Tuesday, September 16, 2008

QRD Music Director Interviews Part 1 - Wesleyan's WESU

As I wrote last week, I'm excited to be presenting excerpts from Silber Records' chief Brian John Mitchell's "Radio Special" issue of his music 'zine QRD, in which he interviewed music directors from a variety of college radio stations in the U.S. and Canada. Be sure to take a look at my interview with Brian to get more background on this project.

For the next 9 weeks I will be excerpting a bit of each of the MD interviews. First up is Hunter King from Wesleyan University (Middletown, Connecticut) station WESU 88.1 FM.

MD Hunter King talks about the station's devotion to freeform and that DJs are allowed to pretty much play whatever they want, but are asked to play 5 new releases an hour (unless they have a specialty show). He also mentions the makeup of the station staff, saying,

"We're a 50-50 student/community member mix & though we have some really strong student shows, some community members have been with us for 20+ years & have really built up a following. We have dedicated shows for oldies, funk, Caribbean, gospel, doom metal, psychedelia, surf, girl groups, blues, Latin music; & specifically Columbian music, Balkan music, & others & they really help define our station. We straddle a ton of very niche groups & I think all of our DJs, even if they’re spinning top 200, are very proud to be a part of it. Often as they become more acquainted with other shows & DJs, they even start to diversify their own shows."

He also has some interesting insight about how music format (CD, vinyl, or mp3) can end up altering the entire vibe and energy level of a radio show and gives the example of playing 2 minute surf songs that need to be cued vs. just sitting down for an entire show toggling through iPod tracks. According to the interview:

QRD – I imagine a lot of the younger generation of DJs pretty much exclusively use MP3s over CDs (much less vinyl). How do you feel about the situation?

– Oddly enough, our DJs play their own songs off iPods, but ignore digital adds in favor of CDs. I've done an MP3 player show before & it’s so much less involved. These kids sit on their ass & just wait for the song to end so they can mumble about nothing during their next voice break. Not only do I think the frantic pace of cueing songs (especially on my surf show where your average song is 2:30) gets your head more in the game, but it builds up an energy that you can't get sitting down, which I never do on my show. & the listeners notice, I get a lot of calls saying, "You must be dancing up a storm in there," & usually they're correct. As for the mediums themselves, I play a lot of scratchy 45s & I find that nobody cares about the quality (well, I already knew that given the crappy MP3s our DJs play), but the older crowd really appreciates that authenticity, & the older crowd listens to a lot more terrestrial radio than the younger crowd these days.

I would imagine this is a huge issue. When I visited WECB, it seemed that iPods were regularly used by DJs. Yet during my visit to KCPR I learned that regular format DJs aren't allowed to play music from their iPods (or any music from their home collections), but that specialty show DJs were allowed to (along with music from home). I'm sure policies on this vary tremendously, but count me in the "old school" camp that likes the energy of playing music on vinyl and CD.

Coincidentally, there was an article in the Wesleyan Argus last week about WESU. The piece,"WESU Expands Programming," talks about the large number of community member DJs at the station and discusses the goal of increasing the broadcast range of the station. By the way, WESU claims to be the 2nd oldest college radio station in the country and the history section of their website has some great anecdotes about the early DIY days of the station, including:

"WESU began its life as a mischievous idea in the minds of our founders, two young men living in Clark Hall in 1939. Inspired by the first college radio station in the nation (which, anecdotally, was at Brown University, though this hasn’t been confirmed), they hooked a small transmitter up to a phonograph. In order to broadcast to the whole of Clark Hall, the two broke into Wesleyan University’s maintenance tunnels through the Clark Basement, and hooked the transmitter up to the water pipes. The old dormitory effectively became an antenna for their 2-4 hour broadcast day..."

Stay tuned next Tuesday, for an excerpt from Brian's interview with the Music Director of McGill University's campus-community radio station CKUT-FM.


WESU said...

Thanks for this spotlight on WESU!

Benjamin Michael

General Manager
88.1 FM WESU
Wesleyan University

Hunter said...

Wow, how bout that!

As of recently I have a little more to say on the issue. Since that article I've graduated and began DJing at WTUL 91.5FM in New Orleans where the music situation is different. They discourage use of music from outside the station's library, so the iPod crowd is much smaller and (as a former MD I was shocked to discover) DJs play new releases out of laziness, when WESU DJs avoided them for the same reason. Vinyl is much more common because it's harder to prepare for a show and some would rather play musical roulette: grabbing a chunk of vinyl and playing what looks interesting.

I think this has its merits but the added difficulty in show planning leads to shows with a lot less care put into them - I've fallen victim to this even. But that extra planning makes some really high-caliber shows at WESU, and the existence of those shows puts pressure on the rookie DJ to perform at that level. Which is why, I think, WESU is so densely packed with niche material. WTUL, despite a more open schedule (24 hours instead of WESU's 16-ish) can't hold a candle and I was told that my proposal for a surf show was taken a joke.

I don't have an answer for how to balance things to find the best amount of musical integrity. Maybe there isn't one. I'm no longer a music director and don't have to worry about it as much

Karla said...

Great post. I just graduated from college in May and used be a GM and DJ; I can relate to the heavy reliance our DJs had on their iPods. I ,too, loved the chaotic aspect of running through our gigantic library of CDs and vinyl in order to create a show. During training sessions, I tried to encourage DJs to only turn to their iPods/laptops if we didn't have a certain track in our library. But I guess time sometimes gets the best of us and creating a playlist beforehand is faster. Oh well. :)