Thursday, August 21, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 57 - WMBR at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Mural at WMBR. Photo: J. Waits
While on a family vacation to Boston a couple of weeks ago, I took the opportunity to schedule visits to four college radio stations in the area. My frenetic tour began on Wednesday, August 6th with a trip to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) station WMBR 88.1 FM.

WMBR Lobby. Photo: J. Waits
I'd arranged to meet with volunteer David Goodman and didn't realize until I arrived that we'd met two summers ago at the Grassroots Radio Conference in Urbana-Champaign. The radio world is very small, indeed. Although he was never a student at MIT, Goodman has been at WMBR since 1991 as an announcer and producer focused on news and public affairs programming.

David Goodman in WMBR Library. Photo: J. Waits
When I got to the station at 9am, the long-running Breakfast of Champions pop/rock program was on the air. Featuring a different host every weekday from 8am to 10am, the rock-oriented show has been on the air for decades. Last year I interviewed its Friday morning host, Jon Bernhardt, after he pulled a marathon stint on the air when Cambridge was locked down during the search for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect. This summer Bernhardt celebrated his 30th anniversary on that show, making him one of the many veteran DJs at WMBR.

Part of the Program Schedule for WMBR. Photo: J. Waits
Another long-time show, the Late Risers' Club, has been on the air since 1977 with rotating hosts playing punk music and related genres on weekdays from 10am to noon. Goodman said that he thought that it might be one of the oldest punk rock radio shows on the air.

New Pop/Rock 7" Singles in WMBR Library. Photo: J. Waits
At least three DJs at WMBR have been at the station since the late 1970s/early 1980s. Goodman told me that the most veteran volunteer, Todd Glickman, has been affiliated with the station since his undergraduate days in the 1970s (he started doing weather reports at the MIT station in 1973-1974) and is now a trustee of WMBR.

1972 Program Guide from WTBS Days. Photo: J. Waits
As far as WMBR's history, the station's beginnings can be traced back to the carrier current station WMIT, which began in 1946. Carrier current continued until 1974. The 88.1 FM broadcasts started in 1961, after obtaining FCC approval to broadcast as WTBS-FM (the call letters stood for Technology Broadcasting System). By 1979, WTBS became WMBR after Ted Turner approached the station about purchasing the call letters for his new TBS network.

Sign in WMBR Lobby. Photo: J. Waits
The station features a mix of MIT students, alumni, and community members. Due to its designation as a student club, it's required to maintain a roster of at least 50% student members. WMBR is one of the rare stations that airs 100% live programming, with live DJs and hosts throughout the broadcast day. Since there is no automation system, WMBR does shut down during late night hours (usually at around 2 or 3am), when it's more challenging to find DJs to fill slots.

Records in WMBR Library. Photo: J. Waits
WMBR airs a wide range of programming, with three set shows on weekdays between 8am and 2pm. In addition to the regular morning shows, Breakfast of Champions and the Late Risers' Club, an oldies show (Lost and Found) plays a mix of genres from the 1960s and 1970s every weekday from noon to 2pm.

Volunteer Guidelines Posted at WMBR. Photo: J. Waits
In order to get on the air, new DJs need to go through a training process and do a certain amount of volunteer work behind the scenes. Three times a year, a programming board determines the schedule, which means that new DJs are given an opportunity to apply for shifts.  Additionally, every DJ must reapply for his or her show three times a year, so the schedule is ever-changing. Goodman told me that despite this, the "core" of the schedule tends to stay the same from semester to semester."

Sticker-Covered Cabinet at WMBR. Photo: J. Waits
DJs have a great deal of freedom on the air and are not required to play a certain percentage of new or recommended music. Some will pull records and CDs from the massive record library at WMBR, whereas a growing number of younger DJs will bring in their own playlists on their laptops. Goodman said that it really runs the gamut, explaining that one of the hosts (Chuck) of the In the Margin show does his program using "as many sources as possible," including music off of an iPod, computer, CDs, vinyl, cassettes, and DATs, "sometimes simultaneously."  Goodman said that he's an "amazing mixer."

Fundraiser Computer in the WMBR Office. Photo: J. Waits
The volunteer-run station runs pretty autonomously, supporting itself with annual on-air fundraisers in November. When I asked Goodman what makes WMBR stand out from other college radio stations in Boston, he said that he thinks that the station's "longevity" is part of its success. He said that they're known for featuring up and coming bands and for playing music that's on the "fringe." Goodman acknowledged that other stations, in particular WZBC at Boston College, are doing similar things on the air. To illustrate that, he compared Boston College station WZBC's (which I visited in 2011) No Commercial Potential philosophy with the avant sounds and weird electronic music heard on the Non-Stop Ecstatic Screaming show that airs on WMBR Thursday nights from 8 to 10pm.

Genre Labeling System Explained at WMBR. Photo: J. Waits
Goodman said that although most DJs at WMBR don't aspire to work in the radio industry, this wasn't always the case. In the past, a number of former WMBR DJs went on to high profile gigs at Boston's former powerhouse commercial rock stations WBCN and WFNX. He said that these days, people volunteer at WMBR because of an interest in music and to "have fun."

WMBR Cross-Stitch. Photo: J. Waits
Located in the basement of the Walker Memorial Building (which inspired the station's call letters), WMBR inhabits a space that used to contain a bowling alley. It has three studios (A, B, and C), a huge record library in its own locked room, an office, and a spacious lobby/lounge area with couches, lockers, a vending machine, coffee maker and microwave.

Another Radio Station Sign Crafted by the Mysterious Leo. (Photo: J. Waits)
When I poked my head in the on-air studio I was happy to spot another one of the handmade radio station call letter signs crafted by Leo. The silver WMBR sign was perched on a window ledge between studio A and a production studio.

WMBR DJ Becca Smith. Photo: J. Waits
DJs at WMBR can broadcast from one of two studios. During my visit the Breakfast of Champions DJ Becca Smith (see her playlist here) did her show out of Studio A, whereas the DJ who followed her, Late Risers' Club host Mark Francis, did his show out of studio B down the hall.

WMBR DJ Mark Francis. Photo: J. Waits
Goodman said that different DJs prefer different studios and added that it's often easier to prepare for one's show in a different studio from the on-air DJ. The third studio (Studio C) was locked during my visit, but I was told that it contains a board for mixing live bands. One show in particular, Pipeline, features live local bands every week.

Vinyl in WMBR Record Library. Photo: J. Waits
Sadly, we saved a visit to WMBR's massive record library for the tail-end of my visit. I was on a tight schedule, so I ran out of time to fully explore the station's amazing collection of music. Suffice it to say that it contains a wonderful mix of genres in jam-packed shelves behind closed doors. Had I known, I would have started my tour there. I may have never left!

CDs in WMBR Record Library. Photo: J. Waits
Thanks so much to David Goodman for the tour of WMBR. You can see the list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here. I'm gradually completing my field trip reports and plan to feature more Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C. and Illinois radio stations soon.

Record Library Rules at WMBR. Photo: J. Waits


Anonymous said...

Wow, nice piece. I've been doing a show at WMBR for about 10 years, and still learned a lot from this article!

-Ken Field, "The New Edge"

Jennifer Waits said...

Hi Ken,

Thanks so much! Glad to hear that my research paid off!