A few weeks ago I visited my old college radio station, WHRC at Haverford College, during Alumni Weekend. A small group of us (two folks from class of 1984 and four of us from class of 1989) who were DJs in the 1980s met up on May 30th at the station with current staff member David Wicks (class of 2011) to learn a bit about the current state of WHRC.
Sadly, WHRC hasn't really been operational as a radio station for about a year, after suffering a devastating hacker attack on their website. Just prior to that they had been broadcasting as an Internet-only station since about 1999. In the years leading up to 1999 the station had its ups and downs, yet once played a very prominent role on campus since its beginnings in the 1920s.
One of the main problems, as many students and alumni have pointed out, has been the lack of a consistent station staff or "institutional memory" over the years. Haverford College is a small school near Philadelphia, so another hurdle has been getting enough people to volunteer at the station. Additionally, the campus empties out over the summer, so broadcasts have been limited to the school year and then must be revived by a new batch of students every fall.
In this post I'll be recapping my 2009 visit to WHRC and will talk about their plans for the future. But, this is part of a much bigger project in which I'm working to piece together a complete history of the station.
I've been collecting stories and artifacts from WHRC alum (including a staff member from the 1940s), culling through old yearbooks, and spent an entire day in the Haverford College library sifting through old WHRC archival material. It's a fascinating history of a station once rumored to be the first college radio station on the East Coast.
Along the way there were intercontinental chess matches, the first college radio network, a powerful AM signal, ambitious live remotes and sports broadcasts, controversies over DJs playing a certain Violent Femmes song in the 1980s, 100 person DJ staffs, a push for FM, and debate over dining center speakers at Bryn Mawr College. Stay tuned for more stories about all of that. And, if you were ever part of WHRC, please get in touch to share your stories with me as well.
WHRC in 2009
Thanks so much to WHRC Board Members David Wicks and Jacob Waters for chatting with me about the current state of the station. David was kind enough to open up the WHRC studios during summer break so that alumni could check out the space and reminisce. And Jacob gave me some perspective on the recent history of the station in an email interview with me.
WHRC is currently located in the basement of the dining center at Haverford College. It's been there since 1974, when it was moved from another building (Union), which was being converted into a music building. When I was a student at Haverford (1985-1989), the basement of the dining center functioned like a student union. The basement contained all student mailboxes, a game room, snack bar, a lounge area, the bookstore, and other student activities in addition to WHRC.
Today, the basement of the dining center at Haverford is like a ghost town. A prominent interior staircase that led from the upstairs eating areas to the basement has been removed, meaning that students must enter the basement from outside the building. All "student union"-like features have been moved to a newish (built in the last 10 years) Campus Center on the opposite side of campus.
David addressed the drawbacks of the station's location, saying, "the space has been hindering us...because it's so tucked out of the way." He added that he thinks that it's much harder to "be creative" when DJs are "stuck down here."
It's funny, because at the time I felt a bit defensive about these comments, because the station has been in the same spot for decades and it's always been off the beaten path (like many other stations that I've visited). But, later I realized that the station has in fact become more and more isolated in the years since the Campus Center was built. Although it's near the hub of the dining center, it doesn't get foot traffic like it used to when it was just down the hall from student mailboxes and the bookstore.
WHRC went off the air in Spring 2008 after the station's website was hacked. As I toured around the station a year later, it looked to me as if not much had changed in that time. It was sort of Pompeii-like, as if things hadn't been touched in a long time. David pointed out that some of the new CDs from back then were still in the "new" rack. Old program guides were strewn about, along with long-forgotten music magazines. One of the WHRC alums noticed the lack of turntables and we were told that they had been damaged during a youth summer camp one year and were thrown out.
As you enter the station space there are metal shelves housing bits and pieces of WHRC's past, including an old "board" that I remember using in the 1980s, as well as a small section of old, disorganized, and damaged vinyl. Their CD collection, as well as some newer pieces of vinyl are located in a large room that used to be the WHRC office in my day.
Additionally, I was pleased to see some wall space devoted to WHRC's history. There were even some of my 1980s photos posted on the wall that I'd brought with me when I visited in 2004.
According to David and Jacob, WHRC will no longer operate as a traditional radio station. Instead, they've begun transitioning into more of a live DJ club, focusing on music events on campus. A former staff member described this to me as akin to "spontaneous public mix tapes." Additionally, the website will serve as a hub for all things music on campus. Bands can get promotion for upcoming shows and members of the campus community will be invited to submit podcasts.
The physical station and its record library's future is uncertain. A former staff member told me, "people don't really use CDs anymore" and Jacob talked about plans to digitize all the CDs. Additionally, the vinyl collection has been dwindling over the years, due to damage and a major sell-off of material some time prior to 2004.
To get a better sense of the station's future plans, I conducted an email interview with WHRC board member Jacob Waters:
Spinning Indie: What years have you been involved with WHRC?
Jacob Waters: I had a radio show starting my first semester as a freshman at Haverford (Fall 2006) and began attending board meetings. Second semester I was named Assistant Music Director, and then assumed the full Music Director role my sophomore year. Since then I’ve worked extensively with a number of students, particularly Duncan Cooper ’09, to reform the station and hopefully make an impact on campus. I’m excited to start up again this fall (my senior year).
Spinning Indie: What drew you to the station?
Jacob Waters: I’m a huge music fan and had always wanted the opportunity to have a show and create something that people would enjoy. Also, my father was involved in radio for a long time (as a DJ and program director) and I was curious to see what it was like. Unfortunately I don’t quite have his 'radio voice.'
Spinning Indie: If you had a radio show, what was its theme and if it was a music show, what kind of music did you play?
Jacob Waters: I’ve had two shows, each of which lasted for a year. The first was mostly indie rock and the second was 60s-70s soul.
Spinning Indie: How has the Dining Center (DC) basement studio and record library been used since you've been at WHRC?
Jacob Waters: When I first arrived we used the studio for pretty much everything station-related, including broadcasting, board meetings, and training sessions. Starting Fall 2008 it has been used sparingly.
Spinning Indie: How would you describe WHRC’s presence on campus? Do people know about it? Did people listen when it was online? Where could you hear the station?
Jacob Waters: Frankly, WHRC has little or no presence on campus. Except for the DJs and their close friends who listened to their shows (and those friends rarely listened to other shows) I saw little evidence of impact. Part of my job as music director was to look at listenership statistics, and we averaged around 2-3 listeners at any given time. Numbers that low made it quite clear that change was necessary. The fact that we were Internet-only seemed to give us potential—students basically live on their computers anyway—but still our impact was minimal.
Spinning Indie: Any interesting tales from when you were at WHRC? Any scandals?
Jacob Waters: The most frustrating part of working at WHRC was easily the lack of institutional memory, particularly tech issues. Past students hashed the station together with custom computer code and strange sound setups and graduated without documenting what they had done. To put it simply, when things broke no one knew how to fix them, which made it quite difficult to keep the station running smoothly.
Spinning Indie: What’s one of the strangest things that happened at WHRC?
Jacob Waters: The only strange things I can think of are negative, haha. I suppose the hacking that took place spring 2008 would top my list. There we were, a little station with virtually no listenership used by some hackers to attack servers at Stanford (I think it was Stanford). When I heard about it I could hardly believe it, just because it was so unexpected.
Spinning Indie: Are you aware of the history of radio at Haverford?
Jacob Waters: Some. I know that the station used to actually be on the radio, and I believe at some point Haverford had one of the strongest radio transmitters in the country. But again, the lack of institutional memory has severed the history to some extent.
Spinning Indie: Did WHRC ever get back on the air in 2009? In what capacity?
Jacob Waters: Just to be clear, we are no longer “on the air” really—we are transitioning to public live shows and podcasts. And yes, several shows were held near the end of last semester. We intended last semester to be a test run for this coming year, and things seem to be working out.
Spinning Indie: What are the plans for the station for fall 2009? What will be broadcast and how will it be broadcast?
Jacob Waters: "Radio station" in the traditional sense is now a misnomer for WHRC. There is no live stream that people can listen to from their own rooms or homes. Instead, WHRC will have three main components.
First, there will be approximately 10 semi-weekly live shows that will be done in public places (the Campus Center, DC, or anywhere else). These shows will be played and recorded on laptops belonging to the station, and the recordings will be exported as podcasts to put on our website. WHRC will heavily promote these shows, hopefully creating real DJ personalities who will be known around campus.
People will know that "Person X's Oldies Hour" will be broadcast in the Coop on Tuesdays at 8:00, know that the show will be good quality, and hopefully go see the show live or at least listen to the podcast. As opposed to the old WHRC format where it was an unorganized mass of music shows—shows that had very inconsistent quality—students will know what they’re getting and know that the shows are worth listening to.
Second, all students (or faculty or staff, for that matter) will be encouraged to submit their own podcasts to the site. Again, these will be polished programs that will be easily accessible and hopefully high-quality. This creates an instant campus impact: in a way, every person in the Haverford community is part of the station. If you want to put a podcast together, you just go ahead and do it. The site will also include directions for how to make a podcast if you don’t know how.
Third, the site will have an important role on its own. It will serve as the Internet center of music on campus, where bands coming to campus can be promoted and discussed; student bands can post their own music and promote their shows; and people could discuss music they like and make recommendations. If people are interested in music on campus, we want WHRC’s website to be the first place they turn.
Spinning Indie: What are your plans for the DC basement space and record library?
Jacob Waters: We’re not sure at this point. While it’s a cool space, its highly secluded location makes it tough for it to be a crucial part of music on campus. We plan on digitizing the CD library at some point and putting it on the WHRC laptops. For the room, we’ve thought about using it as a place for student bands to mix and perhaps record their music. Another option would be to use it as a place for students to record their podcasts for the site.
Spinning Indie: Are their plans to have a station do live streaming or carrier current broadcasting again?
Jacob Waters: At present, no. The live stream, though a neat setup to have, ultimately did not contribute to the music community on campus, and so was not worth the expense. Same goes for carrier current.
Spinning Indie: Will any of the shows be broadcast on campus (dining halls? campus buildings?)
Jacob Waters: We would definitely like to play our podcasts at the DC. Remember, though, that the live shows will be done all over campus, making the new format much more public than the previous one.
Spinning Indie: What shows are slated for fall 2009?
Jacob Waters: We have a great variety of shows preparing for the fall, including oldies, electronica, hip-hop, indie rock, political talk, and one where community members are interviewed. Our goal is that the heterogeneity will ensure that everyone in the community will have at least one show to their liking.
Spinning Indie: Anything else?
Jacob Waters: We realize that this is a radical change, and that the current incarnation of WHRC will be tough for alumni to recognize. But we all knew the positive impact an effective music club could have on the campus and saw that the existing format of WHRC was simply not working. We think the new format will create a club that most effectively takes Haverford students' passion for music and spreads it throughout the community. That’s fundamentally all we want to do: create a club that accomplishes what the previous format tried to but could not. Maybe this will start a new trend, maybe not. But everyone involved is very excited by the idea and eager to start a new chapter for WHRC.
Also, I’d like to personally thank the SC Treasurers for trusting us enough to give us money to get us off the ground, as well as the Haverford Communications Office for agreeing to build our new website, which should be launched this summer.
Thanks again to Jacob and David for sharing with me their plans for WHRC. It's bittersweet for me. On the one hand, I'm happy to see that they are committed to creating a cool new campus community, but I'm also saddened that traditional radio broadcasting is pretty much dead at Haverford. I'm curious to see how things go for them in the fall and wish them all the best.
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
Radio Station Field Trip 13 - WBAR at Barnard College
Radio Station Field Trip 14 - KFJC at Foothill College
Radio Station Field Trip 15 - UC Santa Cruz Station KZSC