Story posted November 11, 2009
Author: Lisa Wesel
Photography: Dean Abramson
Early each semester the staff of WBOR conducts the college radio equivalent of an open casting call: They invite anyone who’s interested – students, faculty, staff and community members – to apply for a DJ time slot. WBOR airs live most days from 7 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.; that’s more than 120 hours to fill each week, and they rarely fall short. In fact, they often have to offer a shorter shift in order to squeeze in another aspiring DJ.
The only artistic restriction they impose is that DJs break the mold of commercial radio. The one format they might reject out of hand is one that emulates pop radio drivel. This fall, listeners were treated to hours of jazz, hip-hop, heavy metal, Renaissance music, nothing-but-Frank-Zappa, soccer roundups, politics and everything that can be considered “indie.”
“We are an independent college radio station, and we want our programming to reflect that,” music director Sarah Wood ’10 told the 80 applicants who packed Daggett Lounge in September. “Be creative. We listen to all the music and play what’s great. This is college, a time for experimentation.”
The whole idea of “college radio” feels like a throwback to another generation. Napster burst on the scene when these students were just becoming aware of music in middle school. Twenty-somethings download their music more often they buy it on disk, and many of the DJs confess that they’d pretty much stopped listening to the radio by the time they got to high school, except when they could find a good college station. Now that they have a chance, they can’t resist getting behind a microphone and sharing their tastes – musical and otherwise – with a decidedly limited but loyal audience.
“Radio is ubiquitous, and it’s extremely cheap,” said station manager Tucker Hermans ’09. “As great as the Internet is for finding the next niche genre, it’s not good at local content.”
WBOR doesn’t shun the Internet; the broadcast streams live on WBOR.org, where families, friends, and Bowdoin students studying abroad tune in and sometimes call or email requests.
Peter McLaughlin ’10, the jazz music director, grew up in the Boston area, surrounded by enough college stations to satisfy his taste once it veered from the mainstream in middle school.
“I found those stations kind of cool,” he said. “You get to know the personality of the DJ, or their lack of personality, and I could listen to something I’d never listened to before. That’s what makes what we do so important and special.”
It’s a Sunday afternoon, and Wood and Sean Weathersby ’10 sit hunched over their laptops on a ragged couch at the station in the basement of the Dudley Coe Building. The walls are lined with shelves of record albums – big and dusty and pressed of glorious black vinyl – made obsolete by CDs before the current batch of Bowdoin students was born. Yet the station is equipped with two turntables that still get plenty of use.
Audrey Chee ’09 mans a CD player, methodically playing snippets from the 40 new releases the station received that week, as Wood and Weathersby type one-line reviews of the ones they will recommend to the DJs. Weathersby is also compiling the top 30 most-played song and albums from the previous week to submit to CMJ, the College Music Journal.
“We’re here for two-and-a-half hours every Sunday, and we’re basically multi-tasking the entire time,” Chee said.
Wood mocks a lyric as it flies past them: “ ‘We take our clothes off in the dark and put them back when we’re done.’ That’s artistic.”
“We have enough with this sound already,” she said about another CD.
“I decided no to ‘A Tribute the Cure,’” Chee said.
“We try to make a nice mix of things people will like listening to,” Wood explained. “Two-to-one it’s music people don’t know.”
“A lot of it is people’s first album, so no one’s heard it,” Chee said. “Stuff we don’t like goes in a box and the DJs are free to take it.”
There are six other music directors who do the same thing each week for releases in specific genres: jazz, blues, hip-hop, electronic, heavy metal.
McLaughlin loves jazz. In addition to reviewing all the new jazz music each week, he does a show called “Jazz is a Spirit” on Friday afternoons. A music major who plays percussion and composes music, McLaughlin was so interested in radio that he made a point of checking out the radio stations at each college he considered applying to.
“I was big into music in high school, I did a bit of acting and was on the speech and debate team,” he said. “Radio is a combination of my two great loves. I applied for a show as soon as I got here. I had a very specific idea for my show: I wanted it to have mostly modern jazz and also other types of music that either influenced jazz or were influenced by jazz, music with a spirit of improvisation and creativity through performance. I’m not so pigeon-holed into ‘this is jazz and this is not jazz’ like the Marsalis brothers like to describe it.”
He arrives for his show with his backpack stuffed with CDs.
“Some people plan their entire show,” he said. “I tend to do it on the fly.”
Yet somehow, the music flows together. He starts with “Opening,” by Philip Glass, an airy number that’s “not really jazz at all,” he concedes. He follows that with music from the title track from Miles Davis’s Nefertiti, which he describes as a repetitive, minimalist jazz piece. From there he moves to a couple of “old school” tracks from Bill Evans – “Gloria’s Step” and “Alice in Wonderland” – before returning to Nefertiti and the song, “Fall.” Next come two tracks from local drummer Steve Grover, one of which is called “Portrait of Tony Williams.” Tony Williams, McLaughlin notes, was the drummer on “Fall.” After 90 minutes, he brings the show full circle and ends with “Closing,” another Philip Glass piece.
As he begins each number, he types the song title and artist into his laptop and sends it to the station’s website, which promises on the live stream to be showing what is “most likely playing.” (Not all DJs are as faithful with that part of the job.)
Bowdoin has been “broadcasting” in one form or another since at least the 1920s, when communication was limited to Morse code but reached destinations around the globe. A later iteration was called “Bowdoin on the Air,” which consisted of 15-minute taped performances sent to WGAN in Portland and aired each Sunday at 1:45 p.m.
In 1947, College President Kenneth Sills approved the formation of a committee to study the creation of a campus radio station, which he touted as a way to bring publicity to the college and train future broadcasters. The cost to convert the offices of the Orient on the second floor of Moulton Union to an AM radio station, estimated to be $5,000, was covered largely by a $4,000 gift from the Class of 1924. The committee decided not to install a wireless system, because that would require an FCC license and the installation of costly special equipment. Instead, they installed a dedicated telephone line directly to WGAN.
The college catalogue described the station as being “equipped with every modern device, including a console board, transmitter, two record turntables, and three tape recorders. (It) is finished in an attractive blend of sky blue, neutral gray and salmon red.”
The first live broadcast from Moulton Union took place on April 16, 1950, on the new WBOA (Bowdon in the Air): A dramatic workshop performed “The Pot of Broth,” a one-act play by William Butler Yeats. That fall, the broadcast was expanded to half an hour, with an experimental four-hour evening show featuring news, sports, interviews, dramatic skits, classical “music to study by,” and jazz – “music not to study by.” It didn’t take long before the College began looking into obtaining an FCC license for a full-time radio station.
By the end of the 1950s, the station had gotten its FCC license and become 91.1-FM, WBOR (Bowdoin on the Radio). The 10-watt transmitter reached about a mile, just enough to cover the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. In 1982, the FCC granted an increase to 300 watts, which extends the broadcast to about 15 miles.
Roy Heely ’51 still remember the first records he played on the air at WBOA: Eddie Condon and a few cuts from Mugsy Spanier and his Ragtime Band. It was three days before graduation, and a friend asked on a lark if he’d like to spin a little music at the College’s new radio station.
“It was a very fleeting moment in my collegiate career,” he admitted. “Those records, all 78-rpms, are long gone.”
Nearly 20 years into retirement, Heely is back in Brunswick, and back at WBOR DJing one of the longest-running shows at the station. In his college days, Heely liked strictly Dixieland, but as a member of the Maine Jazz Alliance, he plays more traditional mainstream jazz.
“When I graduated, I never dreamed I’d be coming back to Brunswick,” Heely said. “I took early retirement, and decided, why live in New Jersey when we could be living in Maine? I had no idea there would be such a rapport between the college and the community.”
A college radio station serves multiple purposes: It’s a training ground for aspiring broadcasters, a community service for listeners and a means of expression for DJs, said Roosevelt “Rick” Wright, Jr., an associate professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, who is writing a book about college and university radio station operation.
“These stations can serve as the front porch for the college,” he said.
Free expression, however, has taken a hit in recent years as more stations adopt what Wright calls “the NPR model.” College radio stations can form an affiliation with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in order to raise money through sponsorships. In turn, CPB imposes restrictions on how the station is operated by increasing the level of professionalism. In some cases, that reduces student influence and participation.
“The influence of the NPR model has taken a lot of the wind out of the sails of college radio stations,” Wright said. “They should be haven for innovation and experimentation, a place to make all the mistakes.”
At WBOR, that spirit is still very much alive. WBOR is funded through student activity fees, and students control every aspect of the station, including contributing about two-thirds of its programming. The rest is provided by retirees, high school students and music buffs from the community, as well as Bowdoin faculty and staff. While Bowdoin students and their varied tastes cycle through year after year, participation from community members offers a level of continuity that local listeners have come to expect, and expertise that students rely on.
The Maine Jazz Alliance, for example, began broadcasting from WBOR in 1992. Mike Halmo, a 57-year-old guidance counselor at Brunswick High School, launched his blues show – “The Blues Highway” – in 2002, the first year the station stayed on the air during the summer.
“That seemed like a good time to break in,” Halmo said. “I’m a classic wannabe rock musician. I don’t really play an instrument; I don’t sing. The next best thing is DJ-ing if you really love music.”
Halmo grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. He got into the blues when it occurred to him that much of the classic rock he loved was borne of that genre.
“When I started at WBOR, there was no new blues on the shelf,” he said. “I started writing letters to blues labels, and every week I’d get these packages of CDs. It was like Christmas. Blues was becoming a lost art, but there’s a resurgence of people listening to the blues and writing the blues. I hope I’m educating some of these young college kids.”
“We’re so lucky to have Bowdoin as an institution that gives so much to the community and really lets the community in,” he said.
The feeling is mutual. Students are particularly grateful to Bill Morse, a 50-year-old Bath Iron Works employee who single-handedly took over programming during mid-year breaks and over the summer so that WBOR is never off the air.
“I’ve been listening to ’BOR since 1977, because we have a real affinity for new music,” he said. “Ten years ago, I saw an ad in the paper for DJs, and I was elated. I’ve been doing it ever since. My show is always the fastest two hours of the week for me, and I was always devastated when school breaks came. I’d go into withdrawal, so I became the summer manager six years ago. It’s not a paid job; it’s a labor of love.”
College radio DJs sometimes seem to compete for the smallest musical niche. Margaret Allen graduated from Bowdoin in 1986 and now works as the College’s assistant director of institutional research. For eight years, she has hosted an hour-long program of Frank Zappa music. Allen initially did the show as a way to work on her public speaking skills, but now it’s all about the music. She has no idea how many people tune in each week, but she concedes that she’s targeting a narrow niche of listeners who love and appreciate Zappa as much as she does.
“Frank Zappa is a bit strange,” she said. “It’s a particular audience that’s going to listen to him. People do call me at the station, but most of the people who call me are very weird. It’s the odd ducks who would listen.”
Akiva Zamcheck ’11 produces a show with the unlikely title, “Renaissance Dance Party.” He doesn’t mean dance music for the Renaissance man; he means 500-year-old Renaissance music, something which stirs in him the same passion as Frank Zappa does in Allen. He spends hours planning the play list of each show, tying the music to a particular theme or the anniversary of a composer’s birth or death.
“I put too much time into it,” he confessed. “It gets ridiculous. It’s an obsession. But radio is a live performance. I’m required to be prepared. People are presumably listening.”
Despite his preparation and almost professorial air, he sometimes goofs. One Sunday this fall, he attempted to trace the entire history of sacred music from Gregorian chants through Duke Ellington. Shortly after introducing the first piece – “The Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet” by Thomas Tallis – Zamcheck realized that a true Gregorian chant would not contain those harmonies. “Someone’s going to call me on that,” he sighed as he cued his next selection, “a Gloria you can really dig on.” Zamcheck’s father, a professional musician, has notified him of similar mistakes in the past, but Zamcheck takes it in stride.
“Radio gives me my own pulpit from which I can express my views of the world. I take it as a given that my views are worthwhile. I suppose it’s always possible that no one is listening. Well, I know my parents listen. And my sister. And one friend in Queens.”
The first live broadcast from Moulton Union took place on April 16, 1950 on the new WBOA (Bowdoin In the Air): a dramatic workshop performed "The Pot of Broth," a one-act play by William Butler Yeats.
Forty-nine years after WBOR recorded a Pete Seeger concert at Pickard Theater, the Smithsonian Institution is releasing the entire recording in a two-CD set with full credit given to the station and the College. Tom Holland ’62 couldn’t be happier.
Holland was station manager at WBOR in 1960 when Seeger performed at Bowdoin. Seeger refused to sing unless the concert was recorded, and the tapes immediately handed over to him without anyone copying or even listening to them.
“He was a very demanding guy, really hard-nosed,” Holland said. “He was a very crusty character.”
Holland clearly remembers the performance, which was the highlight of the Campus Chest weekend. It was a beautiful Sunday – sunny and unusually warm for mid-March. Pickard Theater was packed, and Seeger brought the house down.
“This was a pure solo act, just him and his instruments,” Holland said. “He did a version of ‘D-Day Dodgers,’ a very satiric WWII song that I’d never heard before, but it made a terrific impression. He rarely ever sang that song.”
Students at WBOR broadcast the concert live and filled eight reel-to-reel tapes with all 30 songs. Holland hand-delivered the tapes to Seeger that night, and never gave them a second thought.
Years later, Holland was living in New York and browsing a record store when he came upon a Seeger album that included “D-Day Dodgers.” Holland was sure it was recorded that night at Bowdoin, though the liner notes didn’t say so.
“I really didn’t think about the tapes again until I bought that record,” he said. “I was annoyed that we didn’t get credit for recording it.”
According to Jeff Place, head archivist for the Smithsonian’s Folklife Archives, that was typical Seeger, working outside the system to create his own recorded legacy. For much of his career, Seeger, now 90, was a pariah for his outspoken anti-government beliefs, and occasionally faced imprisonment for contempt of Congress. Major record labels would have nothing to do with him, and live performances had to be arranged on the sly with little advance notice to avoid organized protests. So Seeger collected recordings of his concerts and handed them over to Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, who pieced tracks from different performances into compilations of live music and released them on albums with scant information in the liner notes.
“I remember the concert being on really short notice,” Holland said. “We didn’t know about it until a week or two before. I never really understood that at the time.”
The original tapes spent the next four decades on a shelf in the Folkways New York office. After Asch died in 1986, the Smithsonian bought the entire collection of more than 4,000 tapes – more than 300 of Seeger alone – and Place has been poring through them ever since.
“I’ve listened to thousands of these things over the years, and the most stellar sound quality of them all was from the Bowdoin College tapes,” Place said. “It is so striking. (Seeger) is banging on the guitar, and things are bouncing across my desk from the vibration.”
The only information Place had was written on the tapes: “Recorded by WBOR, March 13, 1960.” A quick Internet search led him to Mike Halmo, blues director at WBOR. Halmo researched the concert and the radio station in Archives and Special Collections, and asked the Alumni Office to locate Holland for him.
Holland, who now lives in New Jersey, got rid of all his vinyl records years ago and, though he still remembers most of the lyrics to “D-Day Dosgers,” hadn’t thought much about the Seeger concert until Halmo contacted him early this year. He was shocked to hear that the tapes still existed, but was not surprised that they were such good quality.
“They refixtured the station in the late 1950s, when it switched to FM,” he said. “Everything was brand new in 1958 when I got there. It was all first-class Ampex equipment.”
The tapes recorded at 15 inches per second, twice as fast as most reel-to-reel recordings, which resulted in much higher-quality sound, Place explained.
“It has been a dream of mine to put this record out since the first time I heard it,” he said.
Place is hoping for a fall release, which he promises will include mention of both Bowdoin and WBOR in the liner notes.
“I can’t wait to hear it,” Holland said.