Saturday, March 21, 2009

Radio Station Field Trip 13 - WBAR at Barnard College

Entrance to WBAR in Basement of Reid Hall at Barnard College

When I was in New York for the IBS College Radio Conference, I also took the opportunity to visit Barnard College radio station WBAR. Thanks so much to Khalid Ahmed, one of the WBAR Tech Directors (and a Columbia College junior), for getting up early on a Friday morning (March 6th) to tour me around the station.

On-Air Studio at WBAR

WBAR is a student-run station and operates somewhat in contrast to 60+ year-old Columbia University station WKCR-FM, which has a more formalized schedule largely made up of jazz programming. WBAR is a more recent addition to campus, with its first campus-only broadcasts in 1993.

Board at WBAR

The history of WBAR (at least until 2002) is told on an old website documenting a bit about the station. According to the timeline, WBAR began as an idea in the late 1980s and started broadcasting on campus in 1993 (via FM carrier current). They began broadcasting over 1680 AM in 1998 and began netcasting in 1999. These days WBAR is primarily an online-only station, although the FM carrier current broadcast can still be heard if one's in very close proximity to the station (Khalid guessed it could be heard 10 feet away). Khalid told me that it made sense to focus online since "very few people would tune in to the radio" and it's "easier to access." He added that they have "listeners from all over the world...Australia...Japan" and that people have either read about them or "find us by chance."

In addition to netcasting, their websites have featured show archives and tools that allow you to scan through old playlists and search the WBAR catalog.

WBAR has attracted a lot of attention for its on-campus events, hosting an amazing lineup of bands at numerous shows every year, including their free all-ages WBAR-B-Q (their 15th birthday bash in 2008 featured at least 15 performances including Japanther, Crystal Stilts, Wizards of the Coast and Liturgy). Khalid told me that the WBAR-B-Q every spring is the station's "big day" and they typically have 8 to 10 bands playing outside at Barnard. This long-standing tradition of putting on shows on campus began even before WBAR's first broadcasts. A recent article in campus paper, Columbia Spectator states,

"As the focus in new music has moved away from physical formats, live shows have gained popularity. Many college radio stations, including WBAR, have embraced this trend, applying their resources and expertise to involvement in their local music scenes...

By reorienting its focus towards organizing and hosting shows on campus, WBAR has become more influential than ever before. Our shows are not only a way for both sides of our sometimes divided campus to come together for a much-needed break and for Columbia students to hear new live music, but they also increase our presence off campus and give back to the community. Furthermore, hosting concerts is one way for us to showcase and boost on-campus talent. We have always sought to help local labels and artists, and our audiences often extend beyond Columbia and Barnard students."

Door to WBAR Office

Currently WBAR is located in two small rooms in the dark basement of a Barnard College dormitory (Reid). The studio and main record library are in one room and behind a second locked door down the hall there's an office full of random equipment, CDs, vinyl, promo-filled mail tubs, and a few stray cockroaches. The non-glamorous atmosphere definitely reminded me of many other stations, but particularly conjured up flashbacks of my time at WHRC (nestled in the bowels of the cafeteria, where dishwashing and rotten food odors wafted into our offices), where we were in an equally isolated space.

WBAR Office

I was told by Khalid that it's a temporary location for the station since their former home was in the now demolished Student Center. You can view some pictures of the old WBAR and the 2007 move on the Prometheus Radio website. The plan is for the station to return to the Student Center after it is rebuilt, probably in 2010. Since the station is now housed in a dorm, all DJs are required to be affiliated with Barnard or Columbia and the General Manager of the station must be a Barnard student. Upon arrival at the station, everyone must sign in and leave an ID with security. Before the move the station was more open to non-student DJs.

Record Library in Room Outside On-Air Studio

Khalid told me that WBAR is entirely freeform, saying, "we don't tell our DJs what to play." And a first-person account from a DJ from 2008 nicely expresses that freedom:

"With our small fan base behind us, we are able to use WBAR as a completely free space to play and say practically whatever we want... We play songs that would have absolutely no place on any other station. We play songs our friends have written, songs from commercials we like, songs far too long for any traditional radio format, and we get away with it. College radio is a bit rebellious in this way. Sure, we forego thousands of listeners, but we do it all for our freedom. We are courageous pioneers daring to go where Ryan Seacrest never would.

For us, as three ragamuffin college freshman radio DJs, WBAR has been a learning experience. The small listenership and online-only broadcast takes a great deal of pressure off of us to be perfect. We are not required to pass FCC tests or to intern with an older DJ prior to being on the air. We are, essentially, thrown into the lion’s den that is the radio station...

At a school full of the pressures of perfection, grade inflation, competition, and relentless obligation, WBAR is a tiny oasis. It is not, admittedly, flawless. Not many people listen to the station, and most DJs have no formal training. It is the complete opposite of Columbia’s academic environment. WBAR is a place for exploration, innovation, and huge, messy, stupid mistakes. It is not boisterous or flashy, but humble and inquisitive. Students who may compete in class come together on the radio, supporting one another and waking up at all hours to hear a friend’s show. While doing my show at WBAR, I am free for two hours to not worry about getting the right answer or saying the right thing. My only job is to please my nine listeners, who are difficult to disappoint."

WBAR Studio Before the DJs Arrived

When I arrived at WBAR on a Friday morning there was no DJ on the air. Khalid told me that if a DJ doesn't show up, then the departing DJ is told to lock the station and put a CD on repeat. Additionally, during winter break the station is not staffed and airs CDs on repeat as well. During the summer, however, the station is open to high school students and community DJs.

One of the Friday Morning DJs

As Khalid and I spoke, the 10am DJs (2 guys from Columbia College) showed up for their shift. They played a lot of music from my own college years (and earlier) including Beastie Boys, Elvis Costello, Ramones and Beach Boys interspersed that with banter. I was amused that at one point they put a caller on the air by holding the speaker on an iPhone up to the studio microphone. I asked Khalid about that and he said there was an issue with the phone line going into the board. He also told me that there are a lot of team shows since "it can get a little boring here...people enjoy their shows more when they have their friends with them."

The Music Department doesn't control the amount of new music that DJs play. It sounds like more of a suggestion that DJs check out new stuff on a shelf in the studio. Khalid added that, "quite a few shows really just play current stuff." He also mentioned that in addition to music shows, there are a variety of talk shows that discuss news, sports, and politics.

Khalid Shows Me one of His Favorite Random Albums

WBAR does still add vinyl to their library. Khalid told me, "we don't really get complete albums, but we do get a lot of singles." He admitted that most DJs, however, are playing music off of their laptops or iPods. He said that some do play vinyl and CDs. The station does add mp3s and DJs can stream them to the board from a computer. Khalid said that he's hoping to get a new computer that will be devoted to mp3 storage and pointed out that it's "a lot easier to click a file" than play a CD.

The entire DJ staff is made up of about 80 to 100 students and they meet once a semester for a general station staff meeting. Managers and Directors at WBAR meet weekly. Although the staff is mostly students, Khalid said that they have had grad students and faculty DJs too. It's a pretty simple process to become a DJ. Students apply at the beginning of a semester and then are given some "pretty basic" training that takes about 15 minutes. DJs are told which words not to say on the air and are asked to keep the station clean and put back their CDs. Khalid said the most violated rule is the one about putting away CDs.

On-air Studio at WBAR
(Note the sign listing off the dirty words that can't be said over the air)

In terms of social networking and promoting the station, Khalid said, "we try to flyer around the neighborhood" to promote shows and WBAR. He mentioned that they also talk to local bloggers to keep them informed about upcoming events. They have a MySpace Page and a page on Facebook and a few DJs are also on (and there's a dedicated WBAR group). It also seems that WBAR is well-known at Barnard and Khalid told me that they always get a large turnout at campus events.

Thanks so much to Khalid and the Friday morning DJs at WBAR for their hospitality!

Coming up next will be my write-up on my own station KFJC....Stay tuned.

Previous Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips:

Field Trip to WECB at Emerson College
College Radio Field Trip 2 - Cal Poly's KCPR
College Radio Field Trip 3 - Notre Dame's WVFI
Radio Station Field Trip 4 - WFMU in Jersey City
Radio Station Field Trip 5 - East Village Radio in NYC
Radio Station Field Trip 6 - WNYU in New York City
Radio Station Field Trip 7 - Northwestern's WNUR
Radio Station Field Trip 8 - Stanford's KZSU
Radio Station Field Trip 9 - University of San Francisco's KUSF
Radio Station Field Trip 10 - Santa Clara University Station KSCU
Radio Station Field Trip 11 - UC Berkeley's KALX
Radio Station Field Trip 12 - KSJS at San Jose State University

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