Been wondering why the University of Miami's WVUM-FM (90.5) sounds an awful lot like commercial FM stations WSHE (103.1)and WZTA (94.9)? Then gather around for a brief, explanatory history lesson. It may seem hard to believe now, but there was once a time when college radio was the place to turn if you wanted to hear something new and different. This was in the early Eighties, before R.E.M. won Grammys, before Paul Westerberg climbed on the wagon, and before Natalie Merchant became the boho laureate of VH1 A when classic rock was king and the guys in Silverchair were practically infants. MTV was grinding out a mishmash of tired-ass album-rock videos, and American major labels were dropping bundles on Euro-pop peddlers such as Thomas Dolby, Human League, et al.

Meanwhile, at campus stations across the U.S., student DJs were spinning records by the Minutemen, Husker Du, Jason and the Scorchers, R.E.M., Black Flag, Minor Threat, Meat Puppets, and the Replacements A the groups who, through constant touring in small markets and college towns, helped establish a viable rock and roll network without the luxury of major-label funding or distribution. The college-rock format wasn't flawless: In their efforts to find the next thing first, college DJs often hailed the work of disposable and faceless combos (the Windbreakers, Fetchin' Bones, and the Connells, for instance). However, if you could withstand the occasional lapse in taste and judgment -- and endure the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now" for the 8000th time -- college radio could thrill, titillate, and surprise.

Then in the early Nineties along came Nirvana and Nevermind, an album so good it opened the floodgates for countless imitators in the States and overseas, while establishing the commercial potential for screaming, metal-tinged punk rock. Album-rock stations that had previously been content with their Tom Pettys and Bob Segers were now hammering the airwaves with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and its angst-ridden facsimiles. The clearly defined line between college and commercial radio had been blurred, with noisy new artists and a few hierarchical old ones suddenly getting airplay in both formats. For the first time campus stations were playing catchup with the big boys.

WVUM program director Darnella Dunham denies the UM station is in competition with WSHE and WZTA, but admits that a lot of the same artists appear on all three stations. "We're not competing with them because we do something different," claims Dunham, 21, a junior at the university who's been working at the station for almost a year. "We play the same type of music, but if we're all playing the same artist, we'll play a different cut or a remix or something that's not on the commercial stations. We can't compete with SHE or WZTA, so we tell our DJs to keep that in mind and try to give the listeners something different."

Perhaps, but not all that different. Asked to name a few groups who make regular appearances on WVUM, Dunham offers Pizzicato Five, Pulp, Blur, Oasis, Lush, and Cibo Matto A most of which appear or have appeared on local commercial alternative stations. Of those groups, all but the first are on major labels, and Pizz Five, a kitschy, dancey Japanese duo, are on Matador, which until very recently was distributed by the WEA conglomerate. Certainly none of the six groups is obscure: Oasis, for example, has two platinum (i.e., million-selling) albums to its credit, including the recent (What's the Story) Morning Glory? Brit-rockers Pulp have been the subject of an intense media blitz, with massive coverage in the pages of mainstream rags such as Spin and Rolling Stone.

A recent week's worth of WVUM airchecks yielded few surprises. On one morning an old song by New Zealand jangle-rock trio the Verlaines ("Death and the Maiden") came as an unexpected treat, but it was followed by the listless retro-disco of Luscious Jackson, the Beastie Boys' favorite femme quartet and one of the support acts on R.E.M.'s last high-profile tour. More disturbing, at least one pair of WVUM DJs proved they can engage in the same kind of smarmy, mindless banter as their morning-jock brethren farther right on the dial: There were dog imitations, numerous jokes centered around the pig film Babe, and the baffling appearance of the theme song from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, followed by -- har-dee-har -- speculation on the sexual proclivity of the children's show host. Other artists featured throughout the week: the cranberries, the Psychedelic Furs, Matthew Sweet, Liz Phair, Sebadoh, Smashing Pumpkins, and Violent Femmes. Artists I've yet to hear on the station: Pavement, Guided by Voices, Superchunk, Polvo, the Grifters, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Butterglory -- all well-established underground acts with new albums or singles out on well-established indie labels. Nevertheless, few of them have received significant -- if any -- airplay on the station, according to station general manager Glenn Richards.

To its credit, WVUM does some things very well. Its hip-hop, jazz, and world-beat shows are entertaining and programmed with skill, finesse, and insight. The programs devoted to local bands do a decent job of surveying the city's lesser-known acts (although it'd be nice to hear some Harry Pussy every now and then), and though I couldn't give a damn about techno-rave stuff, WVUM's The Underground (Fridays, 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.) bumps and boings with undeniable authority.

Richards maintains that the station is playing what listeners want to hear and adds that the college-music market in Miami isn't as broad-based as in other areas. "It's really different here," states Richards. "It's unlike almost any other college station. We're faced with the reality that UM just isn't going to attract that many hip, knowledgeable, cutting-edge people. There aren't that many in Miami. And because there's a high number of Latin students and commuter students, the demographics are even more skewed. I do think that this year there is a better mix on the station of commercial alternative and real alternative music. As alternative goes mainstream, though, we have to find the new alternatives. It will probably become clear sooner or later that this stuff is too commercial -- these bands were alternative and now they're not. When that happens college radio has to find a new area.


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