College Radio is as Relevant as Ever and Many Mainstream Bands Like U2 Got Their Start on It

Several great rock bands and musical arts owe their slice of success in the music industry to college radio. Before terms like “alternative rock” and “indie rock” became widely known in the 1990s, the styles were often grouped together in a genre known as “college rock.”

Without college radio, many mainstream bands and music artists, including Nirvana, R.E.M, and U2, may have never had their big breaks.

It all started in the early 1980s when college radio stations around the United States had a new generation of radio programmers taking over the air. These programmers introduced college students too many of the distinct sounds that were not playing on the commercial stations.

These were the sounds of underground American rock bands and imports from Britain and other parts of Europe. Some of these bands would appear on MTV and would even break into Billboard’s albums and singles charts.

Arguably, the band that defined the College Rock genre more than any other in the 1980s may be R.E.M. The Athens-Georgia-based band had their first single “Radio Free Europe” debuted on a college radio station in 1983 and had several acclaimed records and regular touring. 

It was the ongoing support of college radio that helped R.E.M. achieve mainstream success in the late ’80s with songs like “The One I Love”, “Orange Crush”, and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. The band then went on to become one of the most well-known bands of the 1990s.

Another success story to emerge from the airwaves of college radio was U2. The Irish band hit the international scene in 1980 and had early classics like “I Will Follow” and “Gloria.” It was “War” in 1983 that catapulted the band to international stardom. The college stations were pivotal for U2 becoming known in the American radio world. The band has sold over 140 million albums worldwide and won 22 Grammy Awards, more than any other band in history.

KUSF, broadcasting from the University of San Francisco (California), has been credited with giving early exposure to grunge rock band Nirvana, one of the best-selling bands of all-time. During their three years as a mainstream act, Nirvana received an American Music Award, Brit Award and Grammy Award, as well as seven MTV Video Music Awards and two NME Awards.

It was in 1972 that several University of Washington students launched KCMU in the basement of the Communications Building. Renamed KEXP later on, the station is widely regarded as one of the best independent radio stations in the nation — and around the world. It was KEXP that first played Nirvana’s debut album Bleach on the air. Leading singer Kurt Cobain himself dropped off the demo for the grunge band’s premiere single, “Love Buzz.”

Perhaps it was the 1970s where the College Rock genre actually got its start. It was during this time that the punk movement of the late ’70s was going on and bands, including The Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones, were making names for themselves at clubs and on college radio.

New Jersey rock band, The Smithereens, known best for the song “Too Much Passion,” which was released in 1991, is another band that cites college radio to help them reach stardom. 

In an interview last year with College Radio’s Dave Sarkies, drummer Dennis Diken remarked, “College radio played a big role. I can remember the first time hearing our music on the radio, it was on a college radio broadcast. I think it was either WRSU at Rutgers, or it might have been Middlesex County College radio. That was one of the big thrills, hearing your music come across the airwaves. That was on a college station. Diken added that the band always remained a stronghold in college radio.

Another big artist in the 90s who claimed his fame through college radio is “Weird Al” Yankovich. The singer adopted his nickname from others within the dormitory he shared while at college. Yankovich, who was an alumnus of KCPR San Luis Obispo, has sold over 12 million records worldwide and received five Grammy awards.

I loved my college radio days. That’s where I first got my start, that’s where I first took the name ‘Weird Al’ professionally, so I have very, very fun memories,” said the artist who brilliantly parodied and made fun of pop culture for years.

The success of these artists and bands may be contributed to the fact that college students are more open-minded than mainstream listeners. This can be beneficial for today’s rising musicians to get their foot into the industry. If the students like the music, there’s a good chance they will share it with everyone they know on campus and outside of campus.

Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante told Spin magazine in 2020 that college radio “supported us so much back in the day and were responsible for breaking a lot of bands.” Artists “would give college stations their new record and they would be the first to play it for people,” he added.

If you’re an independent artist or band releasing new music, chances are you’ve considered reaching out to radio stations and it may be a great idea to consider college radio stations as well. These stations provide emerging artists a gateway to greater success with airplay and promotion.