College Radio

Time to pretend.


Last year, I found a time portal. I pressed a button and a wormhole opened up. On the other side was no particular year or era. On the other side was a way I used to be, a way I used to feel.

You can try it too: just turn your radio dial to your local college station, settle in, and wait.

At first, I thought I’d started listening to college radio again just because I enjoyed the offbeat music or the unpredictable variety. Then I thought I was seeking relief from the infinite choices of on-demand streaming, with its always-present sense that, no matter what you’re listening to, you could be listening to something better. Something more exactly right for that exact moment.

These theories were true, but they weren’t the whole truth. Neither seemed to fully account for the particular way college radio stirred me, the way it made me come pleasantly unstuck in time.

It took a while, but I figured it out.

Like a steadily growing number of Americans, I work in the gig economy, life-rafting from freelance contract to freelance contract. I don’t hate it: I work as a writer, like I dreamed of as a child. But, as so many before me have realized, making your dream your job is complicated. Especially when you’re freelance.

These days, I reflexively judge chunks of time for their earning potential, and automatically sort my ideas based on how likely I think they are to sell. That makes sense: that’s business. But it makes dreaming hard. Dreams aren’t inherently sellable. Dreams don’t have obviously forecastable earning potential.

College radio—my time portal, my wormhole—reconnects me to a different mode of relating to my hours and days. College DJs aren’t getting paid. Very few are pursuing careers in the industry. There are no ads, which means no advertisers. No pressure to keep listeners from turning the dial. No pressure to give them concentrated doses of something they already know they want. No pressure to shut up and play the hits.

College DJs have their own motives. Some want to show off what they know: the deepest, dustiest vinyl cuts; the freshest, hottest downloads; the most oddly compelling transitions from A to B to C, song to song, genre to genre. Some just want to share. Many, I imagine, like the peculiar blend of privacy and intimacy that comes from connecting with a live but faceless audience of who-knows-how-few-or-many people scattered in cars and kitchens and dorm rooms.

Whatever they’re up to, these DJs are having fun. Playing around. Trying things out. I like this, they say with each song. Maybe you like this too? Can you hear what I hear? These questions—the whole spirit of the enterprise—get squeezed into radio waves, invisible as air. When those waves are vibrating just right, the wormhole opens up. Sometimes, especially if it’s raining or snowing, I convince myself that I can feel them out there—all my co-listeners, all my co-seekers, coming unstuck from our attachments to time, together and apart. Finding out a little more about who we are. What we’re dreaming. What we want to do about it.

Peter C. Baker is a freelance writer in Chicago. He has written for theGuardian, the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and Pacific Standard, where he is a contributing editor.