When we were gearing up for a family vacation out to Boston last summer I knew that a visit to the Boston College radio station WZBC had to be on the top of my to-do list. It had been 2 years since I'd been to the area and on my last visit I became enamored with WZBC while flipping through the dial in our rental car. I vividly remember sitting in the car late at night on a freezing cold winter evening because I was enjoying the music so much that I wanted to hear the end of a track and catch the DJ's back announce. That's dedication to a station!
Part of what lured me to WZBC was that their air sound reminded me a lot of KFJC, the station where I've been DJing for over a decade. And, the more I dived into WZBC's programming philosophy, the more I realized that the two stations really are kindred spirits. Located at 90.3 FM in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, WZBC prides itself on its devotion to experimental music with "no commercial potential" (aka NCP).
View of WZBC from its lobby
Radio began at Boston College 50 years ago, with the launch of AM carrier current station WVBC in 1960. In 1973 they became the licensed FM radio station WZBC and operated at a mere 9 watts for their first year, moving up to 1000 watts (where the station remains today) the following year. In addition to the FM signal, WZBC also continues to operate the former WVBC as an online-only station (which also airs on a Boston College cable channel) that serves as a training ground for new DJs.
WZBC DJs from Days Gone By
I visited WZBC on the afternoon of Monday, August 30th, 2010 as summer break was drawing to a close at Boston College. Program Director Gavin Frome and Operations Director Megan Pietruszka were my guides and made me feel incredibly welcome at their college radio station
WZBC has inhabited its current location on the Boston College campus for 30 years and the station has the cozy feel of a place that's been well-loved for decades. It's housed in a building with a dining hall, bookstore, and extracurricular offices; so the station is near a hub of activity on campus. Within the station, walls are covered with stickers and posters and every nook and cranny seems to be filled with music. The spacious lobby is covered with pop culture gems (and, of course, a couch) and there's even a skeleton that looks down on new visitors as they enter the station. If you keep an eye out, you might also see a collection of tiny Care Bears perched on ledges in various parts of the station.
The 1980s marked a major shift for WZBC, as the station moved towards a format of "modern rock" and experimental music. Today the station airs rock music on weekdays from 7am to 5pm and is focused on music with "no commercial potential" on weeknights from 7pm until 1am or later. Specialty programming inhabits weekend slots and early evening slots (5-7pm) on weekdays and includes a range of shows including "Sunday Morning Country," "Oscillator Drift" (early electronic, '60s moog, tape experiments, etc.), "Raggamuffin International" (reggae, ska, dance hall), "Industrial Factory" (industrial electronic music), and "Mass Ave and Beyond" (local music).
Cassettes at WZBC
In addition to music, WZBC airs news, public affairs, and sports programming (including broadcasts of live games). Shows include the WZBC-produced "Truth and Justice Radio" and the syndicated "Democracy Now."
I was happy to hear that WZBC only utilizes live DJs and doesn't currently play any automated programming. Unfortunately that also means that when there is no live DJ (typically starting between 1am to 3am and ending between 6am and 7am), they shut down the station's transmitter. Gavin told me that there are "ambitious DJs" who will take on graveyard shifts and that quite often the station is on the air all night on weekends.
The station is run entirely by students, but has a mix of community and student DJs, with a 50/50 split between the two during the school year. I was told that most of the "non-commercial potential" shows are hosted by non-students, which is a nice indication of the experimental-leaning tendencies of their community DJs. According to Gavin, it's many of the community DJs who "push us musically."
And, in fact, I was told that the non-commercial potential format is actually a bit challenging for some students with its range of sounds (Gavin described some of the sounds as "drone, ambient, pigeon calls, etc."), so WZBC works with them to help pass along the station tradition of more experimental music. To that end, all students joining the station begin with an internship in order to get oriented to station rules and the music philosophy.
Community DJs are expected to come in with prior music knowledge and are able to submit proposals for air shifts in the Fall and Spring semesters. One long-time community DJ at WZBC is Victor Robert Venckus, host of "Expanding Awareness" for 35 years. I remember catching his Saturday morning show on a drive in Boston a few years ago and being mesmerized by the mix of music, spiritualism, and spoken word.
DJs at WZBC have a lot of freedom on their shows and don't have any requirements in terms of percentage of new music that they have to play. There is a "new music" bin in the studio containing material added in the past 3 months, but it's just there to encourage DJs to play some recent material. Additionally, genre rules aren't hard and fast, so DJs often play music outside of the stated genre of their program. For example, "rock" DJs are free to play music from the "non-commercial potential" library.
Some of the "No Commercial Potential" (NCP) Vinyl at WZBC
WZBC continues to add vinyl to their large music library. DJs are able to play vinyl, tapes, and CDs over the air. Apparently it wasn't until recently that WZBC got rid of their 8-track player. Despite the vast library, I was told that most younger DJs at WZBC prefer to play music off of CDs, iPods or a computer and are less likely to explore the vinyl stacks.
Although WZBC is focused on physical music and don't really add anything digitally (they will occasionally burn a digital release to a CD to add it to the station), Gavin and Megan admitted that space is a big issue at WZBC. They are running out of space for music and are researching ways to start digitizing their library. Music does get removed from the library when artists get too big, but I was told that those decisions about what should be removed are often controversial amongst DJs
WZBC Program Director Gavin Frome
Thanks so much to everyone at WZBC (especially Gavin and Megan) for showing me around their incredible college radio station. I had a hard time leaving the place because it felt and sounded like home.
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
Radio Station Field Trip 16 - Haverford College Station WHRC
Radio Station Field Trip 17 - FCCFree Radio in San Francisco
Radio Station Field Trip 18 - Flirt FM in Galway, Ireland
Radio Station Field Trip 19 - RXP 101.9 FM in New York City
Radio Station Field Trip 20- WGBK at Glenbrook South High School
Radio Station Field Trip 21 - KPDO in Pescadero, California
Radio Station Field Trip 22 - KZYX in Philo, California
Radio Station Field Trip 23 - San Francisco's Pirate Cat Radio
Radio Station Field Trip 10.5 - KSCU's New Digs at Santa Clara University (2010)
Radio Station Field Trip 24 - Radio Valencia in San Francisco