Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 63 - Radio 1851 at St. Joseph's University

Radio 1851 Sign on Simpson Hall at St. Joseph's University. Photo: J. Waits
During a spring trip to the Philadelphia area, I visited five radio stations in one day on April 8, 2014. In the morning, I checked out college radio stations WXVU and WSRN and in the afternoon I traveled to high school radio station WHHS before venturing to see Radio 1851 at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

Radio 1851 banner. Photo: J. Waits
I was particularly excited to visit Radio 1851, as St. Joseph's holds a special place in radio history. Although today's station is online-only, the university was a radio pioneer a century ago and held the first experimental radio license in the United States (issued in 1912).

As I wrote on Radio Survivor earlier this year,

"Early wireless experiments were conducted by the physics department at St. Joseph’s College and the school received the first experimental radio license, under the call letters 3XJ, issued by the United States Department of Commerce in 1912...

During World War I, the station was briefly designated a 'special receiving station' and helped the government by monitoring the airwaves in search of spy stations. After a few months, it was shut down for the duration of the war (along with other amateur stations) and then resumed activity in 1920."

St. Joseph's University. Photo: J. Waits
The first broadcast station at St. Joseph's, WPJ, launched in April 1922, but lasted for less than a year, with its call sign deleted in January, 1923. This may very well have been the first college radio station in the Philadelphia area, as it launched even earlier than my alma mater Haverford College's WABQ (which began in fall 1923). There wasn't another broadcast station at St. Joseph's until probably the late 1960s, when campus-only carrier current station WSJR launched. Those broadcasts continued for several decades and by the late 1990s there was also an unlicensed FM broadcast over 89.5 FM. After the power was increased beyond the permitted level (apparently for more than a decade!), the station was shut down by the FCC in 2001. It's unclear to me what happened after that point, but WSJR relaunched as an online station initially in 2004 and today operates at Radio 1851.

When I visited the station in April 2014, Radio 1851's Marketing Director Michael Bergamini met up with me to talk about the current state of radio at St. Joseph's. He told me that he didn't know much about the station's history, telling me that Radio 1851 had only been up and running again for about 3 years.

CD players at Radio 1851. Photo: J. Waits
Bergamini said that the station had around 60 active DJs at the time of my visit in the spring, with maybe 15 to 20 programs. Most shows have between one and three hosts. For the most part, the schedule was pretty booked on weekdays between 3pm and midnight.

Simpson Hall at St. Joseph's University. Photo: J. Waits
Radio 1851 is housed on the third floor of Simpson Hall at St. Joseph's University, in an arts building that is also home to the school newspaper, rehearsal spaces, and storage for student clubs. Bergamini told me that the school also has its own record label called 1851 Records. At the time of my visit, the on-air DJ Sean was in the studio. He told me that he mostly plays rock music and often adjusts his playlist depending on the weather. He explained that he likes to play heavier music, like metal, when it's cold outside because he thinks of that music as more depressing.

Studio at Radio 1851. Photo: J. Waits
Bergamini said that the station had recently made some adjustments to its online broadcast and had also added a webcam so that viewers can watch the on-air DJ on the station's live videostream. Sean said that his dad regularly watches him during his show and will also text him with requests. He joked that his dad watches from work and often will just listen to the audio when Sean is on mic. Bergamini told me that a lot of parents tune in to their kids' shows. He was also excited to tell me about the new Radio 1851 app, which they'd been heavily promoting to listeners.

Board at Radio 1851. Photo: J. Waits
Radio 1851 is student-run and its roster of DJs is 100% students. An advisor helps keep the station running. For the most part DJs do their shows using their own digital music sources, but they can also draw from the digital library maintained by the station. They can also play CDs off of the station's CD players. Since there are no turntables at Radio 1851, some DJs bring in their own.

Radio 1851. Photo: J. Waits
In addition to music shows, including programs focused on rap, EDM, and rock, there are also some talk shows. In the spring there were several sports talk shows on the air.

Michael Bergamini in Radio 1851's production studio. Photo: J. Waits
Although Radio 1851 occupies a pretty small space, they also have a shared office and production studio with the school newspaper. I was happy to hear that the station streams its broadcasts into a student lounge space/common area in the building called The Perch. Bergamini said that they've also talked about having the station's stream played in the cafeteria.

The Perch. Photo: J. Waits
During my visit I got to also meet the station's Programming Director (and incoming General Manager this fall) Julia Burke. She talked about some of the goals for the station and also reflected back on her introduction to Radio 1851. During her first semester on campus she saw the radio sign on the building and knocked on the door. She said she was most excited about being involved with the station and she hasn't turned back since.

Julia Burke and Michael Bergamini in Radio 1851 office. Photo: J. Waits
Thanks so much to Michael and Julia and everyone else at Radio 1851 for the great tour. I'm nearly done with my Philadelphia-area field trip reports and will have more posted soon. Next up after that: trips to stations in Maryland, D.C. and Illinois. You can see a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here. In the meantime, here's an important message:

Sign at Radio 1851. Photo: J. Waits

No comments: