By Annie Kinnett Nichols
I’ve been over the moon in love with Atlanta’s college radio scene since high school. I tune into Georgia Tech’s WREK and WCLK at Clark Atlanta University often, but it’s Georgia State University’s WRAS 88.5 – known far and wide as Album 88 – that I come back to again and again.
I’ve lived in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, worked in Los Angeles and traveled the world, but I’ve never found any radio station that can hold a candle to the quirky, edgy, freshly-minted, underground music that the DJs play on Album 88.
Album 88’s place in music history is not in question. The station was the first to play the Go-Go’s, Sade, Run DMC, Men at Work, Outkast and Indigo Girls. Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats wrote the hit, “I Don’t Like Mondays” in the WRAS studio after reading about a schoolyard shooting while waiting to go on air. And that’s just some of the highlights.
Even when I was a college student in New Orleans, I remember driving home to Atlanta and always being excited when my radio picked up the signal. I went to Georgia State for a semester or two and I always wanted to be a DJ. I used to go down to the studio and press my nose against the glass and watch the DJs at work, but I never had the nerve to enter the hallowed halls of Album 88.
So it was a big thrill to finally visit the inside of the studio, located in the student center on Courtland Street in Downtown. I was afraid the DJs would be all music snobby and awful, but instead I found of a bunch of students working on computers, talking about music, playing music I’d never heard and generally having a blast.
I was like a kid in the candy shop when Album 88 staffer Katie Iacino gave me a tour of the vinyl vault, the DJ’s booth with a huge disco ball twirling above and stacks and stacks of CDs. On the walls were cool posters and graffiti of musicians and DJs that have passed through the studio alongside gold and platinum records from artists that sent them as thank you’s for playing their music before anyone else.
On the air since 1971, Album 88 has separated itself from the pack by being a noncommercial, volunteer, all student-run station from its inception. More than 50 students run the station until they graduate or leave GSU. The first DJ was Richard Belcher, who went onto WSB-TV. Operations manager Jeff Walker has been involved with the station since his student DJ days starting in 1979. During his tenure, Walker advocated for a stronger signal (100,000 watts), upgraded facilities and got Billboard to start publishing Album 88’s playlist – one of the first noncommercial stations to be tracked by the magazine.
Walker didn’t want his name in this article because he firmly believes “the kids are the heroes,” but the students themselves think he’s a huge part of why the station is what it is today. Walker says, “The students and the music make Album 88 one of the nations most progressive FM & digital radio sites out there.”
Talking to Iacino, I learned that they feel the same way I do about Album 88. “One of the hardest things to deal with on Album 88 is when student DJs leave the station. It’s so final,” she said. “It’s hard on the DJ themselves and it’s hard on the audience, too, because they miss the voices and personalities of their favorite DJs.”
But it’s this regular change that has kept the station fresh and innovative. The students that work at Album 88 get training by shadowing current DJs and many hours on the overnight “graveyard” shift. Iacino said “those late nights and early mornings separate the wannabes from the real audiophiles who have an ear for music and breaking new artists.”
The new DJs create their own rotation or pick up one that has been previously established and proven popular like, ‘Mighty Aphrodite’ on Thursday nights and ‘Soul Kitchen’ on Friday nights. Some shows come and go depending on DJ interest. My daughter’s favorite use to be the Saturday morning show, “Music for the Prepubescent,” that featured kids cartoon songs. Album 88 has also picked up a few nationally syndicated shows like, ‘Big Band Jump’ from L.A. and ‘The Commonwealth Club’ from San Francisco. The station’s own “Melodically Challenged” has been syndicated to other stations around the country.
All these years later, I still want to be an Album 88 DJ and I call WRAS once a week – at least – to ask about a song or artist and also to just thank them for their fantastic sets. Radio stations come and go in Atlanta, their formats shifting like the wind. But Album 88’s mission continues to be “Left on the Dial. Right on the Music.”