Thursday, November 13, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 66 - WMUC at University of Maryland, College Park

WMUC graffiti at station. Photo: J. Waits
Back in April, I was fortunate to speak at the Saving College Radio Symposium at University of Maryland. Held in conjunction with the exhibit Saving College Radio: WMUC Past, Present and Future, the event definitely piqued my interest about University of Maryland's storied college radio station WMUC-FM. So, at the end of an fantastic day of conversation about college radio history, I ventured to the South Campus Dining Hall building to visit WMUC. The student newspaper is also located in the same building as WMUC and residence halls are nearby.

Wall graffiti by the night's performer at WMUC. Photo: J. Waits
On the Friday night of my visit, WMUC was full of staff members preparing for an in-studio session featuring 5 bands (including one called Dan Singer Songwriter). The atmosphere was lively and I ended up meeting up with some other folks from nearby radio stations who had attended the symposium with me.
Entrance to WMUC. Photo: J. Waits
University of Maryland is a huge school both in terms of land (a network of  more than 75 shuttles and buses traverses the expansive 1250 acre campus), but also in terms of student population (more than 37,000 students). As a sign of that, I was told that there were around 800 student organizations. Apparently WMUC is one of the larger student organizations, with nearly 300 student and volunteer members (including some long-time alumni DJs who have been at the station for 20 years or more).

Mural in WMUC Hallway. Photo: J. Waits
WMUC doesn't require much of its DJs, except that they show up for their shifts (if you miss two shows, you could lose your time slot). There are no mandatory volunteer hours, but I was told by General Manager Kevin Delmolino that the core staff is "always here." He told me that the station is like a "club or a frat or a cult."

Graveyard of old WMUC equipment. Photo: J. Waits
My first impression was amazement over the massive space occupied by the station on the top floor of the Dining Hall. WMUC has been in the location since 1974 and the place is jam-packed with music, equipment, studios, offices, and historical artifacts from floor to ceiling.

7" from 1976 at WMUC. Photo: J. Waits
WMUC volunteer Laura Schnitker, who organized both the WMUC exhibit and the Saving College Radio symposium, has been working to move historical materials out of the station space and into the university archives in order to ensure that the items are available for years to come.

Handwritten playlist from 1988 on wall at WMUC. Photo: J. Waits
The first campus radio stations at University of Maryland started in the 1940s, but radio broadcasting classes began at the school in the 1930s. Now broadcasting over 88.1 FM, WMUC is the descendent of earlier carrier current AM stations. For a more complete picture of the station's history, take a look at the WMUC website and the digital Saving College Radio exhibition.

Entrance to WMUC Record Library. Photo: J. Waits
Every time I visit a new station, there's always something unique that I've never seen before. At WMUC it was the record library. Located in a locked room, the record library includes an interesting feature, spiral metal stairs leading up to a catwalk-like storage space that reaches the ceiling.

First floor of WMUC Record Library. Photo: J. Waits
There's also a hammock hanging on the main floor of the library, with its upper ropes tied to the metal structure above. When we popped our heads into the library, someone was resting in the hammock.

Spiral Stairs in WMUC Record Library. Photo: J. Waits
Vintage album covers line the walls and ceiling, apparently the remains of pilfered vinyl from days gone by. Sadly, there are some record-less gems in there, ranging from a Half Japanese 7" to an old Robin Williams comedy record.

Upstairs in WMUC Record Library. Photo: J. Waits
I was told that there might be 25,000 LPs and I also saw scores of vintage 45s from the station's early days. Over the years the records have become disorganized, so there isn't really an obvious system for filing or finding things. The CD library is located in the General Manager's office.

CDs in WMUC Office. Photo: J. Waits
As is the case at most stations, WMUC receives lots of music submissions that will never get played on-air. In WMUC parlance, these rejected CDs are dubbed "floorcore" and are often used for art projects. Material that is of interest to the Music Director gets ripped off of CD and added to WMUC's digital music archive. Original CDs are saved and kept in a locked room.

WMUC Programming Director Sung-Min Kim in the Record Library. Photo: J. Waits
Many WMUC DJs do their shows using music from the station's digital archive or from their own music collections, with some bringing in physical music as well.

Door to WMUC-FM Studio. Photo: J. Waits
With such a large number of DJs and volunteer staff, WMUC is a bit different from some stations that I've visited.

Turntables in WMUC-FM Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Sadly the on-air studios don't have headphones or turntables because of problems with theft. Delmolino told me that they have a "BYO needle policy" for DJs who wish to play vinyl. He added, "No one ever steals things that make sense."

WMUC-FM studio. Photo: J. Waits
WMUC's FM studio is pretty spacious, with tall ceilings, windows overlooking other studios, and room for a small library of vinyl and CDs. Graffiti covered the walls and a bottle of Febreze "fabric refresher" was perched on a counter.

WMUC-FM studio. Photo: J. Waits
A few of us crowded into the room to chat with the on-air DJ while he did his show. I was also amused to see that the printed WMUC-FM sign on the studio door (see studio door picture above) appeared to have been printed from a 1980s dot matrix printer (and perhaps has been on the door for all that time).

Graffiti in WMUC Digital Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Live programming airs over WMUC-FM from around 8am to 2am every day. In addition to music shows, WMUC-FM has had comedy shows, sports shows, and a few news shows. The current Fall 2014 schedule includes jazz, metal, punk, Korean music, 90s rock, science news, salsa, electronic, and psychedelic music shows. The station also has a long-time live music show on Sunday nights (since 1997) called Third Rail Radio.

WMUC's Live Music Room after the Bands Cleared Out. Photo: J. Waits
Besides Third Rail Radio, live music happens on shows throughout the week, with bands coming in all the time. Over the years some prominent artists like Ice Cube, Ringo Death Star, and others have come through. Delmolino said that they are lucky that there are people at WMUC with good studio engineering skills. For that reason, they also do live recordings of bands in the station's recording studio.

WMUC Digital Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Additionally, WMUC operates an online-only channel, WMUC Digital aka Channel 2. Nearly as popular with DJs as WMUC-FM, WMUC Digital's schedule was pretty packed when I visited. I was told that a lot of newer DJs get shows on the online-only station. There are also more seasoned DJs who prefer it because they don't have to worry about FCC regulations.

Board in WMUC Digital studio. Photo: J. Waits
The WMUC Digital schedule is just as varied as the WMUC-FM schedule, with shows this semester focusing on oldies music, jazz, indie rock, classical, hip hop, and drone/noise/industrial.

Sports studio at WMUC. Photo: J. Waits
In addition to music, WMUC has a sports department that does live broadcasts online over UStream as well as a packed schedule of sports talk shows. I was told that the sports department is pretty self-contained, with its own executive board.

Cabinet at WMUC. Photo: J. Waits
I was told that within a few years, the aging building housing WMUC is going to be renovated, which means that WMUC's future home is a bit uncertain. I'm glad that I got to see the space before the renovation, as it's truly a sight to see.

WMUC Lobby. Photo: J. Waits
Thanks to everyone at WMUC for the wonderful tour and fun conversations late on a Friday night.

Sign at WMUC. Photo: J. Waits
I'm slowly finishing up my Spring 2014 station tours and will soon have posts about a few more visits in the D.C. area as well as a high school station in Illinois. After that, stick around for some Seattle and San Francisco station visits. You can see a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here.

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