In the basement of the Student Activities Building, nestled alongside that dreaded area ‘U’ students visits only after losing their MCard, is the student radio station, WCBN.
The station defines itself as: “A student-run community freeform radio station” that broadcasts to the “University and its surrounding communities.” Of course, what exactly freeform entails is up to interpretation, but in the world of radio, the term brings to mind the model of the longest-running freeform radio station, New Jersey-based WFMU. WCBN and WFMU provide DJs with total control over the content of their shows.
WCBN has been operating for about 40 years, and today’s increasingly Internet-based music culture has put its philosophy under pressure. With the emergence of streaming services and the music blog, the utility of traditional radio is brought into question. The average music lover might think: Why should I have music fed to me through radio when my favorite blog and Pandora can help me find what I like?
Rackham student Ben Yee, general manager of WCBN, revealed that he thinks Internet music services such as Pandora, Spotify, Grooveshark and Turntable.fm aren’t necessarily competitors with WCBN and that Internet music services and freeform radio have separate utilities.
“There’s two different mindsets,” Yee said. “I’ll be honest, there are times when I’m doing work and I can’t listen to WCBN because it commands my attention. On the other hand, I can go on Pandora, put in the names of a few ambient artists, and let it roll for five hours and I don’t even notice it’s there.”
Yet it’s hard to know when a listener might prefer the active listening experience that the station provides. Those Internet services may be easier to shut out than the unusual tracks found on 88.3 FM, but individuals who crave active listening can turn on Pandora and be satisfied. In clarifying its role, WCBN seeks to offer more.
“We are the original music blog,” Yee said about the station’s role as he elaborated upon the differences between freeform radio DJs and music blogs. He highlighted the personal aspect of music discovery and its importance in balancing out the more depersonalizing effects of the Internet, citing a real-life encounter with a fan of a particular DJ, Heidi Madagame, from WCBN.
“I went to Little Caesars Pizza the other day, and someone looked at my shirt and said, ‘Hey, you’re with that radio station? Yeah, that Heidi girl, she had a great show the other day. I really liked it.’ The guy talked about her for five minutes,” Yee said.
WCBN prides itself on those kinds of connections, valuing the community aspect it can provide. Unlike Internet music sites, in which the listener interacts with a computer, WCBN wants to foster the experience of communal music listening.
But when asked whether WCBN will embrace the Internet, he stuck to his philosophy of integration rather than competition.
“A radio station isn’t really going to succeed unless it embraces the Internet,” he said.
Ambitious developments are planned. The station has been authorized by the FCC to increase its terrestrial transmitting capacity from 300 watts to 2,000 watts, an effect that will expand its reach to cover areas such as Dexter, Ypsilanti, Saline and even part of Chelsea.
This spirit of development will be carried to the Internet. A new website will allow listeners to interact with the DJ and others who are listening, fostering interaction and group exploration of music.
“Back in the day, listening to music was a group experience,” he said. “Being able to recreate something like that, where people can stop by, talk about the music, and be able to figure out from other people what’s similar out there, would be a way of creating a community around the radio station.”
These developments intend to offer the greater Ann Arbor area another option to explore music interactively, and the zeal for further expansion is certainly there. When asked about the future of WCBN, Yee expressed optimism.
“We want to take over the world,” Yee said.
Correction appended: An earlier version of this article inaccurately referred to Saline as Celine.