work as a journalist which writing for the radio column helped with.”
  • Sara: “Definitely! Right after college I interned in a radio station, and although now I have a different job that is not radio related, I am still very interested in radio. I often think about a future career in radio or in a storytelling related profession. Lately, I also have been thinking of starting my own podcast as a side project.”
  • Sydne: “My experience as a college radio DJ fueled my passion for music, and was probably instrumental to getting internships at radio stations and concert booking companies, so yes.”
  • Najwa: “It only motivated me harder to create space for DJs who are women of color”

 

If you were a cis white man, how do you think that your experiences would have changed within college radio?

  • Hannah: “Maybe I would have had more confidence in my leadership positions.”
  • M.: “i wouldn’t feel conscious about playing some of the songs I did, or I wouldn’t curl up into a ball of anxiety when a white person listens to my playlist and says that it was “interesting”.”
  • Emma: “Oh god, I don’t know- I imagine there would’ve been fewer stories about periods (sad, because who doesn’t love a good period story?) the MHC radio community was so inclusive that I never considered this aspect. It just felt like a forum where we could all express our own (undertold) life experiences. I’d like to think ours were more interesting than the average cis white male’s? Hah”
  • Ariela: “I think I was fortunate enough to do college radio at a women’s college, and at a women’s college that has the oldest women’s run collegiate radio station in the country, so my experiences within my community of DJs and college radio were consistently empowering and validating. I really appreciated (as with all things at Mount Holyoke) the opportunity to learn things with other women and trans folks in an environment that would not and did not question my competence because I was a woman.”
  • Allegra: “I don’t know that I would have received the same confidence boost as a white dude!”
  • Sara: “I think that if I had not been at MHC, having a radio show at a different coed school would have been very different. It’s hard to say, but I think that I would have probably felt more insecure about having my own show, and feeling free and confident to express my opinions. But because I was at MHC, WMHC taught me this confidence, so if I had to run a radio show now in a coed space, I would feel confident to do so.”
  • Sydne: “hmmmmmmmm…in my college radio at a women’s college? No. BUT if I was a cis white man at the legit radio station I worked at in Utah – yes. I probably would’ve gotten more respect and a job offer tbh. Instead of being treated as nosy and bossy.”
  • Najwa: “I wouldn’t improve because I wouldn’t be challenged to prove myself and work harder for the same opportunities a white male would get.”

 

Anything else you would like to add?

  • Hannah: “Check out WMHC Radio South Hadley 91.5 FM for the oldest continually radio station run primarily by women in the country.”
  • Sydne: “Just as a recap, I think college radio is important and will continue to be as an outlet for kids as they develop their identity. It might be an echo chamber, but half of it is figuring out what you like and how you express yourself. Legit radio is where I experienced more sexism.”
  • Najwa: “You can hear me mix and podcast on my radio show, Back2Beirut, every Wednesday night at 8:30pm EST on www.insightradioapp.com. Shout-out Insight Radio for being my home! You can find original tracks and mixes on my Soundcloud. My artist name and IG handle and Soundcloud is: 7elucinations.”

 


Image: Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections

Sydney Catherine
When Sydney isn’t spending her time studying neurodegenerative diseases, she is probably talking about other people’s music, films, and photography whilst enjoying a damn fine cup of coffee.

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