WRBC — Where Radio Builds Community
Town and gown meet with comfortable frequency at the Bates radio station.
Story by Doug Hubley, photos by Phyllis Graber Jensen
Don’t be fooled by the tidy quarters of WRBC-FM, “Radio Bates College.” Before Reunion, in June, the walls were freshly painted in saturated tones of crimson (not quite garnet) and cool blue. Vanished were the bumper stickers, photos, and autographs testifying to the years of music that those walls have heard. Also gone was less evocative detritus, such as the used dishes that lived for weeks on a table last fall.
But the wild heart of college radio still pounds beneath the polite facade. In the best college radio tradition, WRBC bars no sounds from the airwaves and no community member — Bates or Lewiston-Auburn — from a slot in the schedule. And it’s prone to outbreaks of remarkable derring-do. It was one of Maine’s first radio stations to transmit over the World Wide Web, back in 1997. This past May, the Robinson Players and WRBC collaborated on the Maine radio premiere of Shakespeare’s King Lear (see sidebar).
For those who believe that crud and creativity go together, that places like WRBC lose soulfulness with each reduction in the bacteria count, there may be consolation in the fact that the station lives underground, beneath the eminently respectable Office of Career Services, at 31 Frye Street. After ducking in from the back yard, where the broadcast antenna is situated, one finds oneself in the lounge, a sort of Rec Room That Time Forgot, complete with slate laundry sink. Adjacent is the record library. Farther back there’s a tiny production studio and, of course, the broadcasting studio, with its many flickering gadgets. Colored pushpins on a world map mark spots as far-flung as Perth, St. Petersburg, and Valparaiso — places where Web listeners have heard and responded to the station.
So though WRBC’s stats are unspectacular — a 15-mile broadcast radius, a budget in the mid-$20,000s — it’s also true that when the time comes to name a poster child for great campus radio, this latest and best chapter in the 50-year history of radio at Bates is a strong contender, as its regular appearance on the Princeton Review’s rankings would suggest.
Programming is one reason. Content is neither imposed nor proscribed. “If a person wants to come in here and play one note on a guitar into a microphone for two hours, I might advise them not to,” says station manager Ari Goldmann ’03, of Lexington, Mass. “But I won’t stop them.”
Happily, WRBC deejays usually take a more layered approach to programming. Music is its real deal and comes in just about every genre you can think of. An A-to-Z list of the genres represented on WRBC would start with ambient, alternative Top 40, a cappella and avant-garde electronic, and end with soul, surf, “turntable-ism” and zydeco. You can turn on ‘RBC just about anytime and hear just about anything. That makes it a rare audio oasis in a medium increasingly ruled by the rigid formats and repetitious playlists.
If Webcasting marked one outward-looking innovation, the station’s 1991 decision to broadcast year-round, ’round the clock signaled another. Unable to hire summer staff because of budget constraints, the station looked beyond campus for a deep but previously untapped talent pool — the Twin Cities. Today, during the academic year, about a third of ‘RBC’s air time is in the hands of people from the community; in summer, that proportion doubles. Community deejays have included high school students, housewives, members of ethnic communities, and a handful of people whose musical expertise has spread the station’s reputation regionally and even nationally.
Welcoming the townies not only reversed previous station policy, it gave Bates one of the few bridges it had to Lewiston and Auburn early in the 1990s. When Tim Wright ’84 (himself raised in Lewiston, the son of Professor Albert Wright), was a student, the station went silent during the summer and the door was closed to outsiders year-round. “The thought seemed to be, ‘This radio station is for the people who pay tuition,'” recalls Wright, an ‘RBC veteran who now lives in Harpswell and is a morning deejay on WMGX in Portland. “People didn’t really trust outsiders to take care of stuff.”
WRBC today, says station publicist Josef Kijewski ’03 of Polson, Mont., “provides students here with a lot of contact with people from the community, which unfortunately is something that doesn’t happen all that much normally.” He adds, “It’s nice to see something that uses the resources of the College [in a way that says] we actively want people from the community to come here and do stuff. It changes the community’s view of Bates and vice versa.”
Campus and community staff are all volunteers. What attracts them is a wide-open approach to programming that only a non-commercial station — and not even every non-commercial station — can sustain. “It’s absolutely diverse,” says former programming director Tahsin Alam ’04 of Dhaka, Bangladesh. In fact, he says, “It’s all over the place, almost to the point where some people will squint and think, ‘What’s he playing?’ ” (True enough. The day before Thanksgiving, this listener tuned in for a roots music show called “The Cool, Cool River” and instead got schmaltzy holiday tunes and fervent religious pop.)
“But that’s our point, that’s our mission,” the programming director says. “We want to make sure everybody gets an exposure to as many diverse forms of music” as possible. Listeners get great music and no commercials and the deejays receive the rarest of opportunities in radio: to play music they care about and ratings be damned. Kristen O’Toole ’02 of Westwood, Mass., is an English major whose literary aspirations include doing the kind of music journalism popularized by such writers as Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh. Through her WRBC show, “Karma’s Payment Plan,” O’Toole pursues that tradition of sharing music she thinks is interesting and important. “Especially because a lot of the music I play doesn’t get a lot of mainstream attention,” she says, “it’s nice to know that I’m putting it out there.”
The community deejays who have had their shows for several years have built audiences and really mined their chosen musical niche. Don McCarthy’s Sunday jazz show, Michael Dixon’s blues, “Razor Ray” Beaudoin’s hardcore and metal, and Skip Mowry’s “Folk Beat” have all attracted loyal, knowledgeable adherents — well beyond these borders, in some cases. Mowry, an educator who lives in Auburn, not only spins discs but weaves connections among songs, artists, and folkloric traditions. “I know that I have pockets around the country that listen on the Internet,” he says. “I get feedback from people that work at record companies, from musicians who know that I’m playing their stuff, and people that I’ve met as I’ve attended festivals and gone to workshops.”
Like the free-form FM stations that flowered all too briefly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, campus radio is the proving ground for music that has everything except mainstream appeal. As rock band promoter-manager Ray Beaudoin explains, if new acts “don’t have enough spins and enough buzz at the college level, money isn’t allocated to go to the commercial level.” Such seminal alt-rock acts as U2 and R.E.M. found their first sizable audiences through campus radio, and that fertility of that segment has helped a little magazine called College Music Journal grow into a media empire.
Of course, as dedicated to nurturing the alternative rock industry as Bates may be, its first obligation is to students. If WRBC isn’t the vocational lab it would be at a school with a communications major, it still provides valuable career prep for people like the aspiring rock critic O’Toole or station manager Goldmann, who is majoring in religion but thinking about a music industry career. He credits his WRBC experience with qualifying him for an internship at a commercial station in the highly pressurized Boston market last summer.
“Without my experience at ‘RBC I never would have ended up being in radio as long as I have,” adds Tim Wright. Holding an audience between songs is a deceptively difficult art, he explains, and because of WRBC’s station’s lack of formula, “that was one of the things ‘RBC was really, really good for — the chance to experience being a person on the air, and not just being a deejay who plays 12 in a row.”
WRBC’s most important real-life lessons may lie in the realm of responsibility. “There are things that you just can’t slough off,” says Josef Kijewski. “You can’t be the tech director and not do your job, because then there won’t be a broadcast.”
What many of the student deejays value most about having an ‘RBC slot, though, is simply the chance to have a creative form of stress relief. The howling that was schtick for Wolfman Jack is the real item here. A show on WRBC is an ideal way to shake loose one’s preoccupations with grades and papers. “People can vent, they can emote, they can have epiphanies on the air,” explains Ari Goldmann.
“I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve had this conversation with: ÔIf it wasn’t for my radio show, I would go crazy,'” says Kijewski. “It’s definitely been a really good thing in my life, and I know people who have said it’s been absolutely instrumental in theirs.”
Between jarring musical transitions, unskilled patter, and the sheer cacophony of certain avant-garde techniques, self-expression doesn’t always equal accessible listening. “Freedom can be difficult for the consumer,” says Kijewski. Another problem with wide-open programming is more surprising: a certain lack of diversity. Out of 73 musical shows and 38 musical genres listed on the fall 2001 schedule, hip-hop was part of the mix on 29 shows, funk on 25, and techno-electronica on 20. Meanwhile only four shows featured any classical music and none was devoted solely to it.
All of which begs questions about listenership. In lieu of hard ratings — WRBC can’t afford to subscribe to a ratings service — the answers tend to come from the “half-full, half-empty” bin. The quantity of listener phone calls suggests that there’s a substantial listenership in the community at large, Goldmann and Mowry believe. On campus, though, it’s a different story, some members of the station feel.
This despite WRBC’s high-decibel presence at the annual activities fair and its sponsorship of concerts, dances, and benefits. It’s a double whammy: The relative poverty of Maine’s broadcast offerings may discourage many non-native Batesies from turning on the radio at all, while freewheeling WRBC, on the other hand, may be too radical for tender ears milkfed on commercial radio. “I didn’t even know we had a radio station here, let alone such a great one,” before a friend invited her to take part in a show, says O’Toole. “If you’re not looking for it, you don’t see it.”
However many radios are picking up WRBC at any given moment, though, there’s no question that for Bates as a whole, the station (to reclaim the phrase from Martha Stewart) is a good thing. In a sense, WRBC is literally broadcasting values the College holds dear. Free expression, for one, even if it occasionally results in such radio show titles as “Ants in Pants” and “The Booty Hour.” Inclusiveness, for another. “Bates is a place where you can do almost anything, and it’s really easy to get involved,” says Goldmann. “That’s one of the great things about Bates, and it’s seen in a nutshell in the station here.”
Inclusiveness that includes the off-campus community is important in these days of LA Excels, the Harward Center for Community Partnerships, and service-learning. “The primary attribute that the station brings to the College is that it really closes the gap,” Goldmann says. WRBC’s role in bridging the divide between campus and the Twin Cities is especially effective because it’s an organic response to a common interest — a dialogue in the universal language of music, if you will. “I see it as one of the original community-college partnerships,” says local deejay Michael Dixon, an Auburn psychologist.
The benefits to Bates of the town-gown bond at WRBC are obvious. For starters, the station gets the summer staff it needs to maintain non-stop operation. (“It’s almost always Eric McIntosh who ends up at the station from 2 a.m. to
8 a.m.,” says Alam. “He completely changes his sleep cycle.”) This summer, Dixon wears the hats of general manager, program director, and music director.
But how do the Twin Cities benefit from the station, beyond the intangible good of an alternative to commercial radio? Skip Mowry believes that WRBC’s strongest appeal to the community lies in the opportunities it gives locals to dip their toes in radio — a particular boon to young people. The station is also open to local cultural interests, although unlike community stations such as WMPG-FM, down the road at the University of Southern Maine, it doesn’t reach out to those interests. It only welcomes those who come to the door. So, since former state Sen. Georgette Berube discontinued her show on WRBC, the station no longer speaks to the Franco- American community here.
Overall, the marriage between town and gown at WRBC is pretty harmonious. (Though the community deejays — some of whom have worked at the station for nearly a decade — express occasional frustration about getting used to a new slate of student station leaders every couple of years.) The need for more money and better facilities are the two big issues the staff is united on (besides the importance of music). There’s no question that WRBC deserves better digs, even with the new paint, and hopes are high that the College will see fit to move it into the new campus center. That concept would perfectly fit the administration’s aspirations for the center as a sort of virtual piazza, a flash point for social and creative life at Bates.
In the end, though, it seems poetically apt that the poster child of campus radio should be bunkered in a basement. If a child’s idea of telecommunication is two cans and a piece of string, the young adult’s is two isolated souls linked by a piece of good music. That’s a link that radio makes best. And if its sense of intimacy is somewhat betrayed by the fact that the deejay is being intimate with many people at once (and there’s a word for that sort of behavior), the intimacy feels real nonetheless for every deejay and every listener.
For Ari Goldmann, ‘RBC’s best moments come during the station’s annual trivia contest, when the little lounge is packed with people and incoming calls keep the phone lines humming. Friends of Kristen O’Toole know that certain songs she plays are dedicated to them, whether she announces it or not.
“The station can be a lonely place,” says Skip Mowry. “A lot of the time, besides the person who has the show, there’s nobody else there.” He says, “Sometimes you sit there and you think, is anybody listening? And then you get this phone call that lets you know that people are listening.”
WRBC on the Web?
Famous for being the first Maine radio station on the Web in 1997, WRBC is becoming equally well-known for its balky audio server. The station hopes to be back on the Web soon at www.bates.edu/people/orgs/wrbc/.