Ten watts isn't enough power to fry a cat, and it's not a lot to transmit Rock and Roll. But WMUC, the University of Maryland's tiny FM radio station plays songs by The Toiling Midgets, Fruits of the Original Sin, Tav Falco & the Panther Burns and other groups that you can't hear anywhere else, and it gives listeners and disc jockeys a chance to revel in the thoroughly bizarre.
Disc Jockey Sebastian "The Wizard" Nidecker, a psychology major who works in a Rte. 1 tattoo parlor in exchange for tattoos, sometimes plays six songs simultaneously and issues demented banshee screams in the background. Kimberly Sargent seldom plays more than two records at a time, but they are often by little known German groups such as Deutch-Amerikanische Freundschaft, whose music she describes as "industrial noise."
This is FM radio at its cacophonous outer limits, and it has given a minuscule station on the third-floor of a campus dining hall a national reputation among a network of obscure record companies. And within the confines of a 15-mile radius of the campus, WMUC (88.1 on the FM dial) has aroused passionate loyalties among an audience that the station staff, lacking scientific data, says is between 100 and 3,000 and growing. As 20-year-old Lanham listener Marion Miller puts it: "It's what you want to hear--it's not the same old junk, wimpy pop stuff."
If they listen to radio at all, most students listen to the university's more conventional, closed-circuit AM station, which has been piped around the campus for almost 40 years. Unlike WMUC, the AM station plays top-40 tunes, carries commercials and is largely regarded as a stepping stone to a professional broadcasting career.
"There has been this schism between AM and FM," says FM deejay Gay Rindone. "AM thinks FM is a bunch of radicals and FM thinks AM is a bunch of wimps." In fact, the FMers are less radical than they sound. The Wizard Nidecker also works in the University's Crisis Help Center; Sargent studies sports medicine, and Rindone admits to a soft spot for baroque music.
The difference, they argue, is that the 56 FM disc jockeys who keep the station on the air 24 hours a day serve conviction, integrity and aesthetics, not market demands. They know their music well, and can comprehend such frazzle-edged categories as progressive rock, post-punk progressive, industrial noise, and heavy metal. They play home-made tapes of "garage" bands that have not yet seen the stage, and probably never will, and discern hidden virtues in records issued under labels, spurned by larger stations, such as Zeb Meat and Alternative Tentacles.
For some of them, obscurity seems the same as integrity. Disc jockeys often abandon a favorite record if it makes it on commercial radio. Sargent argues that any group that achieves commercial success has given up the aesthetic quality that made it special; she conceeds she is sometimes called a musical snob.
Yet the disc jockeys can shift without blinking to occasional jazz and minority programs and they are proud of their weekly Turkish Hour.
The station's rooms have the lonely, disheveled look of the aftermath of a party. Nobody is waiting in the large lobby. A collection of broken office furniture is pushed against the wall, which has a rainbow painted from floor to ceiling. A plastic garbage can is filled with Associated Press print-out and empty beer bottles. A notice lying on the gray linoleum floor offers "Free Dead Cats to Loving Home."
Through a glass window, in the small, quiet, record-lined studio, a clean-cut blond-haired student leans over the microphone and speaks in a hesitating voice. He is music director Steve Kiviat, a senior from Bowie who wants to become a lawyer, not a punk rocker.
"We adore punk rock, but we don't wear safety pins and we don't dye our hair. We're serious about what we do--that's the key," explains station manager Jeff Krulik. Josh Friedman, an economics and art student from Hyattsville, is a former program director and the station's unofficial philosopher. "We are hard-core bourgeoisie, and hard-core punk is pure bourgeoisie," he says.
Friedman gave the station its special flavor when he became program director just over a year ago. Program directors at most radio stations give disc jockeys "format cards," listing the records they must play. Friedman led WMUC's deejays in a ceremonial burning of the last format card; from then on, they played what they liked, as long as it was different.
But recent months at the station have been as turbulent as the music. This spring, a university committee replaced Friedman with Alex Likowski, a former news director who complained that too many FM disc jockeys had "an unprofessional attitude" that hurt students seeking radio careers. He ordered several programs dropped, but the disc jockeys lambasted him on the air, and station manager Krulik told them to ignore the new schedule.
Likowski's efforts to establish order were doomed from the start. He is still program director, but he has part-time jobs at two commercial stations and said he will "probably resign" from WMUC. He hasn't been seen at the station for more than two months. "Alex is still in hiding," reads a triumphant notice on the studio wall.
With Likowski absent, life at the station is back to normal, which means anything but normal. Kiviat was back on the air recently with a collection of obscure Arizona rock numbers on his program, including "Beach Blanket Bong-Out" by Jody Foster's Army. And Friedman still has a Sunday night show that features a syndicated hard-core punk rock program from San Francisco, and whatever else appeals to his fluctuating fancies. Right now he's keen on "noise music," by groups whose musical instruments range from pots, pans and pipes to wind-up toys.
Like the station itself, it goes against the grain. "It's not melody--not even rhythm--but sonic texture," Friedman explained. "It's affirming the quality of dissonance."