Deep inside the studios of WONC 89.1 FM, the radio station of Naperville's North Central College, sits a device that might seem like a relic from the Jurassic Period: a turntable.
"Look at that dinosaur," laughs station manager John Madormo. "I'm not sure any of our DJs would even know how to use it."
The venerable turntable, though, has remained surprisingly vital in today's digital world, thanks largely to passionate rock and pop music fans who prefer the sound.
The same can be said for college radio.
True, the Internet has stolen some of college radio's taste-making muscle. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, college stations were the key force that introduced bands like R.E.M., The Replacements and Husker Du to wider audiences and major record labels. Today, music blogs and Web sites like MySpace perform a similar function.
But those who run funky college stations on the left side of the dial say their brand of radio is far from obsolete.
"There will always be a need for us," said Madormo, who has worked at WONC since 1980, when DJs actually did spin vinyl records instead of clicking digital music files. "There are other outlets out there these days, of course. But I think music fans recognize that MySpace pages and things like that are self-serving. The passionate fans want an arbiter, something that judges what's really good and deserves to be heard. That's where radio comes in."
WONC, whose signal can be heard as far east as Chicago and as far west as DeKalb, is just one of the college stations available to residents of the suburbs. Other examples include Loyola University's WLUW 88.7 FM and Northwestern University's WNUR 89.3 FM.
Four-year schools aren't the only ones on the dial, though. Palatine's Harper College operates WHCM 88.3 FM during the school year, and the Glen Ellyn campus of the College of DuPage is home to WDCB Public Radio 90.9 FM, which broadcasts year-round.
The stations, funded by their schools, are commercial-free and offer a mix of music, news and sports programming. True to the college radio ethos, the music you'll hear will be more obscure and offbeat than the stuff played on commercial radio.
In a nod to the times, most local stations stream their signals online; many post DJ blogs and playlists on their Web sites. A few, like the stations at Roosevelt University, Aurora University and the College of Lake County in Grayslake, broadcast over the Internet only.
"During the overnight periods, we'll have people listening in from Germany, Japan and Poland," said Dan Prowse, manager of CLC's Internet station at clcradio.org. "The Internet is giving us a reach we would never have had otherwise."
North Central's WONC mixes songs from up-and-coming groups like Art Brut and Blue October with tunes from top-selling acts like Pearl Jam and Oasis. The station also broadcasts the weekly "Local Chaos" show, which spotlights bands from Chicago and the suburbs.
"I like doing it because it strengthens our appeal to local bands," said "Local Chaos" host Steve Oliveri, 20, a graduate of Crystal Lake South High School who said he chose North Central College in large part because of its radio station. "Being local is one of the key things that college radio has going for it."
Oliveri said bands from all over the Chicago area send CDs to the station or contact the show through its MySpace page, looking for airplay or an interview spot.
"It's clear that bands still view us as an important outlet," Oliveri said. "Especially bands just coming up."
Station managers add that they have no trouble filling the student broadcasting posts each semester. WONC, for example, has about 90 students working there without pay, most of them going on the air to play music or read news, traffic and weather. Madormo estimated that 40 percent of those students aren't considering a career in broadcasting.
"We find that many students want to be a part of this," he said.
Interest in radio remains high enough among young people that some have pushed their schools either to create new stations or resurrect dormant ones.
Take Ashley Mouldon. She spent three years trying to revive WRBC, the Roosevelt University station that went silent in 2003. Early this year, the new WRBC: The Blaze went live as an Internet station that plays news, sports and a typically eclectic mix of music. The station can be heard at roosevelt.edu/wrbc.
"I thought this would be something good for the students here," said Mouldon, a journalism major who graduated in May. "In the beginning, I wasn't sure college students would want to listen to the radio, but everyone's been super excited. We had an overflow of applications for on-air slots."
Even those stations with a well-known FM home have extended their reach into the digital realm. In addition to streaming their signals online, college radio stations here and across the country have started producing music blogs and podcasts, said Rev. Moose, editor in chief of the College Music Journal, a New York-based trade magazine for the college radio industry.
That willingness to embrace the Internet is a big reason those involved in college radio feel optimistic about its future.
"Instead of killing it, the Internet has just forced college radio to get more creative," said Moose, who goes by one name only. "College DJs are producing some of the best music podcasts out there, for example."
And just like in its '80s heyday, college radio still has no peer on the dial when it comes to breaking new bands and sounds, Moose said.
"One of the biggest bands on college radio right now is Grizzly Bear," he said. "They just got a big article in The New York Times, and there's buzz about their new album. Well you know what? No commercial station was playing Grizzly Bear! We helped produce an audience for them."
North Central College's Oliveri said he loves it when an artist the WONC has played for a while suddenly seems to hit the larger public consciousness.
"Andrew Bird was big on our station for some time," he said. "Then recently I walked into a Starbucks and saw his CD for sale there. I thought, 'Geez, what took everyone so long?'"