Friday, September 26, 2008

College Radio Field Trip 3 - Notre Dame's WVFI

This week I was in my husband Brian's home town of South Bend, Indiana so we decided to take a trip to his college radio alma mater WVFI aka "Voice of the Fighting Irish" at University of Notre Dame. Brian DJ'd at WVFI about 20 years ago, probably in 1987 and 1988 when the station was heard only on campus on AM. He hadn't been back to the station in all that time, so it was the perfect opportunity to do the 3rd radio station field trip for Spinning Indie (this time with family in tow).

Former WVFI DJ Brian with the Stylin' Station Hoodie

In the years since Brian's stint at the station in the 1980s, WVFI has dealt with various equipment issues that made it difficult to achieve a large audience. According to the Winter 2000-2001 article "WVFI Goes Global" in Notre Dame Magazine,

"The station abandoned its place at 640 on the AM dial in 1999 in hopes of attaining a more powerful FM frequency like that belonging to WSND, the mostly classical music station that broadcasts from campus. Lack of upkeep and an outdated carrier current had caused WVFI's transmitter to deteriorate to the point that only a handful of residence halls could receive its signal. Increasing computer use on campus also interfered with the signal.

Because it could take years for WVFI, whose call letters stand for Voice of the Fighting Irish, to obtain an FM license, station managers turned their attention to the Internet. The University agreed, and in fall 1999 WVFI moved to the web."

Retro Images from WVFI's Past

Although WVFI is in the same location in the student center building as it was in the 1980s, a lot has also changed. As mentioned above, the formerly AM station is now Internet-only, available on-campus since 1999 and globally as of 2000. But, unlike my 1st college station, WVFI has still hung on to its large collection of vinyl from decades ago. In our trip to the "Vault," which is kind of their morgue for old CDs and vinyl, we spotted Styx records and plenty of stuff from our early days of college radio in the 1980s. I also saw some dusty old carts in one of their back-up studios.

Office/lounge at WVFI

When we stopped by WVFI on Monday afternoon, we were impressed to see several station staff members hanging around in the station's lounge area. Station Manager John Siegel chatted with us about the station, while other DJs and exec staff members chimed in with their observations. They told us that they enjoy being an Internet-only station and that it actually means that they get more listeners. John told us that it's also more cost-effective to be Internet-only. Other station staff mentioned that it's a lot easier to listen to streaming radio than AM or FM since everyone has laptops and most people on campus don't have radios. The students who we met at the station told us that they did not own radios.

Everyone we met was super friendly and warm and I came away from our visit with the impression that WVFI is a very democratic, egalitarian place. First of all, it seems like most people who are interested in getting a show are able to get on the air. Many of the slots are short (30 minutes to 2 hours) and are filled by teams and trios of DJs, making for a very large on-air staff. One of the folks we met was the station's DJ Relations Director and it's her job to facilitate the "DJ community" at the station through various events, parties, etc. It's kind of a cool idea, since often DJs are just in and out of the station to do their shows. That's also part of the reason why the staff we met were dedicated to spending time just hanging out at the station and having regular office hours, so that people felt welcomed and included in a station community.

Music Awaiting Review from Music Committee members

Additionally, the Music Directors are not the sole musical gatekeepers. According to John Siegel, there's a "music committee" of up to 40 station staff members that reviews music that gets sent to the station. I was shown a CD carousel in their lobby that contained CDs that were awaiting DJ reviews. If a CD sits around long enough without an interested reviewer, then it doesn't get added to the library. Additionally, they aren't fans of mp3 releases, so primarily it's CDs that get added to the station.

The Vault at WVFI

I was also impressed to see that WVFI has a respect for its history. Right when we walked in they pulled out a binder full of newspaper clippings from the station's past in an attempt to find pictures or articles from my husband's era at the station. They also maintain their "Vault" of out-of current rotation music under lock and key so that all of that material is kept safe and secure. I was told that all the current DJs are given a code for the Vault so that they have access to that material in case they want to play it. Listeners can also peruse some of the CD titles in the collection online. Additionally, John told me that they believe it's important to not purge music from the station and that they are dedicated to maintaining their music collection since at some point in history the records in the vault "meant something to someone."

Entrance to WVFI
(I was assured that the 7"s were all duplicate copies of music in their collection)

In terms of what gets played, the station is mainly focused on "college rock," but there are also shows that play punk, hip hop, sports talk, etc. Although the station only gets sent vinyl on rare occasions (a recent Sigur Ros release for example), they do have a vinyl-only show, which warms my heart! DJs must fill 50% of their playlist with music from the station's current rotation (usually between 120 and 200 releases from CMJ's current rotation) and can fill the rest of it with whatever they want, including material from DJs' own collections of CDs, vinyl, or mp3s. Specialty shows at the station include metal, world music, jazz, sports, and a new show with weekly interviews with musicians. WVFI also broadcasts football games and other sporting events (they once aired a basketball game that reportedly got 10,000 listeners).

WVFI's Broadcast Studio
(I absolutely love the retro board, encased in actual wood.)

WVFI also publishes a music magazine called Mindset, which we were told was a great creative outlet for DJs to share their passion for music. The magazine also helps to raise students' awareness of the station, although John guessed that 50% of students probably already know about WVFI. He also told me that most people know someone who does a show at the station.

Like many college radio stations, WVFI does not have live DJs 24 hours a day. Between 2AM and 9AM the station is on "overnight shuffle," which is a randomized mix of music created by using an iTunes smart playlist based on DJ comments on a semester's worth of music. The station is also off-the-air during the summer months when the campus is not filled with students.

Another shot of the "Vault" at WVFI

By the way, Notre Dame also has a public radio station, WSND-FM, which has paid staff members and plays mainly classical music. They also have jazz, opera, and some rock programming at night; but the impression we got was that WVFI is much more of the student station. As with most schools with multiple radio stations, we were told that there's a bit of a rivalry between the two. Yet, both have really different goals and audiences, as John succinctly expressed, saying that WVFI is "more public and modern" and that WSND is "less accessible" since it's on FM. It certainly depends on the audience, but, this is an important and eye-opening statement about how radio is consumed by college students today. P.S. Back in February I wrote about WSND and WVFI and discussed my own experience of being at a school with two radio stations.

Radio has a lengthy history at Notre Dame and both WSND and WVFI were formerly part of the same organization, whose history you can read about on the WSND website.

Future College Radio DJ B, Crashes out on WVFI Couch

Thanks so much to John Siegel and all the WVFI staff members who took the time to share their station with us. As always, it's so much fun to catch a glimpse of another college radio station. You can see more pictures from my field trip to WVFI on the Spinning Indie Facebook page.

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