Left of the Dial: College Radio’s Enduring Impact on North Carolina Music

 By Harris Wheless

October 8, 2019

Sometime in 1985, at the height of the college rock era, Paul Westerberg sat down to write “Left of the Dial,” his love letter to college radio: “Passin’ through and it’s late, the station started to fade / Picked another one up in the very next state.” 

It’s easy to imagine Westerberg drunkenly fiddling with the FM dial, trying to tap into those airwaves as The Replacements’ touring van hurtled past a college town. In the 1980s, radio was the primary medium for driving listenership and record sales. An interview, an in-studio performance, or even a few spins of your new record could help independent, unsigned, or underground artists get some exposure. The student DJs and the college radio stations who “dared to be different” provided alternative groups with a grassroots appreciation for their music among a growing young demographic.

From Chapel Hill to Athens, the southern college rock circuit served as a lifeline for artists who existed outside of the mainstream — far away from the Top 40 or commercial radio airplay. North Carolina in particular is dotted with college towns where independent music scenes and the college radio stations that spurred them on are still thriving. Since the college rock era, college stations have continued to expand their programming, letting in sounds and artists from a wide range of genres and experiences. 

We’ve compiled a list of college radio stations that continue to fuel North Carolina’s rich musical legacy:

WXYC 89.3 FM (UNC-Chapel Hill)

Like fossils in a quarry, you can trace the history of independent music through the markings on the walls at WXYC. If there ever was any white space, it’s now covered by notes and signatures from touring artists, concert posters, and even a ceiling mobile from The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me LP. In its fifth decade of programming, WXYC is a free-form radio station broadcasting at 1100 watts, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The station’s signal is transmitted across 900 square miles, an area which includes all or parts of Chapel Hill, Durham, Pittsboro, Apex, and Raleigh. Since its founding in 1977, WXYC has stocked the airwaves with music from a wide array of genres, pulled from the over 60,000 pieces of physical music in the station’s library. In November 1994, WXYC made history when it became the first radio station in the world to rebroadcast its signal over the internet. The station’s programming includes specialty shows focused on local music, folk, dance music, sports, and news. WXYC also holds decades dances covering music from the ‘80s, ‘90s, and other periods, and partners with local venues and festivals to stage other music events.

WXYC staff in 1978. Photo: WXYC Facebook

WXDU 88.7 FM (Duke)

If you turn the dial to 88.7, you might be hit with sound waves at any number of different frequencies — a blast of feedback from an in-studio performance, the crackle of an old record, or an interview with an up-and-coming artist. WXDU is well known for its inclusive programming and noncommercial approach to radio. The DJs are students and community members, some of whom have been DJing for WXDU for decades. The station’s signal stretches across Durham from Duke’s east campus. There is a DJ in the control room and something playing on the air 24/7. WXDU often hosts bands for live performances, does ticket giveaways, and conducts interviews with musicians, filmmakers, artists. It also collaborates with Duke Coffeehouse and other local venues to stage festivals and concerts, like the station’s annual Brickside Music Festival. This year’s festival featured Xiu Xiu, Laurel Halo, and Bill Orcutt. The annual WXDU record fair offers free admission, as well as thousands of vinyl records, CDs, cassettes, and more. Tune in or check out one of the station’s events to experience WXDU’s freeform, community-focused approach to radio. 


WKNC 88.1 FM (NC State)

A night spent playing WKNC’s Double Barrel Benefit concert series figures somewhere in the success stories of many of North Carolina’s best alternative acts. Since 2004, the station has used its annual benefit concert to promote local music. The Mountain Goats, Bowerbirds, and Future Islands are among those who have graced bills in the past. WKNC began as an FM station in 1966 and, in the years since, has established itself as a strong proponent of the area’s music scene. Its primary weekday format is indie rock, with specialty shows and music from other genres aired in the evenings and on weekends. The Local Lunch program, which airs weekdays from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m., features music exclusively from North Carolina artists. The station broadcasts at 25,000 watts from NC State’s campus, making it one of the most powerful college radio stations in the country. WKNC’s transmitter sends its signal more than 50 miles outside of Raleigh in every direction. Tune in to hear coverage of athletic events, including broadcasts of NC State’s basketball, hockey, and baseball games. You can also live stream whatever’s on air through the station’s website or listen to podcast episodes of the station’s interview programs. 


WASU 90.5 FM (Appalachian State)

In 1972, WASU’s broadcast went live for the first time when Chicago’s “Beginnings” poured through the speakers. Since then the station, located on App State’s campus, has broadcasted the best in alternative music to North Carolina’s High Country. Listeners can get their days started with The Morning App, then ease into the afternoon with the best in alternative rock. Evening slots are withheld for specialty shows that present music from other genres, including country, hip hop, electronic, and heavy metal. The station also hosts a weekly news segment called App 1800 to discuss local issues. Be sure to watch the station’s social media feed or listen for ticket giveaways and promotions of local events. WSOE broadcasts from App State’s campus starting at 7 or 8 a.m. and running until midnight. You can listen live on the radio, at the station’s website, or using the iHeartRadio app. 


WQFS 90.9 FM (Guilford)

Although WQFS began in 1970 as an “easy listening, fine music station,” by its second year of operation its DJs had already begun to usurp this format, replacing it with the kind of challenging rock music that would come to define the college radio era. The station also started to institute hybrid programming, which could feature avant-garde jazz, contemporary classical, bluegrass, blues, and musique concrète, sometimes all within one small time slot. Since then, the station has been broadcasting “your only alternative” at a strength of 1,900 watts across Greensboro and the greater Triad area. This 30-mile broadcast radius gives the station one of the broadest ranges for college radio in North Carolina. Although the station’s main format is indie rock, the music in rotation spans a variety of genres, with a focus on releases from independent labels. The DJ body is made up of 100 students and community volunteers, about half of which are students. Community involvement is a cornerstone of WQFS, one that also extends into its programming. The station always has a number of excellent local artists in rotation, which helps to boost their profiles in the community. To hear the best in the Triad’s local sound, tune in to 90.9 or listen over the internet through the streaming service TuneIn

WQFS 90.9 FM (Guilford)

WSOE 89.3 FM (Elon)

The call letters of WSOE are said to stand for “the Wonderful Sounds of Elon,” an abbreviation that holds true for every hour of the station’s around-the-clock output. WSOE has an alternative rock format, but the station’s charter also requires jazz be played weekday mornings from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and until noon on Fridays. The station also has an automated broadcast system that helps keep WSOE on air 24/7, regardless of conditions. Shows, which are hosted by Elon students and faculty, offer creative opportunities for students to develop experience in news, sports, and music broadcasting. Limelight Records, Elon’s student-run record label, also works with WSOE to promote its artists through live sets and interviews on air. WSOE, “The Only Alternative,” broadcasts music, talk shows, local news, and in-depth sports coverage across the Elon-Burlington area. 


WDAV 89.9 FM (Davidson)

Depending on when you tune in, WDAV’s frequency may be awash with the slow, deliberate sounds of Debussy or Sati, or you may instead be met with one of the loud, bombastic peaks of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The station’s programming is arranged according to tempo, which is meant to reflect the time of day — “upbeat, inspirational” in the morning and “relaxing, kick-back” late in the day. WDAV, Davidson’s college radio station, debuted in 1973 with a format that included jazz, rock, and educational programming. However, its broadcast soon developed into one that was exclusively classical focused. While many college stations adhere to an alternative rock format, WDAV airs classical music and fine arts programming, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In fact, WDAV sits in the top ranks of public classical stations nationwide. In 2016, the station was number one in audience share among its national peers. Despite this, the station retains a local focus, playing local and regional music and conducting interviews with music directors in local symphonies, among other things. WDAV was also one of the first classical stations to stream its signal over the internet. If you like classical music, WDAV offers a curated listening experience that is truly unique among college stations. 

Mark and Maggie O’Connor with Rachel Stewart on WDAV.

WNCU 90.7 FM (NC Central)

The Durham jazz scene has long been indebted to N.C. Central’s celebrated jazz studies program, with so many of its talented players making a name for themselves and for the city, with the tight, unifying sound they’ve developed. The station broadcasting those sounds, and keeping the community locked in with what’s happening now in local music, is WNCU, N.C. Central’s college radio station. Since it first came on the air in 1995, WNCU has had its finger on the pulse of Durham’s jazz scene, broadcasting a jazz format that “entertains the jazz aficionado” and “eduates the novice jazz listener.” The 50,000-watt station also features programming from National Public Radio and Public Radio International, as well as interview programs and specialty shows addressing community issues. WNCU went digital in 2006, and continues to offer a live stream on the station’s website. You can wake up with WNCU’s Morning Jazz program, relax to the sounds of Evening Jazz or Jazz After Hours. Regardless of what hour you tune in, WNCU is sure to provide you with the best in jazz programming.


WZMB 91.3 FM (East Carolina)

Since 1982, ECU’s student-run radio station has provided Greenville’s airwaves with music, news, sports, and other relevant local coverage. WZMB broadcasts an alternative rock format with a focus on independent music and additional inclusion of other genres, spanning from hip hop to folk. The station, which is located in the basement of ECU’s student center, broadcasts 24 hours a day while ECU is in session. WZMB is owned by the East Carolina University Student Media Board, which also owns The East Carolinian newspaper and several other student media organizations. Content from each of these is available through the Pirate Media 1 app. Live streaming is also available via the WZMB website. The station’s programming includes call-in shows, news programs, sports coverage, in-studio performances and artist interviews. And, if you’re interested in keeping up to date with Pirates football, the station often live tweets the university’s football games.

WZMB 91.3 FM (East Carolina)

WWCU 90.5 FM (Western Carolina)

Western Carolina’s college radio legacy goes back more than 70 years, starting with the university’s first student-run radio station, WCCA, which signed on in 1948. The university broke into FM radio in 1977, when WWCU first broadcast its signal. Today, the station maintains a classic hits format, which is mostly made up of classic rock and pop from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Things sound a little different on the weekends and after 6 p.m. on weekdays, when specialty shows hosted by students, faculty, and staff give other genres some air time. WWCU’s coverage era encompasses the Jackson and Haywood County region of western North Carolina, between the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains. The station, which is located in the historic Old Student Union building, is on the air 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And since 1995, WWCU has also been streaming over the internet. If you’re in the area, turn the dial to 90.5 for all your favorite classic rock hits.


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