“There’s something to say for curated music — for music with a sense of serendipity,” explained WCBN Music Director Michael Newmeyer when asked to elaborate on the merits of freeform radio. “We aren’t a jukebox. We aren’t interested in just playing a bunch of music that everyone is already going to like.
“A lot of other college stations, I would even say, kind of do follow down that path.”
WCBN isn’t one of those typical college stations.
Hidden away in the basement of the Student Activities Building, among a labyrinth of shelves lined with obscure records, mix tapes and CDs, WCBN proudly states that it’s been “freeing your mind for over 40 years.”
Founded in 1952, and at the time operating out of Housing-allotted basement spaces in East Quad, South Quad and West Quad Residence Halls, centralization didn’t come until 1957, after the erection of the Student Activities Building.
A pirate radio
“Before we had FM, we broadcasted out of the electrical wires in the dorms. You could listen by plugging your telephone in, and you could get an AM signal from across the streets from the dorms but nothing like FM,” said Cameron Bothner, an LSA sophomore and WCBN development director.
A cohesive suite of offices and studios gave WCBN much needed organization to expand its services, but the station still struggled to maintain steady funding and decided to take advertising revenue from national and local businesses.
It wasn’t until 1969 that an active effort was made by staff members to factor out monetary influence on content choice so that the station could “reflect the needs and wants of its audience instead of the air staff,” as stated on its website. Two years later, the station received an approval for funding from the Board of Regents to broadcast on FM, thereby further increasing potential listenership.
At the time of its first official broadcast in January 1972, WCBN was managed by a staff of more than 100 employees, a number that has fallen drastically over its last few decades of operation.
“When we were founded, it was more like a pirate radio,” said Heidi Madagame, general manager and Music, Theatre & Dance alum. “I mean technically, you could say it was a more relevant medium at the time because more people listened to the radio, and there wasn’t such a thing as the Internet.”
In the red
Three years ago, the radio station received a memorandum of understanding from University Housing letting them know that they would gradually receive less funding over a period of three years. This is the first fiscal year the station hasn’t received any money from the University to cover operational costs. The only paid contract at the station, that of the chief engineer, is set to expire without renewal in October.
“As far as these things can go, we remained friends, if you will. We’re working with Housing right now to find a new home, and they’re helping us out. We don’t want to give the impression that they were just like, ‘fuck you guys’ at all,” Bothner said.
“We’re looking for a new department under the University because we’re still under the University of Michigan as they hold our (Federal Communications Commission) license,” Madagame said. “We just don’t have any funding right now from anywhere within the University.”
Currently, the station is not under any immediate danger of closing down. That being said, the future looks uncertain.
“What we are doing now is not sustainable. We’ve got enough to last for a while but we couldn’t keep going like this. We are definitely in the red here, and we will be in the red for next year and in the red after that,” Bothner said.
A necessary service
In order to get by without administrative funding, WCBN has considered various fundraising options other than just the annual on-air fundraiser the station holds to get donations from listeners.
“(The on-air fundraiser) is a very personal experience, and we’re just basically reminding everyone why services like ours are necessary. In a world dominated by Pandora and iTunes, we’re real human beings choosing real music that we like and sharing it with people,” Bothner said. “It’s the sort of thing you never get with commercial radio.”
Potential, but as of yet unexplored, options include underwriting, a way nonprofit organizations like WCBN can procure funding from businesses by playing unbiased, prerecorded messages on air. The messages are overseen and regulated by the FCC to ensure there are no strict parallels with advertising.
“It’s just the facts. It’s noncomparative, and it’s dispassionate. At its most base, it’s money for airtime, but it isn’t advertising because that’s legally something else,” Bothner said.
“If you listened to two comparisons of an actual ad and underwriting, the difference is very apparent,” Madagame said. “We also aim for a thematic relationship so it makes sense for the listener. For example, I had underwriting for a show about sexual inequality and gender that was done by a lab on campus that needed participants for a related study.”
The radio station has also invested a significant amount of money to upgrade their transmitter in the hopes of reaching a larger audience.
“The current broadcasting area has around 90,000 potential listeners, while the new area will reach approximately 175,000. But at the same time, we have a very loyal listener base that’s been there for 30 years,” said Chief Engineer Jim Campbell. “They don’t listen because it’s a convenience or a technology thing but because of the programming.”
For many reasons, WCBN and the content it produces are the antithesis to commercial radio, a direct contrast to popular music stations and their recycling of limited, Top-40 playlists. Unlike a radio personality on a station like Detroit’s 95.5, a disc jockey at WCBN has — barring the restrictions of the FCC — essentially complete creative control over the content he or she can assemble for a show.
“Somebody can come in here and make the kind of radio they want to make,” Newmeyer said. “That includes not just music, but I mean, interviews; do a short-story reading … just talk in the microphone for a while. There’s a lot of things that can go into what a freeform (slot can be).”
Though the possibilities for content are nearly endless, and though the station does feature various talk shows (including a sports segment), WCBN’s predominant focus is music. The station’s music library is an overwhelming collection of thousands of vinyl records and nearly 40,000 CDs that spans every genre imaginable, and its music-programming schedule will unfailingly venture through numerous genres over the course of several hours.
“With us … you can be like, ‘Well it’s Tuesday at seven o’clock. That means I’m going to be hearing some vintage ska, some Jamaican sounds,’ ” Newmeyer said. “But in general, what we do that makes us special, in our opinion, is that we not only (have a schedule), but there’s a certain amount of unpredictability involved.”
The disc jockeys at WCBN describe themselves as “music curators.” Much like the curator of a museum, these students often strive to unearth rare music — from the innumerable shelves of WCBN’s library or the Internet — and present it to listeners in carefully constructed, yet contingent, playlists on air.
“I’m a big fan of the chaotic and the unexpected,” Newmeyer said. “I think that there’s a lot of novelty in that, in just not knowing what you’re going to hear. Because sometimes the thing that you’re going to hear is something that you would never even know how to find otherwise.”
As a platform for music discovery, WCBN differs from online services like Pandora or Spotify in that it employs this human element to creating variation in its content. In that sense, WCBN and other online stations vie for divergent interests.
“If Pandora or Last.fm or Spotify had like a shuffle button, where … it has absolutely no bearing to the kind of music that you say you that you’re into, just something off-the-wall and completely random,” Newmeyer said, “if they had a button like that … then maybe I would feel some sort of competition.”
High-concept radio art
Within the context of freeform radio, WCBN’s DJs can — in addition to compiling songs for a set — pursue their own artistic ambitions in the form of “high-concept radio art.” As Madagame explained, DJs frequently create spontaneous art pieces during live sets, using the various turntables and CD players to layer spoken-word tracks, instrumentals and even an occasional whale sound to construct one compelling, sonic whole.
“One of my favorite things I’ve ever done, actually,” Madagame said, “(was when) I played the movie, ‘We Are the Strange’ … and I layered the entire (two-and-a-half hour) movie with different pieces of music at different times. There was some metal music, some indie music, some classical music, sometimes all at the same time.”
Occasionally, the station’s DJs play spoken-word recordings or songs to make political statements — which, as Bothner pointed out, have a long history at WCBN.
“When Reagan won the presidency, we played ‘It’s My Party and I Can Cry If I Want To’ for 24 hours, non-stop,” Bothner said. “So (not all pieces) are ‘good art.’ Nobody said it had to be pretty.”
The creation of “radio art,” according to Bothner and Madagame, is an exercise in expanding the ways we think about sound.
“It’s sort of like that conceptualist idea of putting non-art things in museums to appreciate them as art,” Bothner said. “As soon as you put a piece of sound on the radio, people hear it as music, even if it isn’t music. It sort of opens your mind to the possibilities of things that could be.”
Though some would categorize this philosophy, WCBN and its content in general as geared toward a specific niche, Newmeyer disagrees.
“Maybe not even a niche, but just (toward) people who are open-minded. I mean, that’s not a niche,” Newmeyer said. “That’s a large segment of the population. People who are open-minded have a huge amount of different interests and … aren’t necessarily going to turn on WCBN and hear something they enjoy, and that’s totally not the point.”
So is WCBN a purer form of radio?
“Personally, I think about radio not just as, ‘We are WCBN, and this is real radio,’ but I think … Pandora is radio, too. Spotify is radio,” Madagame said. “They are all online radio stations, like that’s all radio, and they serve their purpose, and we serve a different purpose.
“I think that we all play together, and I don’t think that we need to fight against any of these things. I think we just need to do our thing well, and I think we do.”