Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 59 - WTBU at Boston University

Sign at WTBU. Photo: J. Waits
On August 6th, I had a great opportunity to travel through the Boston area, using public transportation to make my way to four different college radio stations. I've already written about my visits to WMBR and WHRB in Cambridge and my third visit that day was to Boston University station WTBU.

WTBU Sign on Building at Boston University. Photo: J. Waits
It's impossible to ignore WTBU's presence at Boston University, as its call letters loom large on the College of Communication's building on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, making a grand statement about the importance of radio.

WTBU'S "The Beat" Magazine. Photo: J. Waits
According to the WTBU website, the station began "in the late 1950s....as training ground for the already-established WBUR, which launched in 1950. After WBUR became a National Public Radio affiliate in the early 1970s, WTBU became BU's only student radio station." For more historical tidbits, see WTBU alumnus Aaron Read's website.
WTBU was started in the late 1950s by the Boston University School of Public Relations (now the College of Communication) as training ground for the already-established WBUR. After WBUR became a National Public Radio affiliate in the early 1970s, WTBU became BU’s only student radio station.

WTBU Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Program Director Joe Weil met me at the station, which was really gracious of him since WTBU was pretty much shut down for the summer. He told me that there's no set programming during the break between school years and when I stopped by the station, nothing was being broadcast.

Joe Weil in WTBU's Music Library. Photo: J. Waits
Weil, who also hosts a hip hop show, said that he has been catching up on some projects over the summer, like conducting interviews that he will air later. A few others at the station are doing summer shows.

Entrance to WTBU Office. Photo: J. Waits
The student-run station is unlicensed and broadcasts at very low power at 89.3 FM and over 640 AM on campus, as well as on the university's cable channel (BU channel 6). I was fascinated to hear that WTBU may still be broadcasting using AM carrier current, especially since the student DJs primarily listen to the station using its Internet stream.

View into WTBU Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Although WTBU's studio contains a collection of CDs and the station has a small music library, Weil told me that everyone at the station DJs off of laptops or by using digital music. He said that for the most part, DJs are planning out their shows ahead of time and they bring in prepared digital playlists. When I asked about whether or not anyone played physical music, like CDs or vinyl records, he said that nobody did and he laughed when I asked about cassette tapes.

Records in the WTBU Music Library. Photo: J. Waits
Weil showed me around the music library and told me that the material in the library tends to get used for giveaways to fellow DJs. Feeling more like a forgotten storage room, the music library had some LPs (including Concrete Blonde, Zeitgeist, and Marianne Faithfull), old promotional CDs, mail bins, banners, and other miscellaneous items. Physical music does get sent to WTBU and the CDs are digitized and put into a digital library that station members can play from.

WTBU's Spring 2014 Programming Schedule. Photo: J. Waits
During the school year WTBU operates with all live shows, with DJs and show hosts on the air from around 6am to 2am every day. There's no automation system, but the last DJ of the day is asked to play from the digital library of  new "rotation" music when leaving the studio. It's entirely a student operation and all DJs have to be enrolled at Boston University in order to get on the air. Weil guessed that there are around 125 to 150 participants at WTBU, with around 50 shows.

WTBU's Magazine, "The Beat." Photo: J. Waits
Not all WTBU staffers are on the air, as many of them also work on the bi-weekly WTBU music/art magazine, "The Beat" (see some archived issues here). The station also has an active news department, sports department, and a regularly updated website and blog, with music reviews and arts coverage. Various departments also have their own social media outlets.

Recent WTBU Artwork. Photo: J. Waits
In order to get on the air, prospective DJs start out as interns. An Intern Director assigns each intern to a show to train on and each intern shadows a DJ and gets trained on the air for a semester.  Following that internship period and after passing a test, students can apply for a show. Weil said that there were probably 40 interested DJs at the last intern meeting. Last semester there was so much demand for shows that Weil had just enough open slots for all of the DJs who wanted shifts. He told me that in the fall there are more applications than available time slots.

Board in On-Air Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Once on the air, there are specialty music shows, "rotation" music shows in which DJs play music recently added to the station, as well as sports and public affairs programs. Weil said that a big part of the WTBU culture is interviews. DJs do a lot of interviews with musicians and also with sports figures. Weil said that in particular there's a growing hip hop scene and he's enjoyed getting the chance to talk to local artists.

Studio C at WTBU. Photo: J. Waits
In addition to interviews, WTBU also broadcasts live music on various shows. Weil said that it would be great if they could air 3 to 5 interviews a week and 1 to 2 performances a week. The station has a recently remodeled live studio (Studio C), which is a great resource for these "Studio Sessions" (you can listen to some archives on the WTBU website).

Note from Former WTBU Executive Board Member. Photo: J. Waits
When I asked Weil what makes WTBU unique, he told me that the "dedication amongst the students" is impressive. He told me that he's appreciated the high quality shows on WTBU, saying, "I'm amazed by the programming." He also explained that Boston University also has a great Communications program (in whose building the station in housed), which benefits the station.

CMJ Award on Wall at WTBU. Photo: J. Waits
As I toured through WTBU, some of the station's accolades lined the hallway walls, including recent awards from CMJ for "Station of the Year." There's also a studio dedicated to famous alumnus Howard Stern (he was at the station in the 1970s and was infamously fired from his show).

Rotation CDs at WTBU. Photo: J. Waits
When I asked Weil about the overall music philosophy at WTBU, he said that the station gives DJs a lot of freedom, but that the music played is supposed to stray away from top 40 and shouldn't be material that's "totally popular."

Flyer on wall at WTBU. Photo: J. Waits
Thanks so much to Joe Weil for touring me around WTBU. If you want to tune in to the station this fall, check in after September 2nd to hear a full schedule of live shows again.

Station ID and Break Clock Signs in WTBU Studio. Photo: J. Waits
View a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here. I'm slowly catching up on all my field trip reports and will feature more Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C. and Illinois radio stations soon.

1 comment:

Anne Donohue said...

Best station ev-ah, as we say in Boston! Thanks for visiting.