Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 52 - WXVU at Villanova University

WXVU Banner (photo: J. Waits)
Earlier this month I had a whirlwind trip to the East Coast, in which I visited nine radio stations in addition to NPR headquarters. My most hectic day of station tours happened on Tuesday, April 8th. I started the morning with a visit to WXVU at Villanova University on the mainline of Philadelphia.

The 89.1 FM station shares its frequency with nearby Cabrini College station WYBF (unfortunately my attempts to visit were unsuccessful) and its broadcasts extend for around an 8 mile radius. Awarded its FM license in 1991, WXVU broadcasts terrestrially on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays until noon and has online programming 24/7.

WXVU Hot Clock (photo: J. Waits)
Although it's only had an FM station since 1991, Villanova students have been doing campus radio since at least 1947, with the first stations broadcasting over carrier current to select buildings. According to a 2007 issue of the Villanovan, there was an even earlier station that began "sometime early in the century, but stopped when the Great Depression began." I haven't been able to find more information about this rumored station from the 1920s/30s.

WXVU Record Library (photo: J. Waits)
An article in student newspaper, The Villanovan (online archives information can be found here), from 1942 ("Students will Broadcast on Campus Radio Station") talks about plans for the new student radio station. At the time, it was speculated that the station would transmit via the "college heating system or the electrical circuit."

By March 1949,"...the campus radio station, WVIL, has risen from its doubtful struggling infancy to a position where it compares favorably with any college radio station in the country. Originating in an unventilated linen closet in Austin Hall, the infant station was built entirely by students...," according to an article in the Villanovan from that time. The March, 1949 article reports that thanks to the success of the station in its first year of broadcasting, the administration was providing WVIL with new studios, located temporarily in the same building as the "campus tonsorial emporium." (hairdresser?) The station also received with new microphones and 16-inch turntables.

Hallway at WXVU today (photo: J. Waits)
By 1955, WVIL was airing rock and roll music, the Lucky Strike News Show, jazz music, show tunes, and an early morning show called "Yawn Patrol." An article from 1960 announced that the station had changed its name from WVIL to WWVU and would be extending its hours of broadcast. Programming at the time included classical music, big band, news, jazz, popular music, and a show featuring "representatives from the neighboring girls' colleges, as well as our own co-eds." (A 1955 listing of programs on WVIL includes a show called "Visiting Girl D.J.s")

60th Anniversary Banner (photo: J. Waits)
The station name changed again, to WKVU. A student newspaper account from 1970 states that WKVU aired 14.5 hours of live programming per day, 6 days a week. Music at the time ranged from "light Top 40 in the morning to heavy FM style progressive late at night." By the 1990s, FM station WXVU was born. In 2007, WXVU had a big 60th anniversary celebration with a week's worth of activities in honor of 60 years of continuous broadcasting. In more recent years, alumni have come back to DJ during Alumni Weekend, with two former DJs even doing live play-by-play during Villanova's Homecoming game.

WXVU Studio (photo: J. Waits)
The student-run radio station is led by General Manager Steven Gulotta, who showed me around the station along with adviser J.J. Brown. Brown is on hand to ensure that the station is FCC compliant and to also work on long-term goals for WXVU. Having been at the station for 5 years, he also provides a sense of continuity when students move on after graduation.

J.J. Brown and Steven Gulotta at WXVU (photo: J. Waits)
WXVU is located upstairs in Dougherty Hall at Villanova University. There's a dining hall, bank, and Barber Shop on the first floor of the building and many student services are located near the station, including offices for the student newspaper (the Villanovan), student government, and the VP of Student Life.

WXVU Lobby (Photo: J. Waits)
When one enters the station lobby, there's some seating and a window to one of the studios. Down a narrow hallway with shelves full of records and CDs there are entrances to all of the studios. A short 2009 documentary captures WXVU much as it looks today, even down to some of the LPs that are in plain sight.

WXVU currently has around 82 student DJs, with a pretty packed schedule of programming up until about 2am. Shows are 90 minutes in length are are mostly music-oriented, although there are also some sports talk shows and a public affairs program focused on both university and local issues. WXVU also broadcasts sports, including football, men's basketball, and women's basketball.

Brown said that the great thing about WXVU is that it's an "outlet for students to be creative." Gulotta also pointed out that, "DJs have individual control over their own shows" and added that being at the station really "opens up your eyes into so much new music."

Flyer for WXVU Show (photo: J. Waits)

Before becoming General Manager, Gulotta was the station's Music Director, and his passion for music was palpable. He told me that he's particularly interested in noise, drone, and avant garde music, which he airs on his Wednesday night show "Saudade." Sometimes live bands also play at WXVU, with one DJ hosting a show that frequently features local bands from the Philadelphia area. It's a tight space, so performances tend to be acoustic.

New releases at WXVU (photo: J. Waits)

Gulotta told me that most music DJs at the station are playing indie pop, hip hop, electronica, and classic metal. There are also specialty shows, including garage, punk, and progressive metal. Typically students will run their shows digitally, playing music off of their laptops. The station also has automation software that can be utilized to create playlists. Additionally, DJs can play physical music, including CDs and vinyl from their own collections or from the station's music library.

Turntable at WXVU (photo: J. Waits)

I was told that WXVU had around 6 cabinets filled with CDs, but that the station was running out of room to house it all. Some music was disposed of and jewel cases were dispensed with in order to create more space. Although I didn't see it, there's apparently a closet full of old vinyl as well. The station rarely gets sent new vinyl, but there are DJs that regularly play it. One show, the Kane Konundrum, plays a vinyl pick of the week.

Metal Archive at WXVU (photo: J. Waits)
As we looked through the CD and libraries outside of the studio, Gulotta and Brown told me that in the 1980s WXVU was widely known as a metal station. Many gems across a range of genres from days gone by could be seen on the shelves, including releases by Wire, Skinny Puppy, and Godstar.

Sun Ra album on wall at WXVU (photo: J. Waits)
Choice album covers also adorned the station lobby walls, as calling cards for the executive staff (each person picked a favorite album cover to represent them on the wall and selections ranged from Sun Ra to Richard Simmons).

Board in the Studio at WXVU (photo: J. Waits)
When there isn't a live DJ at the station, WXVU switches over to automation, playing a mix of music that rotates through various genres from the library.

Thanks to Steven and J.J. for the tour of WXVU. My interest in now piqued about the station's early history. The digital archives at Villanova probably offer more clues for interested radio historians.

Here's a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips. Come back soon to see the remainder of my Philadelphia-area field trips, as well as some visits to stations in D.C. and Maryland. 


Sean McDonald said...

Great article! JJ and WXVU are great forces in college radio, and the program is awesome! Next time you're around, please stop by Neumann University, where our 6 year old online radio station is about to break into the FM world with our LPFM! Long live College Radio!

Jennifer Waits said...

Thanks, Sean. Several people mentioned Neumann to me. I wish I had time to visit more stations, although I did manage to see quite a few on this trip.