In the depths of the Student Activities Building, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the volunteer staff at WCBN plays the coolest music you’ve most likely never heard. This isn’t to imply that the station doesn’t play normal music, whatever that means. But what separates WCBN — the University’s independent radio station — from typical college broadcasting services is its dedication to freeform radio, embracing the entire musical diaspora, from 1990s techno to mid-century African folk music and everything in between, giving disc jockeys complete creative freedom.
“I think it’s good that they’re purportedly freeform,” said Isaac Levine, a Music, Theatre & Dance freshman and WCBN DJ. “At other college radio stations there’s a lot of top indie songs and shows … but I’m glad (freeform) is enforced here because it instills a sense of earnest discovery, and I’ve learned about so much great stuff through it.”
The process of becoming a DJ at WCBN is time-consuming and draining. Potential members are required to complete multiple hours of volunteer work at the station, submit an approved demo tape of their own freeform show, pass a broadcasters exam and — if all that is accomplished — the newly crowned DJ is required to host a 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. freeform show once per week.
Training Coordinator Joy Dettling explained to me the two main characteristics of the perfect demo tape: comfort and proficiency with the technical equipment, and a willingness to embrace and explore the music WCBN has to offer.
With the help of Dettling, I decided to give it a shot, as it was probably the closest thing I’d get to actually being on air. She happily showed me how to use the equipment in the small studio designated for making demos, and though there was a lot to learn, it didn’t look all that complicated — nothing my iPod couldn’t solve.
I started to scroll through my digitized playlists when Dettling reminded me of the rules: The demo tape needed to consist of at least four genres, one CD, five vinyl records; I had to speak at least three times and, most importantly, the music had to be chosen from WCBN’s library.
Uh oh. The fantasies I had of waltzing into the studio and impressing all the other DJs with the stuff I thought was cool on my iPod instantly popped. Four genres? Vinyl? I swallowed and smiled warily at Dettling. She then directed me to WCBN’s gargantuan abyss of records and, taking a deep breath, I officially embarked on my journey to make the perfect demo tape.
I spent a good half hour digging through the WCBN library, picking carefully through dirtied and worn record sleeves, trying to put together an eclectic mix of music of which I had basically no knowledge.
Eventually, I emerged with five vinyl records and one CD: a rockabilly compilation entitled Rollercoaster Rockers Vol. 1; Rake, a hard rock album by the Velvet Monkeys; Know Now, by the reggae artist Ras Michael; Bishop Rides South, by the legendary soul singer Solomon Burke; Thokozile, by the African group Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens; The Shining Path, by the folk group Bluegrass Cardinals; and last, but certainly not least, Klasikleri, by the Turkish singer Asik Veysel (what the hell, there’s a first time for everything, right?).
As I sorted through my various records and CDs, I noticed on many of them faded, handwritten reviews and recommendations from other DJs about the albums. “A great album; PLAY IT!” read a note on one record, while a different DJ bluntly commented, “There’s some real obscure, weird shit on this,” on another. These radio hosts — who I will probably never meet — wrote these comments and hints not for themselves, but instead for their fellow WCBN members, motivated by an overarching love for music and the desire to share it with anyone willing to listen. After reading these notes, I felt it was my responsibility to create the best demo tape possible, even if I had no clue what on earth I was doing.
I started to listen to the records and simultaneously began planning the schedule of my show, from the order of the songs to the placement of the PSA, radio promo and event announcing I had to include.
I picked “Gonna Tell on You” by George Fleming — a fun, foot-shuffling tune — from the rockabilly compilation and decided to start my show with it. I then opened up the Velvet Monkeys record, and chose “Harmonica Hell House,” a highly recommended but bizarre, psychedelic, harmonica-infused mess. Next was Ras Michael, and I decided on “Rastaman Gives Thanks and Praise.” I picked a powerful cover of “Proud Mary” from Solomon Burke, “Lilizela Mlilizeli,” a spirited, buoyant number from Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and “Wash the Feet of Jesus” by the Bluegrass Cardinals, which sounded exactly how you’d expected.
Finally, I arrived at Asik Veysel. I chose “Necip,” (it was the easiest to pronounce), and as I pressed play, a whirlwind of guitar and guttural prayer flew into the room, making me cringe. I almost turned it off, but I remembered it was my duty to embrace and experience this new music, and so I grudgingly allowed Veysel to continue doing whatever the hell he was doing.
I outlined my show, prepared my music and at last turned on the microphone. Hesitating for a moment, I managed to squeak out a few words. The sound level arrows barely moved. I took a deep breath and tried again, this time speaking louder, and watched the arrows bounce up excitedly.
I then pressed play on the rockabilly record, but the speakers were silent. I started to worry until I realized that I had left the mic on. I turned it off, and the music snapped on. Of course. Rookie mistake.
The rest of the show went as smoothly as possible, considering the circumstances. I totally butchered the pronunciation of “Lilizela Mlilizeli,” forgot to turn off the mic a couple more times and made a good amount of prolonged and shaky transitions. Even more, I was so worried about using the equipment correctly and fulfilling all the different things the demo required that when it was time for me to speak, I completely forgot that I was supposed to be, well, myself, and instead ended up speaking in the driest, most monosyllabic tone that had ever escaped my mouth. Carrying on a one-sided conversation is really, really hard, I realized.
Still, I finished the show in one piece and forgave myself for my multiple mistakes. As I stood to leave the room and return my music, a small sense of accomplishment rose in me. I had been completely reluctant to indulge in these random albums, yet as I stood there holding them in my hands, I felt a certain affection for them. I had become part of the WCBN community web in some form or another, and as I walked out of the station that day, I couldn’t help but hum the melody of the African song I still couldn’t pronounce.