Sunday, September 16, 2012

Radio Station Field Trip 32 - WPGU at University of Illinois

WPGU 3-D Logo (Photo: J. Waits)

During my whirlwind trip to Urbana-Champaign for the Grassroots Radio Conference this summer, I managed to squeeze in visits to three different radio stations in the area. First on my list was WPGU in Champaign, Illinois. Although it is a student radio station affiliated with the University of Illinois, WPGU is owned by the non-profit Illini Media Company. Illini Media owns and operates student media at the university, including the campus newspaper, the yearbook, and various student magazines.

WPGU (Photo: J. Waits)

WPGU 107.1 FM inhabits a rare category of college radio because it holds a 3000 watt commercial FM license. Although the early days of AM college radio (as well as unlicensed carrier-current radio) saw many campus stations airing commercials, the advent of non-commercial educational FM licenses has meant that college radio is typically associated with non-commercial radio.

Vintage WPGU photo on wall of present-day station

A small subset of college radio stations (including Princeton's WPRB, Brown's WBRU, Harvard's WHRB, Cornell's WVBR, and University of Virginia's WUVA) break the mold and have commercial licenses today. Many of them, like WPGU, are comprised of students, but are owned by independent non-profits.

Plaque In Honor of WPGU's 50th Anniversary in 2003 (Photo: J. Waits)

WPGU began as a carrier current AM station at University of Illinois. Its initial broadcast was in December, 1953 over 640 AM. After obtaining an FCC license, its first FM broadcasts began in April, 1967. Carrier-current broadcasts continued on campus under the call letters WDBS (see one DJ's recollections here) and that station's signal also reached student dorms through FM cable from 1982 to 1992.

Front entrance to Illini Media (Photo: J. Waits)

I visited WPGU on the morning of Friday, July 26, 2012. I dashed over to the downtown Champaign studios at 8:30am, so that I could make it to the Grassroots Radio Conference in time for the morning sessions. The station has been located in an off-campus building that houses other Illini Media publications since 2006. As one approaches the building, it's hard not to miss the street-facing broadcast studio. When I arrived, the on-air DJ was doing her morning show in a spacious studio surrounded by large glass windows to the street and to the building's entry-way.

On-air DJ at WPGU (Photo: J. Waits)

WPGU's Program Director Courtney Yuen toured me through the station and filled me in the role that it plays on campus. Yuen, who is a University of Illinois student, explained that WPGU is managed and staffed entirely by students. Even though it's a student radio station, the programming approach is more similar to commercial radio. The music library is all digital and there are no CDs or vinyl records in the on-air studio. As I watched the morning show DJ doing her show during my visit, I saw her doing short mic breaks between sets of pre-programmed music. The station has live DJs all day long during the school year, but during the summer there are no live DJs between 3 and 6 am.

CDs in Office at WPGU (Photo: J. Waits)

Yuen told me that WPGU gets sent between 35 and 50 CDs a week from promotion companies, labels, and artists. They also occasionally get sent vinyl. Music that is sent to the station gets added to WPGU's automation system (Selector). Yuen said that she and the Music Director determine what music is added to the station each week. They also spend a lot of time tweaking the settings in their automation program by sound coding and tempo coding every track that's added. In this way, they can ensure that music segues make sense sonically. Yuen said that programming the station takes most of her time, as it requires building categories and building each hour of music.

Band's plea on WPGU office wall (Photo: J. Waits)

There are around 700 tracks in the WPGU digital music library and those tracks are either coded as current ("things emerging now," including the band Fun's "We are Young"), recurrent ("big songs from the past year," including tracks by Foo Fighters and Florence and the Machine), gold (the "bread and butter" of the station, which includes artists like Nirvana, Kings of Leon, Death Cab for Cutie, and Stone Temple Pilots), spike (live tracks, B-sides, and other items that add extra "spice" to the air sound), and local.

At the time of my visit in July, there were 31 songs in current rotation, with 5 or 6 current songs being played per hour. Rules created by the station within the Selector program ensure that the same song is not played within 1 hour and 45 minutes of itself. Additionally, the same song cannot be played in the same hour on the following day. Yuen said that the most you'd hear any one song on WPGU would be 4 or 5 times in a given day.

On-Air Studio (Photo: J. Waits)

Yuen also explained that WPGU changed its air sound a year ago. She said that prior to that time the station was "very indie" and played more underground artists. Because the station relies on ad dollars, there was a programming shift in order to play more commercial, more accessible music in order to attract more listeners and advertisers. With a 3000 watt signal and a listening range of about 50 miles, WPGU has a large potential audience and mostly airs local, community-based commercials. Yuen said the programming changes seem to be a success and that ratings have gone up.

Production Department at WPGU (Photo: J. Waits)

When I asked if there was any backlash after the changes, she admitted that there was (see a former WPGU Music Director/DJ's take on the changes), but not from people at the station. She said that it can be challenging to get support from the local music scene, but also said that it's important for WPGU to "support local music." Local artists are played at least once per hour on WPGU and the station also has promoted some local shows.

Poster-covered walls at WPGU (Photo: J. Waits)

WPGU also airs some specialty music shows, including Shrink Wrap (new releases), Back Room (underground music), Surfabilly Freakout, Flashback Cafe, and a dub step show on Fridays. Yuen said that specialty DJs often play music from outside the WPGU library, typically off their laptops.

WPGU on-air studio (Photo: J. Waits)

The station has deep connections to the University of Illinois campus scene. Yuen mentioned that they were planning to be at the annual Quad Day (held in August), which would also feature performances by some local bands. She also told me that the station's mission is "to train broadcasters," and said that many of the students on staff are broadcasting/journalism majors. She said that there are people at WPGU who are interested in getting into the radio industry and that she would like to work in the music business. However, there are also people at WPGU who have had different career goals and the station attracts a range of majors and its alumni pursue a variety of careers. Yuen said that DJs get six weeks of training at the station and learn how to not only operate the equipment, but also learn how to be "confident on-air." As part of that process, airchecks are regularly recorded and critiqued.

On-air studio at WPGU (Photo: J. Waits)

Yuen mentioned that WPGU is quite popular with students. A recent information night over the summer attracted around 50 applicants interested in joining the station. Although most people want to be DJs, some want to work in other capacities at the station, including marketing and advertising.

Thanks to everyone at WPGU for their hospitality during my July visit. It was quite interesting for me to visit a college radio station with a commercial license and I'd be curious to explore more commercial college radio stations in order to explore the commonalities and the differences within this rare breed within college radio.

See a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here.


Gabe said...

WBRU welcomes you. (Check this site for a behind the scenes overview:

Jennifer Waits said...

I'd love to. Alas, no plans to be in the Northeast in the immediate future, but I have a long list of stations in Boston/Providence to check out. Thanks!

Chris Durand said...

You're welcome anytime to WBNY in Buffalo!

Jennifer Waits said...

Thanks guys. Wish I could go everywhere!