Friday, October 10, 2008

Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Stop 2- Wisconsin Station WSUM

Welcome to the second installment of the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour! As I mentioned last week, it's been my mission to explore college radio stations from all over the country in order to share their stories and expose more people to the diverse sounds available left of the dial.

The plan is to feature an interview with a different station every week from each of the 50 states. The virtual tour began last week, with my interview with the General Manager of University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) station KXUA-FM.

This week, we travel to Wisconsin, to learn more about University of Wisconsin-Madison station WSUM-FM from General Manager Dave Black.

Student radio has a long history at University of Wisconsin-Madison, stretching back to the first campus station which began in 1952, broadcasting from a dorm basement. In the following years, there were a variety of dorm-based stations, including WLHA and WSRM. By 1981 WSRM had disbanded. WLHA continued, but shut down in 1993 after questions about the legality of its broadcast. After exploring various options, the college was finally granted a license for a student radio station in 1996. The new station, WSUM, began netcasting in 1997 and after years of hard work they began broadcasting over FM in February 2002.

WSUM is essentially a freeform station, where the mostly student DJs are able to program their own radio shows with few restrictions other than obeying FCC rules. The station gravitates toward indie releases (and adds vinyl too), but isn't averse to adding major label stuff if the music is good. According to GM Dave Black, WSUM is known on campus (not always the case with college radio!) and attracts a good number of student listeners.

Dave Black has been at WSUM since its inception, and was instrumental in getting student radio back on the air at University of Wisconsin. In my interview with him, he talks about the programming philosophy of the station, cites some of their more eclectic shows (including the techy talk show "Nerdcore Roundup"), and his overall love for student radio.

Spinning Indie: Tell me about your role in bringing campus radio back to University of Wisconsin? What inspired you to work towards creating a radio station?

Dave Black:
It’s important work that I was meant to do.

Spinning Indie: Had you been involved in college radio in the past?

Dave Black: No. I was in commercial radio (news and sports mostly) through most of the 1980s ....KXL –Portland, OR; KCEL/KTDO – Toledo, OR; KSRO – Santa Rosa, CA

Spinning Indie: What are your favorite tidbits from radio history at University of Wisconsin?

Dave Black: See – they have some great stories on there that I love. It’s hard to pick one.

Spinning Indie: What's the longest running show/DJ at the station?

Dave Black: Jeremiah Born came here as a freshman and went straight to law school after graduating. He is finishing his seventh year. His show [began in Spring 2002 and] is currently called "Litmus for the Hipness" but I am not sure if that has always been the name.

Spinning Indie: Were any of your DJs involved with earlier campus stations?

Dave Black: Walt Gnedislow has done "Green Arrow Radio" at various stations over the years, most recently at UConn.

Spinning Indie: Did you inherit any materials, music from the previous campus radio stations?

Dave Black: We purchased the assets of the now-defunct WLHA for $3,000 in 1995

Spinning Indie: Do you have any specific programs/specialty shows that are unique to WSUM or stand out as being different from anything else on radio?

Dave Black:"Scandalous" by Y Mae Sussman is Scandinavian music; "Cool Brittania" by Dana Bishop is BritPop; "Argyle Cat Explosion" by Jenny Underwood is a mixture of hip hop, electropop and mashups; "Nerdcore Roundup" is a talk show about the nerdy kind of stuff you see on G4 – really geek-talk about old video games, computer systems, etc.; others include Scummy Breakfast; Word Salad; Gender over Lunch; Closet Redneck Hour; Atomic Ape Extravaganza; Practically a Unibrow; the American Metaphysical Circus (Psychedelic Rock) … shows are detailed here.

Spinning Indie: How does your MD decide what music to add?

Dave Black: It’s a collaboration with our DJs. The incoming CDs get reviewed and then either put in the music library or put in the dreaded 'gallows' bin.

Spinning Indie: What's your philosophy about indie vs. major label?

Dave Black: Our preference is for smaller labels, independent artists and anything local

Spinning Indie: Do you add material by major labels?

Dave Black: Yes, if the music is good. In the long run, the only thing that matters is what the DJs spin because that is what gets charted. There is no pre-set playlist by the music director or program director.

Spinning Indie: Do you listen to other college radio stations?

Dave Black: I focus mostly on what we do

Spinning Indie: Who do you admire?

Dave Black: Abraham Lincoln… oh, I see what you mean. I think KEXP does a great job. It's not a student station but it is what radio should be.

Spinning Indie: Tell me about the free music festival that you guys produce.

Dave Black: ...the event was known as Party in the Park for 9 years and then the Snake on the Lake Fest for the last two years....In...2004...Andrew WK headlined. We also had White Stripes in 2000 just before they hit it big. It’s a free-admission event that we put on to thank the community for its support, to entertain the students, and to publicize the kind of music we play. The students do most of the fundraising themselves, book the bands, and do all the heavy lifting for the event.

Dave concluded the interview with some thoughts about the power of student media and the legacy of campus radio at University of Wisconsin, saying:

"We get some of the best and brightest young people in the world at the University of Wisconsin. We like to think that of those best and brightest we attract many of them to this unique experience where they can make media, take ownership of the station for a little while and pass it along – as an entity that is just a little bit better than they found it – to the next generation of students. The students and alumni take tremendous pride in what they create here and I am convinced that they leave here as more critical consumers of the media they see – demanding better from film, television and radio companies."

Next week the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour continues with another college radio interview, this time with a station in Kansas.

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