Sunday, April 21, 2013

Radio Station Field Trip 42 - WZRD at Northeastern Illinois University

Brand new WZRD T-shirt, featuring the original WZRD logo (all photos: J. Waits)

I was really thrilled to finally get the opportunity to visit college radio station WZRD 88.3 FM at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) in Chicago. Embroiled in controversy last year, WZRD was in the news for the dramatic lock-out of student DJs for more than five months.

WZRD record library

As I reported on Radio Survivor, on June 29, 2012, staff from WZRD were called into a meeting and told that student DJs were being suspended. The station was put on automation and the administration issued a statement that, "The WZRD student organization is currently under university review and on inactive status." In the days following the shut-down, a university spokesperson indicated that the station was still being operated by students (albeit, students selected by the university rather than by the WZRD club) and that there were hopes that student radio would continue at NEIU.  

Wizard newspaper

Various meetings and negotiations continued throughout the fall and by November, there was word that WZRD would be back on the air by December, 2012. During this time, WZRD members did outreach to local press, created online petitions, crafted their own newspaper (which has not only articles about the shut-down, but also pieces about the history of the station and its connection with freeform radio), and even went on the air at nearby WNUR (see my 2008 tour here) at Northwestern University. By early January, 2013, WZRD DJs were allowed to return to the station.

Sign at WZRD

On Friday, April 19, WZRD volunteer (and honorary Director of Public Relations) Max Grilly toured me around WZRD and chatted with me about the current status of the station. We met a bit later than expected, as both of us were diverted around campus due to bad weather and flooding this week in Chicago.

Poster for cancelled 3 Bands 2 Genres event

The entire campus was shut down on the day before my visit due to the weather. Unfortunately, a highly anticipated station event featuring 3 live bands had to be cancelled. When I visited on Friday, some roads were still closed due to flooding and a chill was in the air as windy snow flurries pelted us as we walked to the station from the parking structure.

Entrance to WZRD

WZRD is located centrally on campus in the basement of a building connected to the student union. To get to the station we walked down a short set of stairs near the campus bookstore.  Nestled in a hidden alcove beyond a student lounge, WZRD is a cozy space jam-packed with decades worth of station history.

The walls are plastered with vintage show posters, yellowed and torn hand-drawn event flyers from the 1980s, glossy band photos, stickers, graffiti, and other station artifacts that hint at WZRD's historic role in the punk rock scene and the underground Chicago music scene. Peppered throughout the multi-room space are a wide array of CDs, LPs, 7" records, cassettes, and box sets that encompass a wide range of genres.

WZRD Lounge

As I spoke with Grilly in the station's lounge, various WZRD staff and DJs popped in and chatted about their involvement with the station. Grilly told me that the 100 watt station has been in this same location since 1974. It's devoted to freeform programming and DJs are given complete freedom to program their shows as they'd like. Grilly has been at WZRD since fall 2011, but he told me that he'd known about the station for years, telling me that it was a "station that played all this weird music."

WZRD DJ in the on-air studio

Elaborating on WZRD's freeform philosophy, Grilly explained in a follow-up email that,

"Our philosophy is Freeform, in the purest sense. Other stations that are freeform often have block programing that are genre specific shows. We take the freeform thing a bit further. All DJs are required (we do not enforce this too strongly) to play several genres per show. When we do our record buys, we keep this in mind and we get an extremely eclectic mix. Usually the weirder the better. It's kind of a stream of consciousness thing."

Spring Lineup for Thursday Night Live program

In the Wizard newspaper, WZRD staff member (and one of the current Program Directors) Peter Ali Enger writes, "WZRD has never enforced any strict interpretation of freeform. At the most, we might encourage a DJ to try to be more diverse in the content of their shows, as our listeners expect it."

Bobby Womack on the turntable in the studio at WZRD

I got a sense of that musical diversity as I listened to WZRD before, during and after my visit to the station. While we were there, DJs pulled vintage vinyl (Bobby Womack) and CDs from the archives, ranging from old R and B and funk (Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan) to industrial to Sonic Youth. We also heard political talk and interviews interspersed with the music. As I write this, a DJ was playing strange covers of songs by Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Andre 3000, and Nirvana (he claimed to be playing Elvis Presley covering Nirvana) and read bits from motivational speaker Tony Robbins.

 Vintage Rufus LP on the turntable at WZRD

Live DJs can be at the station as late as 1am and a variety of sounds can be heard throughout the day. Although it's mostly a freeform mix of sounds, every Thursday night from 10pm to midnight, live bands perform on-air at WZRD for the show "Thursday Night Live." Some of the recent and upcoming bands include punk, alt country, pop, folk, experimental, free jazz percussion, and Latin groove artists.

Old show flyer on the wall at WZRD

Since around 2009, only students could participate at WZRD. When the lock-out happened, there were no alumni DJs or community volunteers at the station. Grilly said that although it's been a difficult time at the station, the lock-out actually served to bring station members closer together. Some former restrictions have also been lifted. Following the end of the lock-out in January, WZRD alumni have been allowed back to the station. Faculty and staff are also allowed to become DJs.

On-air studio

The station itself is much like many other college radio stations. There's a cozy couch in the station lounge, several studios for on-air DJs and live performances, office space, and a record library containing around 17,000 vinyl records, "milk crates full of tapes", and nearly 17,000 CDs. Whereas most college radio stations organize their record libraries in alphabetical order by genre, WZRD organizes its music in chronological order, based on when particular items were added to the station's library.

The first CDs added to WZRD

Each release is assigned a number and DJs can use that numeric system in order to locate particular releases. Older material is cataloged on paper index cards in sort of a card catalog system of organization and newer material is cataloged digitally using CATraxx music library software. As we skimmed through the record library, it was fascinating to take a look at some of the earliest CDs added to the WZRD library, including some of the first CMJ compilations. According to the current system, the first CD added to WZRD was Dinosaurs.

Index cards cataloging the WZRD library

Grilly told me that WZRD played an important role during punk rock's early years and artists like Naked Raygun and Smashing Pumpkins have played at the station. Posters on the walls of the record library are reminders of some of the bands championed by the station during the 1980s, including Frightwig, Angst, Saccharine Trust, Descendents and Psychic TV.

 WZRD Record library

Grilly said that WZRD also has a collection of vintage tapes of the syndicated Maximum Rocknroll radio show. Currently there is no way to play cassettes at the station, although there is an old 8-track tape player (and a handful of 8-track tapes) in the station lounge.

Max Grilly shows off a treasured 8-track

Grilly said that he hopes that in the future they will be able to get a new cassette player (as he's aware of the current cassette resurgence and lo-fi movement) and will also get the resources needed to digitize many of the archival recordings held by the station, including interviews on reel-to-reel tapes that are currently in a climate-controlled space in the school library.

Cassettes at WZRD

Although it's a freeform station, DJs are discouraged from doing "computerized shows," according to Grilly. He said, "iPods are a big no-no," and added that DJs are encouraged to play several genres during their programs and are discouraged from playing music that can be heard on other stations. Public affairs programming is woven into every program, with each DJ required to devote at least 10% of a show to public affairs. After my visit Grilly explained over email, saying,

"That could mean anything from having an interview, reading the news papers, or playing a Ted Talk. Even just giving an op-ed speech qualifies, I think. This provides a lot of opportunity to address the Quarterly Issues [required by the FCC]. We do not do a straight public affairs show or have any solely news shows. We don't do shows. Wizards are required to mix it up. Most of our shows are music heavy. Our listeners appreciate the mix, but definitely prefer the music."

Reading material outside of WZRD studio

While there are no "straight public affairs" shows, WZRD does air a few syndicated public affairs and news programs, including Democracy Now! (weekday mornings) and Free Speech Radio News (weekday afternoons).

WZRD lobby, with actual wizard

As we were wrapping up our visit, Grilly asked me and my husband to pose with one of WZRD's stuffed wizard mascots (DJs at WZRD are commonly referred to as Wizards). Apparently it's a station tradition to have guests photographed with a stuffed animal wizard. We were happy to oblige and thankful to our hosts for a fun visit to WZRD.


See a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here. To see more WZRD, take a look at this short documentary of the station, which includes a station tour and interviews with DJs.


Kyle said...

Jennifer, if you're ever in Florida, come to WRGP in Miami!

Avid reader of your blog for a long time! We'd love to give you a tour!

Jennifer Waits said...

Thanks so much, Kyle. Would love to visit if I'm ever in Miami!