Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 61 - WRBB at Northeastern University

Another "Leo" sign. WRBB Lobby. Photo: J. Waits
During my crazy day of radio station visits in Boston and Cambridge on August 6th, my final stop was WRBB 104.9 FM at Northeastern University. I was particularly interested in visiting because my niece Liz Alverson used to DJ there (and another niece started the training program too). I remember listening to her first show and feeling so giddy and proud that perhaps my fanaticism over college radio had spread to her. I think I told her something along the lines of, "this will change your life."

WRBB Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Liz started her college career at University of San Francisco when the status of its college radio station KUSF was in limbo. Before she arrived on campus as a student, I toured her and her sister around KUSF in February, 2011. It was just a month after the station's FM signal was taken over by a classical station, so it made for a pretty depressing visit. That summer the old station was dismantled and on the day that my niece Liz was moving into her USF dorm, the massive KUSF space was a construction zone. She was only at USF for a year, but after transferring to Northeastern, she finally got her chance to do radio and quickly joined up with WRBB.

Bulletin board in WRBB Lobby. Photo: J. Waits
Since most of the WRBB executive staff (there are 11 staff positions) wasn't around on the day of my visit, Liz offered to tour me around the station. It was great, as I could then visualize her DJing and wrap that into my memory of hearing her first show. Also, since I had toured her around the station where I DJ (KFJC-FM), it was fun to switch roles and see her radio digs.

Sign in WRBB Studio. Photo: J. Waits
It was pretty much deserted on the summer afternoon that we visited WRBB. Nobody from the station was there when we arrived, so we were let in by a guy from Northeastern's record label, Green Line Records, which shares part of the station's space. Although the record label has no official relationship with the station, they are working to create a shared studio space for live recordings.

Live music studio at WRBB will soon be shared with Green Line Records (window looks into Green Line Records space). Photo: J. Waits
When we arrived, one of the first things that I noticed was the familiar-looking paper mache station call letters sign crafted by Leo. The WRBB sign was perched in the station lobby, amidst a display with other station paraphernalia.

WRBB Studio. Photo: J. Waits
As we made our way through the station, we took a look at the dimly-lit on-air studio. Much of the illumination comes from a neon WRBB sign in an outward-facing window, which casts a red glow across the room. The studio looks out onto a common area in the Curry Student Center. I thought it was pretty amazing that students eating or doing homework in the student center could look up and peek into WRBB's studios.

Liz Alverson in WRBB Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Cabinets in the studio contained CDs, although due to the dim lighting, it seemed doubtful that anyone would attempt to look through them for use on the air.

Looking into WRBB Studio from the Curry Student Center. Photo: J. Waits
I was told that DJs mostly play digital music on their shows, but some do play vinyl and CDs. The studio has turntables, CD players, a mini disk player, a DAT player, a cassette deck, and even a cart machine, so DJs do have a lot of options as far as playback devices.

WRBB Record Library. Photo: J. Waits
By the end of our visit, Program Director Rae Fagin arrived at the station and was able to tour us through a few of the locked rooms that we couldn't get into before she arrived. She let us into the Music Library, which contained a collection of CDs and vinyl.

Photo at WRBB. Try to spot all of the vintage radio station stickers. Photo: J. Waits
We also checked out the Manager's office. In those rooms we saw some vintage gems, including carts containing old station promos and some old photos (some of which showed a wall covered with vintage radio station stickers from all over the country). As we looked around that room, I became more interested in the station's history.

Cart at WRBB. Photo: J. Waits
According to the WRBB website, the station began as campus-only carrier current station WNEU in 1962. By 1970, its call letters were change to WRBB (for "rock Back Bay") and it began broadcasting over 91.7 FM. By 1982 WRRB moved frequencies to 104.9 FM as a class D non-commercial radio station. It has a very small broadcast range over FM, so most students today listen online.

Sticker-covered cabinet at WRBB. Photo: J. Waits
The archives at Northeastern house some materials related to WRBB history. Also, check out this great 1968 photo of WNEU from the book Boston Radio and this 1969 photo from Northeastern Magazine. As I dug around, I also found out that television personality Wendy Williams used to be a college radio DJ at WRBB.

Sign in WRBB Studio. Photo: J. Waits
In a follow-up interview, WRBB's Events Manager Carly Goldberg gave me some more information about the station. She told me that WRBB is "100% student-run," but that there are both student and community-member DJs. During the school year, WRBB airs a pretty packed schedule with "live shows...typically running 24/7," according to Goldberg. She told me that there are around 100-120 volunteers/staff/DJs at WRBB and that the forthcoming fall schedule has programming from 11am to midnight every day.

New music at WRBB. Photo: J. Waits
It's a freeform station and Goldberg told me, "Each DJ is given total control over what they play." She said that because of this, the schedule is quite varied. She said, "You could be listening to a show really focused around swing and jazz music and then directly after you'll hear a show focused around the underground indie scene of the 90s." When there isn't a live DJ, WRBB will run an automated playlist of songs.

Vinyl Record at WRBB. Photo: J. Waits
Some of the long-time programs include the Saturday and Sunday morning Gospel Connection show and Drum Beat Radio, a public affairs show that has been on the air since 1982. In addition to music and public affairs programming, WRBB has an active sports department that travels with various sports teams at Northeastern.

Signed poster from past WRBB Block Party. Photo: J. Waits
As is the case with sports, the station in general has a very close relationship with the broader Northeastern community. Goldberg said, "Our DJs will take our speaker system out to events on campus and provide music. Also, we put on two concerts a year at Northeastern; one of these is our annual Block Party [this year's 25th annual event is happening on September 6th], a huge outdoor concert in one of our quads. The other is a smaller show that happens in afterHOURS, Northeastern's on-campus venue. These events really get our name out to the community and allow us to really kind of give back to our listeners."

Liz Alverson and Rae Fagin in WRBB Music Library. Photo: J. Waits
Thanks to my niece Liz and to Rae and Carly at WRBB for introducing me to WRBB. This wraps up my mini tour of Boston-area college radio stations! Other field trip reports are coming soon, featuring my visits to radio stations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C. and Illinois. You can see a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here.

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