Sunday, September 16, 2012

Radio Station Field Trip 32 - WPGU at University of Illinois

WPGU 3-D Logo (Photo: J. Waits)

During my whirlwind trip to Urbana-Champaign for the Grassroots Radio Conference this summer, I managed to squeeze in visits to three different radio stations in the area. First on my list was WPGU in Champaign, Illinois. Although it is a student radio station affiliated with the University of Illinois, WPGU is owned by the non-profit Illini Media Company. Illini Media owns and operates student media at the university, including the campus newspaper, the yearbook, and various student magazines.

WPGU (Photo: J. Waits)

WPGU 107.1 FM inhabits a rare category of college radio because it holds a 3000 watt commercial FM license. Although the early days of AM college radio (as well as unlicensed carrier-current radio) saw many campus stations airing commercials, the advent of non-commercial educational FM licenses has meant that college radio is typically associated with non-commercial radio.

Vintage WPGU photo on wall of present-day station

A small subset of college radio stations (including Princeton's WPRB, Brown's WBRU, Harvard's WHRB, Cornell's WVBR, and University of Virginia's WUVA) break the mold and have commercial licenses today. Many of them, like WPGU, are comprised of students, but are owned by independent non-profits.

Plaque In Honor of WPGU's 50th Anniversary in 2003 (Photo: J. Waits)

WPGU began as a carrier current AM station at University of Illinois. Its initial broadcast was in December, 1953 over 640 AM. After obtaining an FCC license, its first FM broadcasts began in April, 1967. Carrier-current broadcasts continued on campus under the call letters WDBS (see one DJ's recollections here) and that station's signal also reached student dorms through FM cable from 1982 to 1992.

Front entrance to Illini Media (Photo: J. Waits)

I visited WPGU on the morning of Friday, July 26, 2012. I dashed over to the downtown Champaign studios at 8:30am, so that I could make it to the Grassroots Radio Conference in time for the morning sessions. The station has been located in an off-campus building that houses other Illini Media publications since 2006. As one approaches the building, it's hard not to miss the street-facing broadcast studio. When I arrived, the on-air DJ was doing her morning show in a spacious studio surrounded by large glass windows to the street and to the building's entry-way.

On-air DJ at WPGU (Photo: J. Waits)

WPGU's Program Director Courtney Yuen toured me through the station and filled me in the role that it plays on campus. Yuen, who is a University of Illinois student, explained that WPGU is managed and staffed entirely by students. Even though it's a student radio station, the programming approach is more similar to commercial radio. The music library is all digital and there are no CDs or vinyl records in the on-air studio. As I watched the morning show DJ doing her show during my visit, I saw her doing short mic breaks between sets of pre-programmed music. The station has live DJs all day long during the school year, but during the summer there are no live DJs between 3 and 6 am.

CDs in Office at WPGU (Photo: J. Waits)

Yuen told me that WPGU gets sent between 35 and 50 CDs a week from promotion companies, labels, and artists. They also occasionally get sent vinyl. Music that is sent to the station gets added to WPGU's automation system (Selector). Yuen said that she and the Music Director determine what music is added to the station each week. They also spend a lot of time tweaking the settings in their automation program by sound coding and tempo coding every track that's added. In this way, they can ensure that music segues make sense sonically. Yuen said that programming the station takes most of her time, as it requires building categories and building each hour of music.

Band's plea on WPGU office wall (Photo: J. Waits)

There are around 700 tracks in the WPGU digital music library and those tracks are either coded as current ("things emerging now," including the band Fun's "We are Young"), recurrent ("big songs from the past year," including tracks by Foo Fighters and Florence and the Machine), gold (the "bread and butter" of the station, which includes artists like Nirvana, Kings of Leon, Death Cab for Cutie, and Stone Temple Pilots), spike (live tracks, B-sides, and other items that add extra "spice" to the air sound), and local.

At the time of my visit in July, there were 31 songs in current rotation, with 5 or 6 current songs being played per hour. Rules created by the station within the Selector program ensure that the same song is not played within 1 hour and 45 minutes of itself. Additionally, the same song cannot be played in the same hour on the following day. Yuen said that the most you'd hear any one song on WPGU would be 4 or 5 times in a given day.

On-Air Studio (Photo: J. Waits)

Yuen also explained that WPGU changed its air sound a year ago. She said that prior to that time the station was "very indie" and played more underground artists. Because the station relies on ad dollars, there was a programming shift in order to play more commercial, more accessible music in order to attract more listeners and advertisers. With a 3000 watt signal and a listening range of about 50 miles, WPGU has a large potential audience and mostly airs local, community-based commercials. Yuen said the programming changes seem to be a success and that ratings have gone up.

Production Department at WPGU (Photo: J. Waits)

When I asked if there was any backlash after the changes, she admitted that there was (see a former WPGU Music Director/DJ's take on the changes), but not from people at the station. She said that it can be challenging to get support from the local music scene, but also said that it's important for WPGU to "support local music." Local artists are played at least once per hour on WPGU and the station also has promoted some local shows.

Poster-covered walls at WPGU (Photo: J. Waits)

WPGU also airs some specialty music shows, including Shrink Wrap (new releases), Back Room (underground music), Surfabilly Freakout, Flashback Cafe, and a dub step show on Fridays. Yuen said that specialty DJs often play music from outside the WPGU library, typically off their laptops.

WPGU on-air studio (Photo: J. Waits)

The station has deep connections to the University of Illinois campus scene. Yuen mentioned that they were planning to be at the annual Quad Day (held in August), which would also feature performances by some local bands. She also told me that the station's mission is "to train broadcasters," and said that many of the students on staff are broadcasting/journalism majors. She said that there are people at WPGU who are interested in getting into the radio industry and that she would like to work in the music business. However, there are also people at WPGU who have had different career goals and the station attracts a range of majors and its alumni pursue a variety of careers. Yuen said that DJs get six weeks of training at the station and learn how to not only operate the equipment, but also learn how to be "confident on-air." As part of that process, airchecks are regularly recorded and critiqued.

On-air studio at WPGU (Photo: J. Waits)

Yuen mentioned that WPGU is quite popular with students. A recent information night over the summer attracted around 50 applicants interested in joining the station. Although most people want to be DJs, some want to work in other capacities at the station, including marketing and advertising.

Thanks to everyone at WPGU for their hospitality during my July visit. It was quite interesting for me to visit a college radio station with a commercial license and I'd be curious to explore more commercial college radio stations in order to explore the commonalities and the differences within this rare breed within college radio.

See a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Radio Station Field Trip 31 - WLUW at Loyola University Chicago

WLUW Studio Entrance (All photos by Jennifer Waits)

While visiting Chicago during a summer vacation/trip to Urbana-Champaign for the Grassroots Radio Conference, I decided that it was time to tour more college radio stations in the area. On Thursday, July 26, 2012, I scheduled a trip to visit Loyola University Chicago's station, WLUW 88.7 FM. Located just a few blocks away from the hustle and bustle of Michigan Avenue (with its upscale shopping destinations and  historic Water Tower), WLUW has some swanky digs in a relatively new building on the Loyola campus.

WLUW Office (Photo: J. Waits)

General Manager Danielle Gunn gave me a tour of WLUW and filled me in on the inner workings of the station. She told me that the station has been on the air since 1978. Although she's only been at WLUW for a few years, she explained a bit of the station's history. I was particularly interested in hearing more about the station's relationship with community volunteers, especially in light of some management changes a few years back.

WLUW DJ in the Studio (Photo: J. Waits)

When I arrived at the station on a Thursday afternoon, Gunn was wrapping up her radio show. I took a look around the station while she was finishing up and then we sat down to talk about WLUW. She told me that she was hired in January 2009, around six months after Loyola University took over the management of the station from public radio station WBEZ.

Back in 2002, WBEZ stepped in to help after the university decided to no longer fund WLUW. Between 2002 and 2007, WBEZ oversaw the day-to-day operations of WLUW. In 2007, Loyola announced that it would be ending its relationship with WBEZ, and brought management of the station back to the university in 2008. With some changes on campus, there was a desire to once again incorporate the radio station into academic offerings and use it as an "educational tool."

One of the several vintage radios in Danielle Gunn's office at WLUW (Photo: J. Waits)

Gunn told me that she was brought in after everything was settled, but admitted that there was still some "panic" at the station in the wake of the WBEZ relationship ending and added that it was like the aftermath of a "break-up." Despite the changes, Gunn said that the station is "largely the same" as it's always been. She said that students and community members both share the airwaves and get along, with many community volunteers helping to train students. WLUW also continues to work with WBEZ by airing the local call-in show Vocalo Morning Amp. Loyola students work on the program, which is produced at WBEZ and airs on a number of radio stations.

Vinyl spinning in WLUW's on-air studio (Photo: J. Waits)

Today, WLUW has around 150 volunteers, with about 125 of those working on-air. Although it's officially a student station, a little more than half of the volunteers are non-students from the local community. Some of those community DJs have been at the station for "decades," according to Gunn. She is the only full-time staff member at WLUW, but she is assisted by a student executive staff.

Flyer in Main Studio - Turntable Training! (Photo: J. Waits)

The station moved to its current location three years ago, after it became a part of the School of Communications. Ironically, the FM broadcasts cannot be heard in the part of town where the station is located, although they can be heard at Loyola's main campus in Rogers Park (where the station was formerly located in a now-razed building that was full of asbestos). When WLUW first began broadcasting in the 1970s, it was actually located in the attic of a house on the same spot where the station is currently located. In the intervening years that building was torn down and replaced by the new building where WLUW is today.

Photo of old WLUW Studio posted on wall of WLUW office

On the day that I visited, Gunn was busy with phone calls in preparation for Lollapalooza. This year was the third year that WLUW was at the Chicago music festival, providing live broadcasts from the massive music event from August 3 to 5. WLUW had its own stage and was able to book bands and air those performances and interviews throughout the festival. I caught a bit of their Lollapalooza broadcasts while I was in town and thought about the WLUW crew when a huge thunderstorm shut down the festival one afternoon (the WLUW staffers safely evacuated to a local restaurant).

WLUW's CD Library (Photo: J. Waits)

Amidst the Lollapalooza prep, Gunn toured me around the station. She showed me the physical music library, which only includes CDs. Gunn said that WLUW gets sent some vinyl and DJs also bring in their own vinyl to play.  The physical music library contains more than 11,000 CDs, which are organized numerically in the order that they have been added to the station. The most recently added CDs are located at the end of the library and have the highest numbers assigned to them. She said that it's easier this way (versus having a library in alphabetical order). Gunn said that most DJs play CDs, but that a lot of people also bring in laptops and at least one DJ plays cassettes. The station also has a digital music library.

Portion of CD Library. Can you guess when these were added? (Photo: J. Waits)

The Music Director manages the station's music staff and a democratic process is used to determine what music goes into rotation. Around 35 items are in rotation at a given time and those CDs are placed in the on-air studio. DJs who are assigned an independent music shift (generally daytime shows) are required to play 6 tracks an hour from rotation. Gunn describes WLUW's airsound as being "on the approachable end of indie" as far as music goes. During the evening and on weekends there are a range of specialty shows which are not required to play music from rotation. Those shows include programs focused on house music, Native American music, black gospel, as well as public affairs programming including community talk shows.

A few of the "rotation" CDs when I visited (Photo: J. Waits)

Gunn told me that the 100 watt station reaches mainly the north side of Chicago and can also be heard in nearby Wisconsin. She said that WLUW has a "pretty big audience." On Fridays live bands play live from a spacious studio that's located across the street from WLUW's main studio.

Thanks to everyone at WLUW for showing me around the station. It was a great start to my summer tour of 6 radio stations in Illinois and Indiana. More on that later...

See a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here.