A set of black headphones in the foreground, with a blurred radio switch board in background.

How College Radio is Bringing K-Pop to the Airwaves

With fewer restrictions and restraints, college radio stations have more freedom to clue listeners into tunes beyond the Top 40

With fewer restraints, college radio stations have played a large role in getting K-pop on the airwaves.

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By any metric, K-pop is among the most relevant and popular genres in the United States today. South Korean artists like BTS, BLACKPINK, and Twice routinely sell out the largest stadiums in the country. In 2023, five albums from K-pop groups topped the Billboard 200: Tomorrow X Together’s The Name Chapter: Temptation, NewJeansGet Up, Stray KidsFive-Star and Rock-Star, and Ateez’s The World EP.Fin: Will. Yet there’s one bellwether of mainstream music with a persistent, glaring absence of K-pop: radio. In a stagnant audio landscape where traditional gatekeepers are hesitant regarding K-pop, and indeed most non-English-language music, college stations stand ready to pick up the slack and get Korean music on the American airwaves.

Billboard’s charts, while an imperfect metric, are an easy way to gauge the popularity of an artist or their associated genre. The Billboard 200, its album sales chart, is based purely on record sales, and K-pop artists have seen a strong showing there, reflecting their growing stateside popularity. Yet they’ve seen comparatively less success on the Hot 100, the singles chart. While Billboard’s Hot 100 chart measures multiple factors, including streams and sales, radio play is a major component. A song’s success on the charts can be made or broken by whether Top 40 stations decide to add it to their rotation.

In a 2021 article for Vox, Aja Romano investigated the lack of radio play for K-pop, finding that the main barrier to mainstream radio for most K-pop is in fact the language barrier; American radio stations are often wary of playing music in languages other than English. Such an attitude is rooted in narrow, dated conceptions of popular music, and ignores the fact that, in an increasingly diverse and globally connected country, American music fans enjoy music in a variety of languages. In 2023, seven non-English songs were among the dozens that made the Hot 100’s top ten, the most in a single year. This includes a Korean-language song, “Like Crazy” by Jimin of BTS, as well as several Spanish tracks from artists like Bad Bunny and Karol G.

But given mainstream radio’s hangups, it seems no coincidence, then, that the only two songs by K-pop artists to make it all the way up the Hot 100 to number one this year (the aforementioned “Like Crazy,” and “Seven” by Jung Kook) were from members of BTS, a group that has produced six number one singles, five of which were entirely in English. “Seven” is also an English-language track, and “Like Crazy” has an all-English version which likely garnered far more radio play than its Korean-language edition. Indeed, songs by BTS (and solo works by their members) are the only ones from Korean acts to even enter the Hot 100’s top 10 since Psy’s 2012 viral hit “Gangnam Style” reached number two.

Without discussing potential root causes, even Billboard’s own writers have noticed the discrepancy. Earlier this year, the girl group Fifty Fifty saw breakthrough success after their song “Cupid” went viral, propelling the English-language “Cupid (Twin version)” of the song to thousands of weekly plays across U.S. radio. But, covering the radio success of “Cupid,” as well as that of XG, a Japanese girl group who sing in English, for Billboard, Jason Lipshutz noted its rarity, pointing out that “top 40 stations have generally shied away from the latest offerings from Asian pop collectives.” Lipshutz observed that BLACKPINK, by any other measure an enormously popular group, has only had one appearance on Billboard’s Pop Airplay chart, which tracks radio. Other hugely successful K-pop acts, including Twice, Loona, and (G)I-DLE, have only scored “fleeting appearance” on U.S. radio.

Vox’s Romano made a similar observation. In 2020, BTS and BLACKPINK were able to make waves for K-pop on American radio, getting tens of thousands of plays. There was a precipitous drop-off for other artists in Spotify’s top 10 most streamed K-pop acts, with Twice, Stray Kids, Red Velvet, Exo, Seventeen, IU, NCT 127, and (G)I-DLE only getting double-digit streams. Of these, Romano notes that most came from independent radio stations affiliated with universities or high schools.

It’s here that I realized my personal ties to this topic. Because I am one of those few college radio DJs getting K-pop artists onto American airwaves. For more than five and a half years, I have hosted The K-Pop Power Hour, a radio program currently airing on WESU, an independent station affiliated with my alma mater, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. As I’m wrapping up the show soon, (I graduated from Wesleyan seven months ago and could only keep recording remotely for so long) I’m also reflecting on what it was.

When I began my career in college radio, it didn’t feel much like a hub for K-pop fans. In my experience of listening to these stations, plus working at two of them during my years as an undergrad (I transferred schools), prevailing tastes generally tend more towards indie rock with a dash of hip-hop. Think along the lines of the stuff that might get highlighted by a positive review from music critic Anthony Fantano. Indeed, Fantano himself has recently posted several videos on social media from a recent visit to WESU. But I wouldn't be the only show focused on non-English music; when I came to WESU, I was sharing the airwaves with shows about Italian and Russian-language material. Beyond that, the college radio crowd had an attitude of curiosity and thoughtfulness about music which I admired, a refreshing contrast from too much mainstream discourse about K-pop that focused only on fashion and dance moves with nary a mention of what the underlying music sounded like. In an audio-only medium, it would be much more difficult to focus on the image and ignore the music.

Through my show, I hoped to approach K-pop with a similarly personal, thoughtful lens, marrying my background as a Korean American and my insights as a culture writer who has often covered music. What began as a simple way to share the music I loved became something more. The spoken parts of this music-focused program evolved from simply naming songs to giving detailed descriptions and introductions that often required nigh-journalistic amounts of research. I presented hour-long dives into everything from the often-overlooked producers behind K-pop hits to times when K-pop artists got tangled up in larger national and international political incidents. Through it all, I hoped to leave my listeners with the impression that K-pop is, like any other musical genre, worthy of true consideration and thought.

A young Asian American man with blond hair and glasses, in black, sits at a radio DJ station.

Oscar Kim Bauman working at Wesleyan University's radio station, WESU.

Courtesy of Oscar Kim Bauman

College radio has a history of providing a space on the airwaves for music that commercial stations won’t touch. In the 1980s, the eclectic alternative and indie rock acts championed by DJs on campuses across North America even became known as “college rock” for the heavy airplay they got on college stations. While rock was the dominant genre at the time, this subset of it wasn’t deemed worthy of mainstream airplay and instead was championed by the more independent, grassroots voices of college radio. The present dynamic, with K-pop as an under-recognized relative of the currently dominant pop genre, feels similar. Because their programming comes directly from young people not beholden to industry pressures or gatekeeping, college DJs are able to give an on-air voice to musical movements that the Top 40 powers that be haven’t yet caught on to.

Numerous surveys have shown that radio listenership is on the decline as more people turn to streaming for their music consumption. This is easy to understand; unlike the pure chance of the radio, when listening to your own music library on streaming, you can guarantee you’ll hear music you like. But there remains something appealing about giving up the burden of choice, allowing someone else to curate a listening experience for you. In the world of streaming film and video, up-and-coming platforms like MUBI and Nebula have found growing success in presenting smaller, curated catalogs, in contrast to major streamers, whose business models have seen increasing troubles in recent years.

In an increasingly atomized digital age, choosing a smaller-scale, more curated way to consume media is one small way to regain a degree of human connection. With Top 40 radio on the decline, many listeners may seek out a more holistic, human-driven approach to their listening habits. For K-pop fans, the merely K-pop-curious, or indeed, fans of the many genres not given their due on mainstream commercial radio, college radio could be that very thing.

As a soon-to-be alumnus of the station, I feel the need to champion WESU. Airing since 1939, it’s the longest-running college station to remain student-run and wholly non-commercial. Other prominent college broadcasters include WFUV, affiliated with Fordham University in New York City, KALX, broadcasting from the University of California, Berkeley, and WKDU, operated from Drexel University in Philadelphia. But the beauty of college radio is in its local nature; wherever you’re located, there’s sure to be a college radio station in broadcasting distance. Beyond a simple search for “college radio stations near me,” websites like Campus FM can aid in that exploration. With its intimate connection to the realities of youth culture and its long history of championing undersung styles, college radio is uniquely positioned to break new barriers for Korean music in the States.

Published on January 16, 2024

Words by Oscar Kim Bauman

Oscar Kim Bauman is a multimedia journalist, freelance arts and culture writer, and recovering emo kid from and based in New York City. You can follow him @oscarkimbauman on most social media, read his portfolio on his personal website, or subscribe to his Substack.