The University’s radio station, 88.3 WCBN FM, is largely unknown. But, WCBN’s obscurity isn’t such a bad thing. “We try to present our music in a way so that we can get as many people to listen to what we’re doing as possible, but there’s a fundamental problem in playing music that isn’t built into the mega-money business like the formatted radio stations are,” explained James Ilgenfritz, a former WCBN DJ and School of Music graduate.
There’s a lot more going on in the musty basement of the Student Activities Building than simple disc jockeying. Several of the WCBN DJs practice the style of freeform radio – a style of DJing that most people consider an art or at least as something art-like. In its simplest definition, freeform is playing songs of all genres from all parts of the world in one show. Most of these DJs don’t have adamant playlists and instead improvise, often choosing songs according to how the previously song inspired them.
“Usually I’ll show up with a couple things of my own that I hope I might get to, but I just sort of improvise the whole thing. I’m always ready to suddenly have some brilliant thing and I’ll have to completely redirect myself at any moment,” said Ilgenfritz.
“What I try to do is never play the same genre back to back or more than twice in the show,” added John Schietinger, an LSA senior and freeform DJ at WCBN.
Freeform isn’t just about variety of music, though. The DJ’s purpose is to reach and display a deeper understanding of the music.
“It’s not just about the songs you’re playing; it’s about the meaning of everything you’re playing in the context of the whole world. Whatever you’re playing, you play it from the perspective of ‘it’s my job to address the music of all parts of the world, of all walks of life,’ from European classical music to punk rock to folk music to West African polyrhythmic drumming. It goes beyond simple eclecticism – the more you are able to strive for the ideals that freeform stands for, you’re getting closer to the real true meaning that lies beneath all music. It’s like a mosaic,” Ilgenfritz said.
A lot of what a freeform DJ does depends on juxtaposition. An example of this is contrasting the moods of the songs, like an aggressive song followed by a mellow one, or a loud song followed by a soft song. The DJ also plays songs from uncommon genres in series to produce another type of contrast. For example, a sample of Schietinger’s set from one of his freeform shows includes: British electronic, reggae, ’50s soul, ambient electronic, folk, lounge and then instrumental hip-hop.
“I think it’s an important position that freeform DJs have. Because there’s so much music in this world that to put it in a certain order is totally unique to you … I can put music in the right context to make it sound differently than it would otherwise,” Schietinger said.
The DJ can also play the freeform game by using consistency in the order of songs.
“I’ll arrange five or six tunes that will make a beautiful transition from one kind of music to another by way of like ‘they’re all composed by one person’ or ‘they’re all from people who lived in the same town.’ Some sort of connection in the music that goes beyond the notes,” Ilgenfritz said.
With all this heavy talk of the craft of the disc jockey and the art in presenting music in freeform, some people may find WCBN’s format to be esoteric.
“I don’t want to say it’s for a more select few, but there are fewer people that are able to identify with it immediately,” admitted Ilgenfritz. However, he continued, “As a college radio station goes, our listenership is enormous. But it’s not the kind of level as the kind of radio stations that play pop or any other single format type of thing.”
Although WCBN has received praise by magazines such as Rolling Stone for its freeform format, the station has gotten criticism as being a heavily leftist station that does not play what the students want to hear.
Schietinger counters the critics by answering, “I don’t think it’s the station’s responsibility to pander and give people what they can hear anywhere else. It’s whatever the DJ wants. It’s not about playlists … Do you want all the movie theaters to be showing the same movies? Do you want all the TV channels to be showing the same shows? That’s why you have stations like this and art house movie theatres. Not everybody wants the same thing.”
Schietinger compared WCBN to formatted radio stations, saying, “Music is more than just MTV and Britney Spears and everything that you’re forced to listen to. When you turn on the radio, you don’t have a choice in what they’re playing. They’ll play it 50 times a day just so it’ll sell more units. That’s not at all what this station is about; that’s what people need to know.”
With its non-profit and non-commercialized orientation, it’s easy to understand that money is tight at WCBN. If you ask to see a picture of Bill Cosby’s visit to WCBN when he first started touring college radio stations to begin his comedy career, you’ll notice that the walls and design of the station then are identical to today’s.
“It would be nice to have a new studio, but to be surrounded by the things that people saw when they came here years ago is nice. It really gives you a sense of being a part of a tradition,” said Inglefritz.
WCBN pulls in most of its money from listener donations, and raised about $27,000 in donations last year alone. “It always comes down to ‘people that love what we do’ is what keeps us going,” explained Inglefritz.
But the future of the station isn’t made certain by the listener support. There has been talk by some record companies to start charging stations like WCBN royalties for the songs they play. “That could really hurt WCBN, because we don’t have the money to pay,” said Schietinger.