Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 56 - WSRN at Swarthmore College

Old Equipment at WSRN. Photo: J. Waits
Back in April, I had a hectic day full of radio station visits in the Philadelphia area. I've already written about my first stop at Villanova University station WXVU. Following that visit, I traveled to Swarthmore College radio station WSRN 91.5 FM.

Turntables in WSRN Studio. Photo: J. Waits
It had been several decades since I'd been on the Swarthmore College campus. Back when I was a student at Haverford College I took a few classes there and I also trekked over for some concerts. I had never seen WSRN, so I was pretty excited to check it out.

Bloodstains Across Philadelphia LP at WSRN. Photo: J. Waits
When I arrived for my visit on April 8, 2014, I met up with Station Managers Axel Kodat and Martin Froger-Silva in the piano lounge of Parrish Hall. Originally built in 1869, Parrish Hall was the original campus building. In keeping with that status, it had a feeling of grandeur, with chandeliers, a fireplace, and couches.

WSRN Studio. Photo: J. Waits
As we headed upstairs to the top floor of the building where WSRN is housed, Kodat and Froger-Silva started filling me in about the station. As it was getting close to the end of the semester, they both were already looking ahead to the summer, when the station would be dark and various neglected station projects could be completed.

Axel Kodat in WSRN Studio
Although they didn't know many of the details, Kodat and Froger-Silva were aware that radio had a long history at Swarthmore College. They said that they thought the station started in around 1940 and told me that they've run across old typewritten documents in the WSRN files, including a 1951 schedule and archival photos.

16" Record at WSRN. Photo: J. Waits
Froger-Silva is a history major and he said that he'd like to do some work to properly document the history of WSRN, including potentially working with the school library/archives to digitize station materials. The Swarthmore College Library has a collection of historical WSRN materials, including old program guides and audio recordings. Additionally, Swarthmore is purportedly home to one of the oldest collegiate amateur radio clubs, dating back to 1919.

Carts at WSRN. Photo: J. Waits
As one wanders about the station, there are lots of interesting artifacts from WSRN's past. I spotted vintage 78rpm records, over-sized 16" transcription discs, carts, cassette tapes, retired audio equipment, drums, and an old Wurlitzer keyboard.

Pottery Records inventory at WSRN. Photo: J. Waits
There were also some 7"s from the 1990s, which were pressed by WSRN's own label, Pottery Records. I was told that the label produced three 7"s, with songs by various indie rock bands, including the Mountain Goats. The Station Managers agreed that there was a treasure trove of materials at the station and said that it would be a big undertaking to organize it all.

"Big Room" at WSRN. Photo: J. Waits
WSRN is blessed with lots of space, but it looks like some of it is getting taken over. I was told that its large office (which they dub the "big room") may soon need to be shared with the Student Council. Another room in the WSRN space, Studio B, is no longer part of the station and is used as a recording studio.

Chalkboard with a portion of the WSRN Schedule. Photo: J. Waits
I was told that there are currently around 32 shows airing on WSRN, with perhaps up to 60 total DJs at the station. Kodat said that the number of DJs has decreased since he arrived at the station in fall of 2011. Back then, the schedule was full. He told me that there's a lack of awareness on campus about the existence of the station. He also admitted that not many students listen to radio in general and that most are unaware that WSRN has an FM signal. He said that there's been a "historical failure to promote the station."

WSRN Record Library. Photo: J. Waits
Froger-Silva acknowledged that it's challenging to get people to listen to WSRN when faced with other music options like Pandora and YouTube that allow for listeners to hear what they want "whenever, wherever."

Record Library at WSRN. Photo: J. Waits
Although the station has "maybe 10,000 records," most DJs at WSRN do their shows using digital music and the most "accessible" CDs in WSRN's collection. Kodat lamented this fact, saying that the vinyl collection is "depressingly underused."  He said that when he first started doing his show, he often combed through the vinyl and played "random" selections that he found, including "hilariously bad things." Kodat wasn't able to do that as much in Spring semester, as they were having issues with the turntables.

Sticker Cabinet at WSRN. Photo: J. Waits
Both Froger-Silva and Kodat were clearly devoted to college radio, despite the challenges (both with equipment and with gaining listeners). I was fascinated to learn that Kodat is already a college radio veteran, having DJ'd at the Hamilton College station WHCL while still a high school student. He told me that his co-host from that station is participating in college radio at KRRC at Reed College (see my field trip post here).

WSRN. Photo: J. Waits
Similarly passionate about college radio, Froger-Silva is thinking about doing his thesis about college radio and WSRN. Considering the scarcity of college radio histories, I would be excited to see him take on that project.

View into WSRN Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Thanks to Martin and Axel for the great visit to WSRN. Here's a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips. I'm slowing catching up on my write-ups from my station visits and hope to feature more Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C. and Illinois radio station field trip reports soon. In the meantime, here's an important public service announcement for DJs everywhere...

File Your Records Pronouncement at WSRN. Photo: J. Waits


Greg Ingber said...

Oh man, it's possible I produced the Jedi Mind Tricks promo cart pictured in this post. I was production manager at WSRN in 1999, my senior year at Swat and I remember that show. Thanks for the post!

Greg Ingber said...

Thanks for this post, it's great to see the WSRN studio again. It's actually hardly changed in 20 years. I was a DJ and production manager for the station from 95-99. In fact, I think I might have produced one of the cart promos in your photo (the one for the Jedi Mind Tricks show in 99').