Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Field Trip to WECB at Emerson College

A little over a week ago on Friday, March 28th I visited WECB at Emerson College in Boston to conduct my first college radio station visit for Spinning Indie.

WECB got on my radar when I spotted an article in the Emerson College newspaper about its forays into broadcasting in the college's campus center. I was intrigued to read that in addition to the well-known WERS-FM, Emerson College also had a second, lower profile radio station on campus and wanted to learn more.

WECB is a campus-only station, broadcasting via the Internet and on the closed-circuit TV station at Emerson College in the heart of Boston. The station began in 1947 and was formerly an AM carrier current station that aired commercials. WECB is currently a freeform station and is housed in the basement of a building in a relatively new space shared by WERS-FM, which is also non-commercial, but functions more like a professional commercial station.

I met with the General Manager of WECB, Jeff Penfield, who has also worked at WERS (and still has a show there) and got an overview of how the two stations differ. He told me that WECB serves the Emerson College community and is more oriented toward DJs who view radio as a hobby vs. a career. Shows at WECB are 2 hours long and have very few rules besides DJs not being able to use 6 bad words (vs. a much longer list at WERS). Programming is eclectic, from the GM's Led Zeppelin-themed show to comedy, British pop, hip hop, sports, electronica, and a show focusing on a different U.S. state every week. Since they don't have an FCC license, WECB has the freedom to play and say pretty much what they want. This aspect of WECB was discussed in a controversial article in the campus paper, which the GM told me mischaracterized the station's rules.

In contrast, WERS is a tightly formatted station that is run like a professional, commercial station even though it's technically a non-commercial college station. My impression is that DJs there have very little freedom in terms of selecting music for their shows since they use music software, playing tracks from a computer as one would on a commercial station. With its 3 to 5 hour AAA format (adult album alternative) daytime shows, WERS works much like a training ground for professional DJs. When I visited they were doing a special local music week, with lots of in-studio guests and performances. WERS's studios faced Tremont Street in Boston and their station is piped out of speakers outside the building, so that passersby hear the station (at least this was the case when I walked by mid-day on a Friday). It's apparently a competitive place and it isn't as easy to get a show on WERS as it is on WECB.

WECB is a very different place, where DJs have complete freedom to program their own shows. Their digs are less spacious, with a small, but nicely outfitted on-air studio. Equipment included a mixing board, computer, spiffy microphones, CD players, and one turntable tucked away on a counter (I had to look closely for it, as it was hidden behind the on-air DJ's laptop when I stopped by). Jeff told me that DJs there mostly play music that they've brought from home, using CDs, iPods, and laptops. Their Music Director adds music to their small library and it's mostly music that gets sent to the station for free. Their entire record library was in the studio, including a digital music library, which amazed me. They don't really have space for bands to play, but they are able to host acoustic performances in the on-air studio.

If you'd like to learn more about the history of WECB, there's an extensive reunion page, from their 60th anniversary celebration in 2007. The website also includes some history from the 1980s, outlining a time when the station nearly disappeared. There's also a link to a piece written about WECB in 2004. There's also a 2002 story from campus newspaper The Berkeley Beacon about WECB's return to the airwaves.

Thanks so much to WECB for allowing me to visit! Hopefully in the weeks to come I will be able to report back on other station visits.

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