DON'T TOUCH THAT DIAL

WESU 88.1 FM, A HISTORY

WORDS: HANNA BAHEDRY '14

The walls of WESU’s boardroom are plastered with a jumble of eclectic ephemera accumulated over its 75-year history, a pleasing assault on the senses that captures the restless spirit of a radio station that resists easy definition. Slightly stained t-shirts, scrawled-on concert posters from visiting musicians, a plaintive missive in stickers on the radiator (“THE MEETING IS TOO LONG… STOP TALKING”), filing cabinets covered in peeling irreverent bumper stickers, an empty Smirnoff ice bottle and a lava lamp—listed as $70 but not for sale—fill the cluttered but inviting space. As a board member at the station, I’ve spent many afternoons in the overheated room pretending to listen to my fellow board members while my eyes scour the walls, though it would probably take me another couple lifetimes to take mental inventory of everything. A beloved mainstay of the busy room is a scrawled dial on the whiteboard featuring a moveable arrow, a half-moon that reads “corporate” on one side and “renegade” on the other: the WESU-OMETER. As the board debates and discusses radio business in its weekly meetings, whoever is closest to the dial has the liberty to shift the arrow as they see fit: towards renegade if we’re sticking to our non-commercial values, towards corporate if we think we’re crossing a line we’ve set for ourselves as an alternative voice.

WESU’s unique position as one of the oldest noncommercial college radio stations in America is a guiding force in the station’s daily life. The station prides itself on being a source for those who aren’t finding what they’re looking for on commercial and mainstream radio stations, a place for the weird and the wild to find their people. Currently WESU centers itself around three pillars: alternative music, community involvement, and public affairs. However, WESU has undergone multiple transformations over its seventy-five years, shifting chimeralike between personas as it fought to stay alive through various social and economic upheavals at the university. The makeshift meter on the boardroom wall makes visible the tension that characterizes WESU’s various incarnations over the years, as movement towards greater freedom and diversity conflicts with the need to address financial realities. In many ways the WESU story is a microcosm of Wesleyan’s own story, an institution caught between its values and its pocketbook. Though the arrow has dipped into the corporate waters before, the station walks the walk in its commitment to the unique, the freeform, the alternative, and the miscellaneous, forever attune to making sure that the station doesn’t end up on the wrong side of the dial.

WESU was founded in 1939 by two bold (some might say renegade) students who hooked a transmitter up to the plumbing system in Clark Hall’s basement: “literally underground radio,” as current general manager Ben Michael described it. Students would attach their radio antennae to the radiator in order to tune in, and while the short and inconsistent broadcast was only accessible in Clark, its quickly growing popularity led its founders to run more wires throughout Wesleyan’s tunnels to meet listeners’ demand. Only in 1941 did the students approach the President in order to become officially recognized by Wesleyan, partly because the fraternities on High Street wanted access to the signal but weren’t on the university’s grid. The following anecdote drives home just how different a place Wesleyan was back in WESU’s infancy: “One of the major issues to confront WESU was a proposed ban which would have forbidden broadcasting hours after 7:30 pm. The suggestion had been made that evening broadcast violated a dormitory rule which forbade musical instruments (here including radio) from being played. Broadcasts might interfere with work or studies at such an hour.”

While WESU’s founding was about as DIY as you can get, the station was still a product of its context, making this one of the less radical eras in WESU history. During these early years, the student body was decidedly male and white, and WESU’s content reflected this; their most popular broadcasts were Wesleyan and high school football games. Early WESU had a more corporate bent, thanks to the advertising and underwriting that played an important part in its funding. Freeform radio was still a twinkle in the station’s eye; back then it operated using uncomplicated block programming: a few hours of classical, a few hours of jazz, a few of folk, neatly laid out and repeated over the week.

Unsurprisingly, the ‘60s and ‘70s were a period of great change for both Wesleyan and WESU, and the dial ticked closer to “Renegade.” During the 60s Wesleyan began to actively recruit students of color, and by the end of the decade women joined Wesleyan’s ranks as well (for the first time since 1909, when the school’s fledging experiment to admit women was squashed by angry alumni). WESU switched over from AM to FM in 1967, a move that increased its listenership and ended commercials on the station for good. It also began negotiations with the Board of Trustees to become an independent entity, which led to the creation of the Wesleyan Broadcaster’s Association (WBA), a student– run non-profit entity that controlled the station’s license and equipment.

The WBA allowed WESU to operate as an independent station between 1967 and 1990, leading to an era of burgeoning freedom for the station. Once independent, WESU began the transition to the community-oriented station we know it as today, incorporating community volunteers as a growing force within the station first as DJs and eventually as board members. As the station’s members grew more diverse, so did its tastes and interests. By the end of the ‘70s, Wesleyan had firmly established itself as the “enemy of the top 40,” a place to find underground and alternative music that didn’t get play on mainstream airwaves. The station styled itself in opposition to corporate values and expressed this, most notably, by igniting the 1980 boycott of Arista Records.

Like most record companies, Arista had traditionally provided free copies of its new music to stations that could give them airplay, but after it announced that it would now be charging hundreds of dollars for the service for non-commercial stations, WESU led the march to boycott the playing of any and all Arista artists on their airwaves. Other college stations soon followed suit, and though Arista threatened its boycotters that calls to action were illegal on air, scaring most of them out of it, eventually they reversed their policy. This small but satisfying win against mighty corporate forces had WESU sacrificing large swaths of its library for almost a year in order to honor its commitment to its non-commercial mission.

As the station moved into the ‘80s and ‘90s, the dial crept deeper into the renegade side—almost, in the end, to the point of its own destruction. This was the era of the reign of the freeform, and the station began to get much looser. By 1988, WESU had completely abandoned block programming in favor of freeform, a style of broadcasting which is exactly what it sounds like: instead of playing one genre for several hours, a DJ has an hour or two to spin whatever they’d like. Shows began proliferating madly as student participation grew, and show names and descriptions got progressively weirder and more abstract. A quick random sampling of show names and descriptions from program guides of this time yields the following: “If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother,” “50-Foot Beaver,” “Student Grant and the Sesame Street Hour,” “Moist Slacks,” “Swearing Postman’s Zoo,” “Glue Snuff Party, “Ren and Stimpy are Dead (Hallucinations are better than TV),” “Stuff I 16 Like,” “Ass Meets Thigh,” “Valley of the Dope Beats,” “19 Jams in a Row,” and the emotive “AAARRRGGGHHH!!!” In 1991, Youthful undergrad Lisa Dombrowski even had a show of her own; the description asked its audience, “Why get punched when you can get fully blasted?” (As a ’91 baby, I’m hoping I was somehow conceived to this hot mess.)

At the same time, money and organizational issues were plaguing the station, eventually leading to the dissolving of the WBA and a period of lawlessness. WESU’s leadership had always been tricky and spotty; as a student-run organization, the four-year turnover meant that longterm projects had a way of falling through the cracks. At the same time, the WBA had been forced to borrow money to replace the faltering transmitter in 1986, and by 1990 the organization had collapsed under the weight of unrecoupable debt. However, the dysfunctional nature of the station’s leadership meant that by 1995, nobody at WESU even knew that it was technically operating illegally, and was owned by no one: truly renegade.

Business went on as usual until 2000, another transitional year for WESU, as the station moved from its original space in the Clark basement to its current location on Broad Street, above the bookstore. This meant the station was much farther from the heart of campus but closer to Middletown’s Main Street, allowing the space to feel more genuinely connected to the community. However, this decision was made by the university quickly and without input from the station members themselves, resulting in a fair amount of hurt feelings and confusion at the station. A huge amount of music was lost or damaged in the move, a blow from which the station still hasn’t recovered. However, the real showdown between the station and the administration came with the arrival of President Doug Bennett in 2003. The station—ownerless, disorganized, and broke— was approached by Bennett in order for the university to acquire their license, allowing them to operate legally once again as well as providing them with a source of much-needed cash flow. The station agreed to the buy-out on the condition that WESU, while owned by the university, could still operate independently. However, by 2004 President Bennett was already proposing a new business model, one that would devote 12 hours of airtime a day not to WESU DJs but to NPR broadcasts outsourced from local NPR affiliate WSHU. (Perhaps relevant here is the fact that Doug Bennett came to Wesleyan from his job as President of NPR.) His plan would generate big bucks, finally making the station economically viable; at the same time, such a move would drastically restrict airtime for station members, as well as jeopardize the involvement of community volunteers in the station, who had by now become an integral part of its mission and operation. Many students viewed the plan harshly as a corporate takeover, and the campuswide reaction was strong even from those who weren’t involved with WESU. Some saw it as just another part of Bennett’s problematic goals for the university, and the rallying cry to Free WESU contributed to boisterous sit-ins at his office.

In response, the general manager of the station at the time, Jesse Sommer ’05, and another WESU DJ, Lukas Snelling ’05, set to work writing an alternative proposal in the three days Bennett allotted them to figure something else out. The plan was called “The Future of WESU” and made some surprising concessions—namely, nixing the freeform model—in order to try and retain its airtime and community volunteers. Despite its thoroughness, the document was rejected by Bennett; his own plan was instated instead, dipping the dial dipped dangerously into the “Corporate” side.

The only thing both Bennett’s and Sommer’s plans had in common was the shared understanding that WESU needed a full-time 18 staff member, someone who could guide the station and take care of longterm projects that the four-year student turnover prohibited. WESU’s board unanimously selected Ben Michael, a volunteer who had grown up in Middletown and dedicated much of his time to serving the community, and with Michael at the helm the station began aggressive fundraising campaigns for the first time in its history. Slowly but surely, the station raised enough money over the next few years to start lessening the number of hours dedicated to NPR programming, opening up more slots for student and community DJs. In 2006, through negotiations with the university, community volunteers were once again allowed to serve as board members. Improbably, the dial swung its way back to the “Renegade” side: the station had weathered the corporate storm and come out the other side stronger than ever.

Currently, NPR only occupies the timeslot from 5am-12pm, not very desirable real estate, and a drastic improvement from Bennet’s original intentions. WESU has been steadily growing throughout this past decade, and in 2013 it was crowned “Best College Radio Station” by the Hartford Advocate’s Annual Reader’s Poll. Michael has been the steady hand at the wheel for the past decade, attuned to both very real financial needs and the centrality of the station’s heart to its purpose. He has accomplished the seemingly impossible task of making WESU economically stable without sacrificing its creative and radical ethos, even being called “the soul of 88.1 FM” at a recent alumni open house.

 The WESU of today balances its corporate needs and renegade wishes well; far out music and personalities still find their place on the air, even as the station mobilizes its listenership for ever-growing donations each semester. The station’s community presence continues to be one of its most valuable facets; shows like the Middletown Youth Radio Project get local kids into the station to share their thoughts and art with listeners across Connecticut. Now in its 75th year, a veritable senior citizen, WESU’s future is unclear. What is certain is that WESU isn’t about to settle into an easy routine anytime soon. Debates about the direction of WESU have remained central to the station no matter its iteration. Notes from a board meeting in 1998 give an example of this daily deliberation:

“A debate ensues over the ontology and genealogy of WESU. Rob thinks that WESU is not a Wesleyan radio station. For example, Derrick serves the Caribbean community— outside Wesleyan. By pre-empting his show with football games, we please football listeners but alienate Derrick’s listeners. Markie argues that WESU is more of a Wesleyan entity – it is undeniably part of Wesleyan. We need to accept that and deal with that. Now some people are talking about the philosophy of WESU shows. Do we want more acts that students like and know or do we want to expose people to new music that we believe in? There is no consensus and everyone is getting tired.”

University-centered or community-oriented, playing to the listener or challenging them with new music, following the money or striving for greater independence: these questions have defined WESU throughout its history, and there’s no easy solution to any of them. The arrow on the WESU-O-METER will never remain static as it tries to balance its “Corporate” and “Renegade” halves through a constantly changing landscape, but more often than not the station strives towards the right side of the dial, charting a renegade course as it “paddles up the mainstream.”