Spotify May Have Killed The Radio Star, But WALT Lives

Katie Walsh-

Noah Batke ‘19, flipping through a beat-up photo album, reminisces on WALT’s heyday. Photo courtesy of Katie Walsh ‘20

A year ago, the lump sum of WALT Radio’s possessions—housed in their dilapidated office beneath an inch of dust—consisted of a frankly alarming number of R. Kelly vinyl albums and a handful of die-hard radio-enthusiasts. Its listeners had dwindled to the single digits. Its duct-taped insignia hung limply like aged wallpaper on the doorframe: a sentimental but melancholy reminder of the station’s heyday. WALT, Davidson’s radio broadcast club, was dying.

But something has changed in the past year: WALT has been refaced. The WALT clubroom has an endearing, ramshackle character to it—no less dusty than before, but now somehow more alive. Muted music seeps from beneath the door of the warmly-lit room and out across the Union’s fourth floor; the brick walls, now decorated with music memorabilia (an old soundboard and records line the wall), harken back to the station’s peak in the 80’s and 90’s; a glittering red W adorns its out-facing window, and a single 3×5 notecard is pinned to a cork board with a declaration of hope—“WALT Lives!”

I sat down on WALT’s patched-up, beer-stained green couch (the origins and age of which, like much of WALT’s history, are unknown), along with some of the E-board staff and broadcasters, to discuss their renaissance.

Under the leadership of Station Manager Noah Batke ‘19, WALT is indeed in a process of rebirth. Sporting 34 stations ranging from jazz to motown to talk shows, the station is enjoying a resurgence in student interest.

However, while WALT is drawing many more student broadcasters, their listening audience has remained small. “I think I once had 13 max [listeners],” said Dylan Hyman ‘19, WALT’s Chief Administrative Liason and a veteran of the station.

WALT, which Batke claims averages around eight to ten listeners depending on the show, which is a significant increase compared to previous years, is fighting an uphill battle in competing with the free-streaming music industry. Free-streaming is an issue for the mainstream radio industry at large, according to James Nash, the club’s advisor, longtime industry radio buff, and Davidson’s Technical Director.

“Radio is certainly changing with the introduction of the internet and services like Pandora [and] Spotify,” Nash said. “Radio seems scripted by the corporations that own the, with little of the personalities of the DJs coming through. Most spin a playlist that is given to them and are not allowed to play the music they like,.”

If the old Buggles song is to be believed, and Video really Killed the Radio Star, then the iPod killed MTV, Pandora eclipsed the iPod, and Spotify ultimately usurped Pandora. With that final coup, the voices of radio seem to have fled silently into irrelevance—broadcasting to a dwindling audience now more and more seduced by innovation and quick access.

And yet, WALT persists.

They persist with impassioned resistance to the concept of the digital “curated” playlist—a kind of mechanical DJing that increasingly dictates what music students listen to.

“I think there’s something about speaking to an audience that you get with radio that you just don’t get on a shuffled playlist. There’s so much color and personality that comes from that. And you know you have DJ’s nationwide like Casey Kasem and Wolfman Jack that added so much personality to the music and made it so much better to listen to. I think we’re still trying to provide that in some context, whether it’s comedy, or commentary, or discourse,” Batke said.

Jackson Miller ‘20, WALT’s Administrative Analyst and Facilitator, claims it’s a matter of community more than anything else. “Specifically on college radio, you are getting suggested music from your peers and you’re getting a taste of your own community. I think it’s important to know where you are and what people around you listen to,” Miller said.

“I think WALT is one of the ways the arts are represented at Davidson,” Miller continued. “It may be that we’re representing it poorly right now, but we’re on the way up, for sure. I think in the future it will be a much more accessible way for students to get into Davidson’s art community.”

Batke, a musician himself, claims that, unlike Spotify, WALT offers music not just to suit people’s personal tastes but music that students have potentially never heard. “I don’t think those algorithms can capture the heart of the music. Yeah, you can get the technical music, like here’s acoustic, or here’s pop, et cetera. Spotify caters to the music that you want, but you aren’t listening to something that’s potentially new,” Batke said.

WALT has indeed had its host of technical difficulties and budgeting issues, and while WALT admits that their aspirations are indeed great (Batke claims he sees WALT potentially returning to actual AM broadcast radio), the organization’s struggle to entice listeners to their website (which can be reached by the link www.walt1610.com) is their largest hurdle. It’s ultimately the Davidson community that will have to overcome this challenge. Simply put, the WALT E-Board asks the Davidson community to “tune in!”

And according to Nash, WALT is certainly worth the listen: “Listening to music or talk that someone else is playing is a great form of entertainment, radio will have to remain central to our experiences in order to survive and I believe it will. WALT will remain important to the students producing shows and can be powerful for those listening to friends, as they offer up what they believe is important for students to hear. Certainly the right selection of songs played in a show can brighten someone’s day and give them happy feet!” Nash said.

What is clear from spending just minutes listening to the rambling hilarity of Maura Tangum and Brody McCurdy’s talk show (the “MoBro show”), or Annie McLendon, Vita Dadoo, and Jennie Goodell’s vivacious “Motown Mommas” broadcast, is that, regardless of listeners, popularity, and innovation, WALT Radio will live on.

“I think to an extent sharing your music, is sharing a piece of yourself,” said Emily Sirota ‘20, WALT’s Assistant Strategist in Charge of Affairs. “It’s your identity. I think there’s value in everyone sharing their own music. People would broadcast anyway, even without an audience. In that sense, I would say that WALT has never died, because there have always been a few dedicated show hosts who did it for that reason.” WALT’s primary goal is not to be heard, then, but to be felt—to create rather than to be praised, and to be rather than to become.

This mission feels uniquely suited to radio. After all, even in moments of deepest silence, you are always in touch with the radio, whether you were aware or not, —its invisible waves moved through you, permeating every moment of your day, washing you in signals just waiting to be voiced. Maybe it was but the diegetic background noise in the kitchen: your mother listening to Howard Stern; or the breezy, muted jazz lulling you to sleep on long drives by the coast. Radio was there, even when you weren’t listening to it, even when it was just a background track played below conversations on midnight drives to Cookout, and even when it was just the muffled notes echoing from the car next to you in traffic. Though you may not have known it then, you felt it. It connects us as much as the air we share; we all live in the radio.

So if you’re sentimental, if you like new music, if you like to talk, if you like to create, or if you just like to listen, ask Noah Batke about getting your own DJ slot.

Katie Walsh ‘20 is a staff writer for Living Davidson. You can reach her with a story suggestion or arts event tip at kawalsh@davidson.edu.