Monday, November 24, 2008

Radio Station Field Trip 7 - Northwestern's WNUR

Projected Sign at the Entrance to WNUR

On Monday, November 17th I was able to visit another college radio station as a part of my ongoing series of radio station field trips around the country. On a very chilly day I met up with Taylor Dearr, the General Manager of WNUR at Northwestern University to chat about radio and tour their digs. The Evanston, Illinois station has been around for nearly 60 years and has won numerous accolades ("Best College Radio Station" from Spin magazine in 2003, as well as other awards for their news programming, radio journalism, radio drama and for specialty programming). They are a 7200 watt FM station and have a huge listening range, broadcasting throughout the Chicago area and also online through podcasts (for public affairs shows) and streaming.

WNUR General Manager Taylor Dearr in the Station's Record Library

Taylor has been involved with WNUR since he was a freshman and has worked on a variety of shows at the station as both a DJ and producer. The night before our visit, I happened to hear him chatting about an epic meal he had at Chicago restaurant Alinea on his foodie talk show "At the Table." I have to say it was pretty cool to hear a discussion of molecular gastronomy on college radio. The presence of a food talk show on their schedule is evidence of the diversity of their programming, which includes underground music of all genres, the long-running political talk show "This is Hell," Northwestern University Radio Drama (aka NURD), news, and sports. He told me that the station is "completely student run," with the exception of a Graduate Student Advisor and a Faculty Advisor. The Executive Staff is all students, although DJs come from the university and the surrounding community.

Board in On-Air Studio at WNUR

According to Taylor, WNUR is devoted to presenting "diverse and challenging programming." He told me that he was particularly proud of their public affairs programming and mentioned that the news and radio drama NURD have won awards for their efforts. Music programming is very diverse and includes a wide range of specialty shows, including a popular industrial music show called "Hidden Forms" and the long-time reggae show "Reggae Vibrations" that is rumored to have online listeners in Jamaica.

Poster for WNUR Political Talk Show "This is Hell"

WNUR breaks down their schedule into broad categories of programming blocks. On weekdays from 2:30am to 5am it's Freeform (sort of a late-night training ground for new DJs), 5am to 12:30pm Jazz, 12:30-2pm features international sounds on Continental Drift, from 2-9pm Rock, from 9pm-10pm is a new block called Handpicked, featuring specialty and public affairs shows that range from the "Media Geek" talk show to genre shows focused on funk and Appalachian folk music, and from 10pm-2:30am is the long-running electronic/hip hop mix show Streetbeat.

"The Coffin" at WNUR (used for live DJ sets during "Streetbeat" shows). It used to have a lid and a lock in order to prevent cartridge theft, making it look like a closed-up coffin.

Each of these programming blocks has a Producer who oversees the DJs for that "genre." Specialty shows and public affairs programming fill out the remaining hours in the schedule (particularly on weekends). Even though a show might be categorized as a "Rock Show," individual DJs have the power to program as they wish. As an example, Taylor talked about the Tuesday night show "Expansion Experiment," which plays a variety of experimental sounds, including noise and field recordings. It's been around for more than 4 years, with a rotating set of DJs.

Jazz Show DJ at WNUR

When I stopped by the station a jazz show was on the air. According to Taylor, many of the jazz DJs are members of the community (as opposed to students) and he cited the fact that jazz shows start at 5am as a big reason there are fewer student DJs. One of the jazz DJs, Flavian, has had a show at WNUR since 1987 and because of his longevity at the station, he had the honor of playing the final track in their old studio before the station moved to its new digs 2 years ago. His website has some reminiscences about the station move and his role in the transition.

Tidbits from WNUR History

I asked Taylor how the station handled regular staff meetings. He told me that the WNUR staff is "enormous," with perhaps 200 people working as DJs, producers, apprentice DJs, newscasters, etc. Because of this, they only hold 2 staff meetings a year: one at the beginning of the year and another before their fundraising "phone-a-thon."

However, various departments have more regular meetings. Taylor described how the "Rock Show" does staff meetings that serve as educational sessions about various aspects of music in order to help DJs "broaden their horizons." I was really impressed that WNUR helps their DJs learn more about music. Taylor shared with me copies of a few flyers that are handed out at "Rock Show" meetings in order to teach DJs about various genres and music scenes. He gave me sheets that had an overview of "Providence Noise Rock" and "No Wave: Or The New York Mess, Part 1." You can actually see a collection of these flyers on the WNUR website.

Educational Flyer for "Rock Show" DJs

The WNUR website also has an archive of DJ training materials from the 1980s and 1990s, including a piece from 1994 called "WNUR Rock Show Philosophy" that outlines some guiding principles for DJs to follow when doing a rock show. It includes programming suggestions, including tips about striving for diversity in the music that's played by paying attention to gender, genre, geography, generation, and race of the artists and bands. Much of what's on the flyer I'd been told by Taylor, including a rule that DJs should try to not play the same artist more than once a quarter, so it seems that the philosophy is still in effect at the station. Taylor also told me that DJs cannot do a show that solely plays new music, meaning that they have to branch out beyond the bin of new releases. It's clear that a lot of care has been taken over the years to help DJs do great shows that reflect the overall station philosophy.

The Rare Culturcide Album

When I asked about vinyl, Taylor said that DJs are asked to play vinyl, but that the amount played varies by DJ. He then told me about some of his favorite pieces of vinyl in their library, including hard-to-find releases by Culturcide (which he proudly dug out for me) and an obscure "Battle of the Bands" album full of surf music from bands at a Hawaiian high school. WNUR cherishes their vinyl collection and still has a ton of it in their archives, from frowned-upon bands like Journey, to an original pressing of "Tainted Love."

Some really classic vinyl in the WNUR Archives

He told me that a lot of vinyl gets played and that they are regularly adding vinyl to the library, although there tend to be more jazz adds than rock. One portion of the programming day where old vinyl is often played is during the "8:00 Break" on rock shows. It's an hour-long special at 8pm on weekdays focused on a particular artist or genre. Some of these specials have included spotlights on Mission of Burma, John Zorn, Orange Juice and the psych and garage compilation Nuggets, Volume One.

New Vinyl for "The Rock Show" at WNUR

WNUR does not add digital releases and DJs are not allowed to play music on the air from their iPods during rock shows. Taylor pointed out their philosophy, saying, "If it's not in the stacks, it shouldn't be played." He added that each show (rock, jazz, freeform, streetbeat, etc.) has their own sets of rules, so he couldn't necessarily extrapolate beyond the rock show rules and he acknowledged that in some cases MP3s may be allowed, particularly on public affairs shows.

Airplay poster with band autographs

As we toured the station, Taylor talked about some of the features of their new, expanded studios. They used to be in a different building, in tighter quarters. The new WNUR, however, has more room for studios and live performances. As he showed me the massive new performance space, he marveled that there's actually enough room for an orchestra to play. They're understandable thrilled about the upgrade, since WNUR prides itself on the large number of in-studio guests that they've had over the years. They have a long-standing tradition of broadcasting live performances on their Saturday afternoon show "Airplay." Taylor showed me a poster that listed some of the bands who've played on the show. Whenever a musician/band comes in to play, they have them sign a copy of the poster. Another incredible thing they do is make available MP3s from these performances in their Airplay Performances Database (currently with 1159 tracks!).

Thanks to Taylor and everyone at WNUR for opening your studios to me. As with every station visit, I left knowing a whole lot more about another great outpost of college radio. I also came away with some great ideas, tips, and inspiration. I can hardly wait for my next station visit...

Previous Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips:

Field Trip to WECB at Emerson College
College Radio Field Trip 2 - Cal Poly's KCPR
College Radio Field Trip 3 - Notre Dame's WVFI
Radio Station Field Trip #4 - WFMU in Jersey City
Radio Station Field Trip 5 - East Village Radio in NYC
Radio Station Field Trip 6 - WNYU in New York City

1 comment:

mediageek said...

I'm sorry I missed your visit to WNUR last month. Thanks for commenting on my post about college radio over at mediageek -- it led me to your great blog and your radio tour. Tremendous stuff!

--Paul aka mediageek