Monday, August 25, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 58 - WHRB at Harvard University

WHRB logo on wall at station. Photo: J. Waits
During my trip to Boston earlier this month, the second station that I visited was WHRB 95.3 FM at Harvard University. I was interested to check it out for many reasons, including the fact that it's one of the handful of college radio stations that holds a commercial FM license (I've visited one other - WPGU in Champaign, IL). As it turns out, it was one of my more surprising station field trips, as WHRB has many different, diverse identities.

Studio at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
WHRB's Acting General Manager Elliot Wilson met me at the station on the morning of Wednesday, August 6th. He told me that he's been at WHRB since his first semester in college and was inspired by other friends who did college radio at their respective schools. In the fall he will be a senior at Harvard and a DJ at WHRB.

Entrance to WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
Housed in the basement of a freshman dorm (Pennypacker), WHRB is lucky to occupy the entire subterranean space. As it was summer break, the station was very quiet. When I stopped by there was no live DJ in the studio and WHRB was running automated jazz music programming. If I had been there during the academic year, there would have been a DJ in the studio, as the station has live hosts 24 hours a day during the school year.

Automation Showing on WHRB Computer. Photo: J. Waits
Newer DJs fill the early morning slots from 3am to 7am. Because there are fewer students around during the summer, the station runs mostly on automation, with a few live DJs on the air, mostly late at night. WHRB also runs on automation during winter break and on the nights of station parties.

Record Commentary on 7" at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
Since the station is in a dorm building, located directly beneath a common room, there are some noise restrictions, with DJs having to pay attention to the volume that music is played in the studios after 10pm. They are allowed to have live music on Friday nights, with bands performing at WHRB from 10 to 11pm on Fridays

Sign in the WHRB Studio. Photo: J. Waits
The bulk of WHRB's daytime programming is devoted to jazz music (5am to 1pm weekdays) and classical music (1pm to 10pm weekdays and weekend afternoons and evenings). Late night programming is focused on underground rock (Record Hospital on most weeknights starting at 10pm) and hip hop and electronic music (The Darker Side on Saturday nights and early Monday mornings).

Checking out a Classical Record in WHRB's Classical Lounge. Photo: J. Waits
Sprinkled throughout the daytime weekend schedule are a few specialty shows that play blues (Blues Hangover) and country music (the long-time Hillbilly at Harvard show, which is the successor to an earlier country show that began in 1948). WHRB has also been broadcasting Harvard's Sunday Church Service since the 1960s.

Equipment at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
As far as public affairs programs, the Harvard-oriented news show As You Know It airs on Sundays at 12:30 and the sports talk show Crimson Talk follows at 1pm. Additionally, the sports department broadcasts various athletic events throughout the year. In an interesting coincidence, the station where I volunteer (KFJC-FM) added a vintage vinyl LP, Strike: Confrontation at Harvard 1969, that documented student strikes at Harvard in 1969. The album is an incredible document of some of the protest coverage done by WHRB at the time.

Orgy Flyer at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
Early in my visit I started to hear unfamiliar terminology and Wilson explained that there's a whole array of station-specific lingo. For example, "crumping" refers to showing up late for one's shift. Another station term that I did know was "orgy," which is the name for WHRB's marathon shows in January and May.

Obscure LP in WHRB's Classical Library. Photo: J. Waits
During these twice yearly "orgies," DJs might devote 10 hours to Beethoven or do a lengthy special on the "Best of Emo." Wilson said that he once played more than 30 hours of music by the composer Morton Feldman. During the special he spent two nights at the station and called the whole experience "pretty unbelievable." He recounted the path of the special, telling me that he played his earliest works in the morning, including some "loud piano plonking" and that by the second day he was getting "excited calls" from listeners. 

Classical Lounge at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
When I arrived at WHRB, I had no idea about how vast a space the station occupied. It was fascinating to see that each department had its own "lounge," expressing the varied musical identities at the station. Our first stop was in the Classical Lounge. The meticulously organized room was lined with shelves full of classical music LPs. A tidy, library-style desk was in the center of the room and a turntable and CD player were available for previewing music. Wilson remarked that the Classical Department has the neatest space of all the lounges.

Classical Music Lounge at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
Although there are other classical music stations in Boston, Wilson said that WHRB strives to play a broader selection of music, encompassing both early material (pre-1700) and contemporary music (post-1950). Wilson explained that WHRB likes to not only "challenge listeners" with more out-there material, such as atonal music, but that they also will "meet listeners halfway" by playing some familiar material. He said that the station's classical listeners are very intense and will call up when DJs make mistakes on the air, such as mispronouncing "an Estonian composer's name."

Sign in WHRB Jazz Lounge. Photo: J. Waits
Next we visited the Jazz Lounge. The room was filled with records and CDs and the ceiling was covered with an array of interesting record covers. Wilson said that he enjoys attending the music lecture series hosted by the Jazz Department, as he's learned a lot about music that way. Lectures are held in each department's respective lounges.

WHRB Jazz Lounge. Photo: J. Waits
Wilson said that WHRB is unique in that it is the only radio station in Boston that plays jazz on weekdays. The station's jazz listeners include "hardcore jazzheads" as well as "people who listen while driving," according to Wilson. He joked that they get phone calls all the time from people complaining about one thing or another, including that they are playing "too much" Miles Davis and not enough obscure stuff.

Sign in TDS Lounge about Filing CDs. Photo: J. Waits
The Darker Side (also known as TDS) Lounge seemed to be the smallest space. This is the department which focuses on electronic music and hip hop and its name came about in probably the late 1980s or early 1990s, according to Wilson. Wilson described TDS as "anything with a beat" and said that it also encompasses danceable reggae and DJ mix shows.

TDS Lounge at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
When we walked in, someone was alone in the room on a laptop. Wilson said that the TDS Lounge was used the least, because the DJs in that department tend to play digital music rather than the LPs or CDs housed in the lounge. Throughout the lounge there was an array of mostly older records, including Snoop Dog, Marvin Gaye, and The Jackson Five. There were also sections of its record library devoted to soul, funk, R&B, hip hop and reggae.

Mapping Rock Genres at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
We spent the most time in the Record Hospital (RH) Lounge. Wilson said that RH shows play punk music, but that it's "broadly defined" and includes such genres as emo, mathcore, and lofi. He said that it's mainly music that's somehow "derived" from punk and hardcore, with some DJs also playing noise and free improv.

Entrance to the Record Hospital Lounge at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
Wilson said that the name Record Hospital was perhaps supposed to be a riff on the soap opera General Hospital and that it came about when the station was shifting from new wave (the department was formerly called "Plastic Passions") to college rock in the 1980s. In keeping with the name, RH's live broadcasts are called "Live from the Recovery Ward."

The Back of the Record Hospital Lounge at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
The large RH space has many shelves full of LPs, boxes (WHRBers call them coffins) stuffed with 7"s, as well as mail bins (a college radio station staple!) jammed with music selections pulled by various DJs. I saw a lot of familiar favorites in the room, including an old Tiger Trap LP, a Bloodstains compilation, lots of punk, cassettes, and some more recent noise and grind records (Wilson showed me one 7" with a bunch of 8 second tracks). Wilson said that there are many all-vinyl shows at WHRB, so much of the material does get played on the air.

Cassettes in WHRB Record Hospital Lounge. Photo: J. Waits
As with other WHRB departments, RH hosts lectures for new members of the department taking a required semester-long introductory class known as a "COMP" class. The term COMP is actually Harvard lingo, which Wilson thought derived from the word "competition."

Punk Rock Orgy Schedule posted in RH Lounge. Photo: J. Waits
Wilson said that during that COMP class, the lecture series on the history of rock music covers everything from "Link Wray to Noise." Every week a different genre is covered, including punk, protopunk, postpunk, art punk, hardcore, indie pop, noise, harder than hardcore, and more. As part of that series, DJs listen to 10 records a week, for a total of 100 records by the end of the COMP class. He said that these universal listening assignments (dubbed ULAs) are great because by the end of the course, the entire group of new DJs has a "collective knowledge" about 100 seminal releases.

Records in the RH Lounge. Photo: J. Waits
The RH Lounge is also full of typical radio station artifacts, including sticker-plastered cabinets, weird pop culture objects, warning signs about station policies, graffiti and and naughty drawings on the walls.

Elliot Wilson Showing me a Box of Jandek CDs. Photo: J. Waits
Although I didn't get to peruse through them on my visit, I just learned more about WHRB's department-specific comment books, which DJs have used over the years to comment back and forth to each other. The books contain playlists, debates about the merits of particular albums, and rants about proper station behavior.

WHRB Comment Books. Photo: J. Waits
The Boston Phoenix wrote about these books in 2008 and includes some great photos and excerpts from some Record Hospital-specific books. Wilson told me that the station has two types of comment books, department-specific ones (as mentioned in the article) and larger station comment books that can be signed by DJs and guests. As I left the station, I signed my name in a large WHRB comment book and was also shown an archive of large comment books in the office (which are much bigger than the composition notebooks mentioned in the Phoenix story). It's pretty cool that WHRB has historical materials like that, documenting the culture of the station.

Letter from a Prisoner to TDS Dept. Photo: J. Waits
Wilson told me that there have been periods where RH was deeply connected with Boston's music scene, with bands regularly coming in to play at the station. When I visited, he said that it's less the case now than in the mid-2000s, speculating that "scenes fluctuate." In a follow up email, Wilson told me that he just found out that there will be more live music at WHRB in the fall semester. He mentioned that there will be live bands or guest interviews "nearly every week, which should be something of a watershed for WHRB's involvement with the local and regional music scene."

I was also interested to hear from Wilson that the "prison crowd" of listeners is "pretty large," with letters coming in from prisoners to all departments at the station, not just RH.

Sign in RH Lounge. Photo: J. Waits
In addition to all of the music department lounges, there are also lounges for the news and sports departments, which also have active participants and their own blogs and social media outlets. WHRB covers a variety of sporting events, including men's basketball, men's hockey, and men's baseball.

WHRB Office. Photo: J. Waits
Student radio has a long history at Harvard, with the first station (WHCN) operating over AM carrier current beginning in 1940. The call letters changed to WHRV in 1943 and Harvard Radio Broadcasting formed in 1951. After obtaining its commercial FM license, WHRB launched over the air in 1957.

Graffiti in the RH Lounge. Photo: J. Waits
WHRB is operated by a private non-profit (Harvard Radio Broadcasting Company) and run by students, with an active group of alumni who serve on the station's Board of Trustees. Wilson told me that one member of the Board has been at WHRB since almost the beginning of the station and he said that it's great having "alumni institutional support." Although the majority of DJs are students, there are some alumni DJs who are referred to as "ghosts" in WHRB parlance.

Etta James LP in the Jazz Lounge at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
Thanks so much to Elliot Wilson for touring me around WHRB on a warm summer day. I could have spent hours in the stacks of the Record Hospital, never to be seen again...

Sign in the RH Lounge at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits
Peruse the list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here. I'm gradually catching up on all my field trip reports and will feature more Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C. and Illinois radio stations soon. In the meantime, here's an important notice:

Tips on Caring for Records at WHRB. Photo: J. Waits

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