One of my first adult responsibilities was an occasional 2-to-4 a.m. DJ shift at WESU-FM, Wesleyan University’s student-run radio station.
It was an ungodly hour. But it was exciting, trekking across the pitch-black campus to play a bunch of records for an actual broadcast audience. To me and my college friends, records were terribly important. DJ slots were coveted. I would sleep through 8 a.m. classes, but I would get up for my 2 a.m. shift.
A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discussed the slow demise of college radio, as college leaders, one after another, choose to sell their licenses “for much-needed cash”. The unlikely villain of this story is NPR: college stations apparently reincarnate as interchangeable purveyors of “Prairie Home Companion” and “Car Talk”.
No sooner had I finished the article than I looked up WESU to see whether it had met that fate.
The answer, so far as I can tell, is that WESU survives, but with a fraction of its former mojo.
WESU is the nation’s second-oldest college radio station, according to an excellent history page compiled by some curious station managers a few years ago.
It began as a “mischievous idea” spawned by two young denizens of Clark Hall, an ancient, rather cramped dormitory on campus with lighting that cast residents in a sickly pallor.
“They hooked a small transmitter up to a phonograph,” the history states. “In order to broadcast to the whole of Clark Hall, the two broke into Wesleyan University’s maintenance tunnels through the Clark Basement, and hooked the transmitter up to the water pipes. The old dormitory effectively became an antenna for their 2-4 hour broadcast day. The transmission range was small, the weak AM signal just barely escaping Clark. But the station quickly became more and more popular, and the two men met the demand by illicitly running wires to more and more sections of the maintenance tunnels.”
Though the students broke innumerable campus rules, WESU survived and prospered. By the mid-80s, when I enrolled, it was part of a patchwork of freewheeling, well-informed and surprisingly influential college stations across the country. Approach any major city and you could find one to the left of the dial.
Those were the college radio years. Many of the most enduring bands of the 1980s began as college-radio darlings and parlayed grassroots campus success into contracts with major labels and, very occasionally, significant mainstream success. REM is the obvious example. I could name a dozen other bands, but I’m not actually sure how many people outside my living room have heard of them. If rock critics drove sales, then SST Records would now be a household name and Husker Du, the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen would be rich men.
Many impassioned debates played out within the walls of WESU about vital issues of the day: Minneapolis vs. Athens.; the Huskers vs. the Replacements; SST vs. IRS. Had anyone figured out any of the lyrics on “Fables of the Reconstruction”? How many distortion pedals did J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. actually employ?
Those years were the peak of the college radio era. College stations were playing the best music on the radio. The bands knew and respected the college airwaves and sometimes actually came to campus to play.
Dinosaur Jr. performed at a Wesleyan fraternity one night. I did not think to count the distortion pedals.
Camper Van Beethoven played MOCON, the university’s spaceship-shaped, dyspepsia-inducing dining hall.
Malcolm McLaren came to campus to speak. So did Harlan Ellison — not a college radio figure exactly, but the closest literary equivalent.
I started at WESU in freshman year with a midday classical shift. Classical music was so anathema to most of my classmates that this prime-time slot was unclaimed. But my heart wasn’t in the music, and I grew inattentive. I once let a particularly quiet Debussy passage skip for several minutes before someone called in to complain.
The next year, my patience was rewarded. A friend and I were given a sixties show — at 2 in the morning. I think the idea was to test our resolve.
To offer an “alternative” sixties show presented something of a challenge. Sixties music was, at the time, the steady diet of the classic rock stations and increasingly edging out doo-wop on the oldies stations.
But those stations played, by our reckoning, the same 500-or-so songs over and over, never straying from the rather arbitrary but unchanging list of Perennial Favorites maintained in some vault deep within the bowels of ClearChannel Communications. Bob Dylan wrote lots of great songs, but who needs them when we’ve got “Like A Rolling Stone” cued up again?
Over the next few months, my friend and I spun hundreds of seldom-heard tunes: Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets, forgotten folk-rockers, great lost Kinks records. We opened each show with “Flying,” an odd little Beatles instrumental, and closed it with “End of a Holiday,” a stirring Fairport Convention acoustic number.
One night, we played “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do,” a gorgeous Led Zeppelin song that’s notable as perhaps the only Zep single that does not appear on an LP.
The next time we were in the studio, the station manager confronted us. He thought Led Zeppelin, surely the most overplayed band of the classic rock era, had no place in our show.
We disagreed: to play the one Led Zeppelin song most listeners could not was, to us, the epitome of alternative.
It proved an irreparable rift. And, though our show was gaining an audience (and was about to break into a coveted mid-evening slot), my friend and I bowed out of WESU that spring. The 60s show went on without us.
WESU eventually vacated Clark Hall. In 2005, the university ceded roughly half of the broadcast schedule to a nearby NPR affiliate in exchange for a share of that station’s fundraising dollars, according to the station history.
But nights and weekends, the eclectic spirit lives on.
While I was writing this post, I could have been listening to The Cosmic Eye with Commander Aleon (“Dedicated to Lightworkers worldwide with Ashtar Command news, messages from off-planet, spaceship reports and ambient meditation music”). Tune in every Sunday at 11:30 a.m., between Gospel Express and Big Trucks and Heavy Equipment with Rosco on the Radio.