Monday, October 20, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 65 - WRGW at George Washington University

Wall at WRGW. Photo: J. Waits
In April 2014, I had the pleasure of presenting at the Saving College Radio symposium at University of Maryland. While in the area, I took the opportunity to visit a few nearby stations, including college radio station WRGW at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

View into WRGW Studio from Hallway in Marvin Center. Photo: J. Waits
On the afternoon of Thursday, April 9th, I had some free time in D.C., so I stopped by the station. I met up with General Manager Jordan Grobe and also spend a lot of time chatting with outgoing Music Director Tori Kerr.

WRGW Lobby. Photo: J. Waits
Located in the basement of the Marvin Center student union at George Washington University, the WRGW space is highly visible, with windows facing the hallways of the building. It's also in a busy location since the Marvin Center also houses the bookstore, eateries, lounges, meeting rooms, study room, and a theater.

Comparing an old and a new WRGW banner. Photo: J. Waits
Now a streaming, student-only radio station, WRGW is the descendent of many decades worth of radio activities at George Washington University. According to the WRGW website, a Radio Club was formed on campus in 1929, with campus-only carrier current station CRBE launching in the 1940s. Its call letters were changed to WRGW in 1959. By the mid-1980s the station divided into two distinct entities - the Speech & Drama Department-run WRTV and the student-run WRGW. By 1996  the two stations merged back together. The WRGW website recounts the station's move online in the late 1990s:

"On August 28th, 1999 WRGW began broadcasting from their new facility, over 540 AM, on Campus Cable Channel 22, and through that promising new medium, the Internet. Using Apple Quicktime 4.0 technologies,, receiving around 5,000 hits per month, welcomed its first major broadcasting upgrade in over a decade."
WRGW Ad from a few years back. Photo: J. Waits
Today, WRGW has a large active staff of around 250 volunteers and DJs (there are 120 people in the Music Department alone), with live shows scheduled from 8am to 2am every day. Between 2am and 6am the building is closed, so WRGW airs "Rewind," which culls from a database of old shows, interviews, and live performances.

Spring 2014 Schedule at WRGW. Photo: J. Waits
I was told that there are approximately 80 different programs each semester, with around 90 new station members (referred to as interns during their semester-long training period) last year. Kerr said, "every year there are more interested students." I was also told that the high demand for shows has led to the creation of shorter shows in order to make room in the schedule for more programs.

Sign at WRGW. Photo: J. Waits
Programming Director Jordan Farley told me that most shows are specialty shows. She explained, "Anybody that has a unique idea...we love it." Some of the shows last semester ranged from a mainstream top 10 show to a D.C. hardcore punk show.

Vinyl at WRGW. Photo: J. Waits
I was told that most DJs create iTunes or Spotify playlists in advance of their shows, with some creating online playlists on the fly. They can bring in pre-planned shows on a flash drive. Shows are also archived automatically so that DJs and listeners can listen to them later.

CDs at WRGW. Photo: J. Waits
There are shelves full of CDs at the station and I also saw a few milk crates full of vinyl LPs. There is a CD player in the on-air studio, as well as a turntable. I was told that there are DJs who bring in their own vinyl to play. Others have done mix shows, bringing in their own DJ turntables.

Vinyl on turntable at WRGW. Photo: J. Waits
WRGW also has two streams, which allows the station to air more programming simultaneously, including contractually obligated streams of various sporting events. Members of the WRGW sports department regularly travel with the school's basketball, softball, and volleyball teams and WRGW is the "flagship station" for the women's basketball team. The sports department has also does live remotes from as far away as California.

WRGW On-Air Studio. Photo: J. Waits
In addition to music and sports shows, WRGW also has a very active news department and also has a variety of talk shows. Kerr said that George Washington University is a "more politically active campus" than most schools and explained that some of WRGW's programming reflects that. For example, the show "Flipside Frenemies," features two friends with wildly different political views. They "duke it out" on-air and then shake hands at the end of the show, according to Kerr. There's also a show called "All the Presidents Men," which is run by a group of students with political aspirations.

Poster at WRGW. Photo: J. Waits
It was interesting to hear about the role of not only the university, but also of D.C. in guiding some of WRGW's programming. Grobe said that in 2012 the station did extensive election night coverage of both the presidential race as well as local elections. Grobe said that as it turns out, WRGW is the "closest news outlet to the White House."

WRGW Award from the 1980s. Photo: J. Waits
As she anticipated the station's forthcoming 85th anniversary (an alumni reception was held last month), Kerr said, "the spirit hasn't changed at all." WRGW continues to be recognized by the university for its achievements, winning an "Excellence in Student Life" award in 2013. Kerr said that it was nice to get that acknowledgement from the school because it was a sign that others realized that they were "more than just a bunch of weirdos."

WRGW Control Room. Photo: J. Waits
Off-the-air, WRGW has also put on music shows off-campus, including an annual spring concert. In 2013, the station teamed up with two other local college radio stations, WVAU at American University and WMUC-FM at University of Maryland, in order to put on a Deerhunter show. Georgetown University station WGTB also helped out with promotion. Grobe said that it was a great success, saying, "We'd never really done anything collaboratively [with other stations]." It was also a nice way to connect more with the broader D.C. community, which is one of WRGW's goals.

In the on-air studio at WRGW. Photo: J. Waits
At the end of my visit, Kerr and I rhapsodized about the broader college radio community. She said, "College radio shouldn't be about who's hipper," adding that being "insular" only works to "keep us down." She told me about a Field Day picnic that WRGW held with some other college radio stations and said that it was the first time that they'd met students from other local stations. As Kerr looked forward to her looming graduation, she said, "I love college radio."

CD at WRGW. Photo: J. Waits
Thanks so much to Jordan Grobe, Jordan Farley, and Tori Kerr for talking to me about WRGW. I hope the station continues to collaborate with its D.C. peers.

Sign at WRGW. Photo: J. Waits
While preparing to write this post, Jordan Grobe passed along some current pictures of the station, telling me that they've been working to reorganize some of the studios and spaces. Here's a panoramic view of the on-air studio in Fall 2014.

WRGW On-Air Studio in Fall 2014. Photo: J. Grobe
Grobe also shared some updates about how WRGW is doing this semester. He writes,

"This semester we have over 90 programs, and have reorganized the schedule into programming blocks (for example, between 10pm and 12am each weekday you'll find our Hip Hop/EDM block). We've also amped up our in-studio game, with 12 this semester to date! And those signatures on the wall all come from bands/performers who stop by our studios, from Seattle band Pickwick to DC's own hip hop artist Wale.

We also cover Volleyball and Softball but don't travel with those teams; that's only the basketball teams (both of which made it to the NCAA this past year which was super exciting for us)."

WRGW in Fall 2014. Photo: J. Grobe
As I catch up on my Spring 2014 radio station field trips, I'll profile a few more radio stations in Maryland and D.C. as well as a high school station in Illinois. You can see a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here.

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