Thursday, August 28, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 60 - WMFO at Tufts University

Banner at WMFO
My final college radio station visit while I was in the Boston area (although I still have another visit to write up), was to WMFO 91.5 FM at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Things were pretty quiet at the station over the summer, with many of the station staff out of town or busy with internships. I ended up visiting on the morning of Saturday, August 9th, as more people were around the station over the weekend.

Curtis Hall at Tufts. Photo: J. Waits
Assistant General Manager Ben Stern met me outside Curtis Hall. On a main street on the Tufts campus, WMFO is on the third floor of a beautiful old building that also houses some other student media outlets, including a television station TUTV (which does web series and hosts a You Tube channel) and newspaper. There are also rehearsal spaces in the building, as well as the coffee house Brown and Brew on the ground floor.

Production Studio (studio C) at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
It turns out that radio has a storied history at Tufts University.  Amateur radio activities began on campus more than 100 years ago and an AM station was launched in the 1920s. Receiving a commercial license in 1922, WGI was started by a 1914 Tufts graduate. According to a piece in Tufts Journal, "The Tufts station, its license held by AMRAD [American Radio and Research Corporation], began operating on a daily schedule in 1921, apparently the first station in the country to do so. Several other stations claim regular broadcasts before 1XE—including Pittsburgh’s KDKA, which received the first commercial license. But, as Tufts station operators wrote in a letter to a newspaper at the time, 'We were the first to broadcast daily, which is quite a difference.'"

Reel-to-Reel Tape at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
WGI ceased operation on campus by the mid-1920s. Radio was revived at Tufts in the 1950s and short-lived stations existed in the 1950s and 1960s, including WTCR and WMFO's predecessor WTUR. WMFO first went on the air in 1970.

Air Conditioner in Studio at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
WMFO occupies a large space in the building, with room for offices, studios, a record library, engineering room, and two bathrooms (practically unheard of in college radio!). The spacious on-air studio was refreshingly cool when I walked in, thanks to an air conditioner. It was such a nice surprise during the peak of summer August heat in Boston.

Sue Edelman on the Air at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
When I arrived, DJ Sue Edelman was on the air hosting the "Something about the Women" show. She told me that the show has been run as a collective, with rotating hosts, since 1973. She's been at the station since 1988. With an emphasis on female artists, it's possibly one of the longest running women's music shows on the radio. She said that she mostly plays music from her own collection and I saw her pulling from a stack of CDs and from digital music stored on three phones that she brought with her.

DJ's music brought from home, stored on phones. Photo: J. Waits
In addition to "Something about Women," WMFO has a number of programs that have been on the air for 20 or more years, including the weekly Wednesday night live music show "On the Town." That program recently put out a CD of live music commemorating the show's 25th anniversary. Since the station includes a mix of student and community-member DJs, many of these long-time shows also have long-time hosts. Stern said that it's a "good mix" of students and community members, with more students during the school year.

WMFO Graffiti Policy. Photo: J. Waits
Student interest in college radio at Tufts is high, with around 100 people beginning the training process last fall and another 50-60 people in the spring. During the academic year, the program schedule fills up quickly, with live DJs covering shifts from around 8am to midnight. When there isn't a live DJ, WMFO airs automated programming, typically a mix of music along with station identification and PSAs.

Graffiti in one of the bathrooms at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
Every semester the WMFO schedule is redone and prospective DJs with the most volunteer hours are given priority for timeslots. In addition to music shows, there are some sports shows and public affairs programs, as well as shows that play a mix of music and talk. 

WMFO Music Genre Color Codes. Photo: J. Waits
Stern said that the most popular music genres at WMFO are classic rock, indie, and local music. There are also some blues and jazz shows, as well as many shows that play a wide range of music. He told me that many new DJs will start out doing more narrowly focused shows, but that the longer they are at WMFO, the more likely it is that their music taste and their shows will expand in scope. He said that this process begins as simply as DJs interacting with the DJs before and after their shows and picking up on their music knowledge.

Ron Burgundy Looms Over WMFO Music Library. Photo: J. Waits
Stern told me that most DJs play a mix of music from many different forms of media, including vinyl, CDs, and digital music. WMFO has a large digital music archive in addition to its wide-ranging physical music library.

Cassette tapes at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
When I asked about cassettes, Stern said that the gospel-music focused "Sounds of Praise" show plays cassette tapes. Stern also said that when he joined the station as a freshman he mostly played music that he knew off of his computer, but that it soon "got kind of old." Now he combs the library for interesting music, mostly pulling from the extensive jazz and blues libraries. The on-air studio is equipped to play cassettes, reel to reel tapes, vinyl records, CDs, as well as digital sources.

Studio B at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
Stern said that although it's a freeform station, the want DJs to try new things and explore the library, "encouraging as much musical diversity as possible." Stern mentioned that many new student DJs have never touched a turntable before. When they see the massive collection of vinyl some of them become intrigued by it and have asked to be trained on how to use the turntables. Although it's not a standard part of the initial station training (which focuses more on WMFO policies and on how to use basic equipment), he's happy to show people how to cue and play records in one of the off-air studios.

Looking down the hallway at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
A large collection of physical music is dispersed throughout WMFO, with rock LPs in one large room (adorned with a life-size cut out of Ron Burgundy that looms over the room) and classical, blues and 7" records lining the hallway between the on-air studio (Studio A) and the record library. Jazz and local records are in Studio A and new music highlighted by the music department (mostly CDs) is also on a shelf in Studio A.

Carts at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
Old cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes were located in a back hallway and I was also excited to see even older carts in a storage closet (including some full of 1970s hit songs from Glen Campbell and others). Other vintage ephemera was tucked away in various places around the station, including collections of polaroid photos of former DJs displayed on the walls of the lounge area outside the General Manager's office.

WMFO Polaroid Project. Photo: J. Waits
I asked if WMFO had plans to digitize or archive any of these old items and Stern told me that there is an archivist position on staff. He said the new archivist is really enthusiastic and will probably start working to digitize and post old DJ photos to the station's website.

Studio Dee, where live bands play at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
All DJs are expected to do 5 hours of volunteer work per "season," meaning that every semester they need to do extra projects around the station. Sometimes there are volunteer workdays in which department heads will dole out tasks that need to be completed. One can also accrue hours by filling in on someone else's show.

Tech 2 Room at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
WMFO has been working to do more live broadcasts, including live remotes. The station has a large room where live bands can perform (Studio Dee) and I was particularly impressed with a pristine closet (called Tech 2) full of gear for these live sets. Microphone stands, headphones, and cables are all in their own designated spaces and it must make set-up and clean up a dream.

Couch in On-Air Studio at WMFO (note the missing cushions). Photo: J. Waits
Staffers are also creative when it comes to engineering live music. During my tour, Stern pointed to a couch in the on-air studio and he told me that it used to have more cushions before they grabbed them to use them as a bass drum mute.

Mural at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
When I asked what made WMFO unique, Stern said that it was its "dedication to freeform" and DJs' "open-mindedness about music." He also told me that he loves the "culture of sharing" at WMFO, telling me that they want to encourage a sense of "tribal" music knowledge, so that DJs are passing along music information to each other. Every person at the station can get trained to be part of WMFO's music department, which means that they get the opportunity to check out new music that the station has acquired.  Stern said  that they are trying to get as many people as possible listening to new music at the station.

Ben Stern at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
I continue to be amazed by the number of college radio stations in the Boston area. Stern said that there's always talk of doing events with other stations and that it's "something that we'd love to do." Although he hasn't been to other nearby stations, he did spend some time at WPRB at Princeton University, where his dad used to have a show. Stern even had his dad join him on the air at WMFO.

7" Records at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
Probably because of his dad's influence, WMFO was the first club that Stern joined at WMFO. He told me, "I started immediately." He started out with a co-DJ and still shares a show with him, telling me that he likes the way they both build stacks of music and then trade off, playing each other's selections through the show. This summer his co-DJ isn't in town, so Stern said that it's been "a little more of a challenge" doing the program solo.

CDs in On-Air Studio at WMFO. Photo: J. Waits
Thanks so much to Ben Stern for touring me around WMFO during his summer break! I'm wrapping up my Massachusetts field trip posts, with one more to go. I'm also catching up on all my field trip reports and will feature more Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C. and Illinois radio stations soon. You can see a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here.

1 comment:

Drugless Douglas said...

Hi, Jennifer -

Nice write up!

A couple of corrections:

- While there are photos of former DJs on the wall in the lounge (proud to say I'm there!), the Polaroids on the wall are not of DJs, but of guests on a show called "Everyday People." It was an interview show hosted by Dan Zevin, who interviewed everyday people - 7-11 clerk, mailman, etc. He took a pic of every guest and taped it to the wall.

- The proper name of the local show is "On The Town with Mikey Dee." Mikey's name is kept in the show name to honor his contribution and life. Studio D was also renamed Studio Dee in his honor.

Fun fact: I recently learned that John Hodgman had a show at WMFO as a high school student in the late '80s!