Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 64 - WQHS at University of Pennsylvania

WQHS at University of Pennsylvania. Photo: J. Waits
On a day when it seemed impossible to visit one more station, I did just that and ventured into Philadelphia to tour University of Pennsylvania's student radio station WQHS on the night of Tuesday, April 8, 2014. The morning and afternoon were a whirlwind of visits to see stations at Villanova University, Swarthmore College, Haverford High School, and St. Joseph's University. After a short break, I headed to Philadelphia.

Entrance to Hollenback Center. Photo: J. Waits
WQHS is located in a pretty obscure location in the Hollenback Center on the South Street Bridge, on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus, near a highway and the river. Navigating my way there after dark was a bit confusing, with very limited parking and construction nearby. After getting yelled at by road workers for driving into an off-limits zone near the one public parking garage that I spotted, I walked the short distance to the middle of the bridge.

Mysterious Door to WQHS. Photo: J. Waits
The Hollenback Center is an interesting place, having been built in 1924 for use as a power plant. Today it's mostly occupied by the Navy ROTC program. After I was buzzed in to the building, I trekked upstairs to WQHS' top floor digs. Megan Gross, WQHS's Promotions Director, was just getting her 8-10pm radio show started when I arrived and she took some time to show me around and talk about the station. She said that she likes the station's remote location as it's a "nice break" because it's "so far away from campus."

Megan Gross in WQHS Studio. Photo: J. Waits
The Internet-only station has an interesting past and is the descendent of University of Pennsylvania's student radio stations WXPN-AM and WXPN-FM. Radio activities began at Penn in 1909, with the founding of the Wireless Club, which soon after operated an amateur radio station. The first broadcast station was apparently the campus-only carrier current station WXPN AM, which began around 1945. In 1957, an FCC license was granted for WXPN-FM and both stations continued to operate as student-run stations until a series of incidents led to tighter control over the FM station.

WQHS Lobby. Photo: J. Waits
An amusing, yet tragic history recounted on the WQHS website (and expanded upon by Jose Fritz at Arcane Radio Trivia) explains the AM station's downfall. At some point in the 1970s offensive material was broadcast over the FM station, leading to some problems with the FCC (which initially wasn't going to renew WXPN's license) and the university.

Cassette tape at WQHS. Photo: J. Waits
 According to WQHS:

Things started getting crazy. XPN fell in with the wrong crowd. To make a long story short, there were several instances of 'offensive' material going on-air, including (but not limited to) fake sexual enhancement drug ads, erotic literature, and left-wing conspiracy theories, not to mention the infamous 'Vegetable Report,' which was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back. The camel, in this case, is the FCC. Unfortunately, XPN's broadcast license happened to be expiring around this time, and the FCC wouldn't renew it.

The University wasn't happy either, and the FM station became entirely professionally run by 1980, while the AM station was still student-run. WXPN-AM became WQHS, and things got bad. Really bad.

Wall at WQHS. Photo: J. Waits
While WXPN-FM eventually achieved prominence as a professionally-run public radio station, WQHS toiled with little financial or administrative support. Today it's still quite under the radar, but is in much better shape than in days gone by. 

Vinyl Records at WQHS. Photo: J. Waits
WQHS operates as an student-run Internet radio station (it lost its AM carrier current broadcasts after a tower blew down in a storm). Although it's not subject to FCC rules anymore, Gross told me that the station has its own "self-imposed regulations," which prohibit the airing of dirty words. She said that they try to "keep it tasteful," and are aware that "professors and grandmas" are listening.

Review on an LP from 1989. Photo: J. Waits
I'm sure they are also cautious because of the controversies of the past. Gross said that being online-only has its advantages and told me that because of that they have an international audience. She added, "I have friends all over the world tuning in."

Sign at WQHS. Photo: J. Waits
The station's top-floor space includes a large lobby with some seating and a portion of the record library. Off of the lobby there is a live recording room and a broadcast room, as well as a large office. Gross said that most DJs do their shows off of the computer, using digital files, but people also use the CD player and record player. There are also DJs that host vinyl-only shows.

Live music equipment at WQHS. Photo: J. Waits
Live shows mostly air between 8am and 2am, with a playlist of music airing when there's no live DJ. Gross said that there are probably between 50 and 60 DJs, with most people sharing hosting duties with another DJ. During spring 2014 when I visited, some of the shows including music shows focused on hip hop, R&B, and British music. As I looked around the station I noticed a large metal section in the back. When I asked if that music got played, Gross said that it was barely touched and that it's a "fun relic" of another era.

Metal CDs at WQHS. Photo: J. Waits
Gross told me that she discovered WQHS during her first year at Penn after she happened to walk by someone passing out flyers for the station. After joining, she's made it her "personal project" to try to increase awareness of the station on campus. Last year she made WQHS T-shirts and she's also been involved with station events, including the "WQHS on the Green" concert series last spring, in which student musicians and DJs played on campus on Friday afternoons.

Records, CDs, and posters at WQHS. Photo: J. Waits
Additionally, WQHS likes to stay connected with the broader Philadelphia music community. Gross said that it's a great music scene and that the station co-sponsors events, does ticket giveaways and reports on various concerts on its blog.

View from South Street Bridge in Philadelphia. Photo: J. Waits
As I left the station after dark, I took in a beautiful view of the Philadelphia skyline from the South Street Bridge. Thanks so much to Megan Gross for the tour of WQHS. It was fun for me to see a college radio station at night, as I typically tour stations during regular business hours.

Steve Keene Painting at WQHS. Photo: J. Waits
I'm almost done with my Philadelphia-area field trip reports and will then write about my trips to stations in Maryland, D.C. and Illinois (hopefully before I visit more stations!). You can see a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here.

Sign at WQHS. Photo: J. Waits             

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