The “Needle Exchange Program” Opened A World Of College Radio Vinyl For Me

The university radio station where I was a DJ had a fairly extensive vinyl library, part hangover from the 1970s and 1980s heyday of the format, part dumping ground for the reams of promo records that were still pumped out by labels before slowing to a trickle by the mid-90s.

In order to access this veritable vault of tunes, DJs had to pay into something called the ‘Needle Exchange Program,’ which helped the station pay for the cartridges and styli that were inevitably lost, damaged, or otherwise destroyed over the course of a semester’s worth of students having their way with the pair of Technics 1200s in the DJ booth.

By the time I became a DJ in 1997, the Needle Exchange Program was hanging on by a thread. Few DJs were interested in forking over hard-earned cash from their student jobs to indulge in a format that spoke largely of the past when CDs and tapes were so readily available. This meant that for people like me who were just being seduced by vinyl through an infatuation with the decade’s electronic dance music scene, the library was almost always filled to the brim with no need to wait for someone the check back in a popular record.

As much as I used the radio station’s record vault to explore new-to-me, beat-based artists like Future Sound Of London and Katalina, it also had a surprising impact on the amount of metal I started listening to. The very first Motorhead song I ever played on my show was also the first I had ever heard, “The Wolf,” chosen off of the “Rock ‘n Roll” album based largely on the cover alone (with the title track eventually making it into my set list).

A few years after I left, the station closed the doors to the vault permanently. I have no idea what happened to the stock of records that were contained within, but I like to think that they were divested out into the world for that era’s DJs to take home and enjoy.

The 1990s were the last great hurrah for physical media, with a trio of formats (cassette, LP, and CD) all vying for supremacy, and a few oddballs (MiniDisc, Memory Stick) hovering around the edges. It was a crossroads between the analog past and the digital future, but few of us understood just how seismic the shift in listening habits brought on by the death of these media would be—or how they would largely wipe out independent radio as a vital part of pop culture.

In Dead Air, there’s no doubt in my mind that at least a few of the characters are making excellent use of CJNK’s own vinyl collection. Genres like classical, jazz, the previously-mentioned metal and dance music, and hip hop are all well-represented in that format, over and above the Top 40 and mainstream rock that also saw regular releases.

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