Radio Active

“You’re listening to Poptimism.” It’s just after 7 on a Monday night and Catie Gliwa TC ’11 is on the air. “Next up, MIA with ‘Bamboo Banga’ and, at risk of losing one of my three listeners, Miley Cyrus.” As the last song fades—“and I, I can’t wait to see you again”—Gliwa returns to the mic. “This is WYBC 1340 AM. You just heard Miley Cyrus with ‘See You Again.’ Horace, I hope you’re still listening.”

Horace is her boyfriend. Gliwa underestimated her listenership (after all, her mom always tunes in from Denver, and her co-editors at the Yale Daily News decided to play her show that night), but probably not by much. Although the Yale Broadcasting Company’s commercial, professionally-run FM station ranks among the top three in New Haven, its AM student counterpart is struggling to find a listener base even within Yale’s walls.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

During World War II, Yale’s closed-circuit station was the university’s primary news source. With the war came a paper shortage, then paper rationing, which made printing a daily newspaper difficult, if not unpatriotic. The “Oldest College Daily” suspended its production as part of the war effort, so Yale Radio stepped in; the station upped its programming until, under order from the Yale College dean, it was broadcasting continuously.

The wartime broadcasts coincided with the age of President Roosevelt’s fireside chats, an era when “people would just sit down with their radios,” Sean Owczarek SM ’11, incoming general manager of YBC, explains. Owczarek, whose shaggy curls often fall across his right eye, may be just the man to recapture WYBC’s once-sexy reputation. He speaks of radio—especially Brown Student Radio, the station of his childhood—with a reverence most reserve for deities. He explains that Brown’s legendary station, though broadcast two hundred miles from his home on Long Island, convinced him that radio was his destined medium.

And since arriving on campus, he has worked to spread his faith in airwaves. “The guy came in super-enthusiastic,” says current general manager Jordan Malter PC ’09. “Now everyone is feeding off that enthusiasm.” This zeal radiates from Owczarek as he describes the medium’s heyday—“the heart of radio” —with something like nostalgia, though neither he, nor even his parents, were alive at the time.

Ken Devoe SY ’69 contends that radio’s prime—both at Yale and beyond—lasted well beyond the war, despite the resumption of the YDN and the proliferation of household TVs during the 1950s. Now serving on the station’s Board of Governors, Devoe was a member of WYBC from 1967 until 1969 and worked in the radio industry for twenty years after his time at Yale. In the history he tells, Yale radio gained popularity within the larger New Haven community circa 1968, around the same time as the Summer of Love and the legendary Woodstock Music Festival. Music made up the bulk of programming by this time. “The music started to change,” explains Devoe. “The stuff you now know as classic rock—the stuff we liked—was cutting edge then. We started playing it on the FM and were essentially the only station playing it. The listenership outside Yale exploded.”
The popularity of Yale Radio’s music programming in the New Haven community and on campus brought money and fame to the station. As a result, other WYBC programming, especially the news department, flourished. “We did have a bit of a presence, staying on top of news and controversial issues,” remembers Devoe. The department covered news not only on campus but also across the country, interviewing guests at Master’s Teas as well as broadcasting live from the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. WYBC was one of few media outlets to broadcast live from the New Haven Green on May Day 1970, when thousands of city residents – students and citizens alike – converged to protest the trial of Bobby Seale and other members of the Black Panther movement. Through its live coverage of events like these demonstrations and the ensuing student protests, WYBC became a forum for countercultural expression, for dissent against both Yale University and the nation at large.

The zeitgeist of the ’60s remade radio and helped to keep it alive during the early ’70s. But as the Baby Boomers grew up and the national youth culture they had created began to dissipate, so the glory days of radio began to wane. Now, in a world of iTunes and podcasts, listening to music on the radio can feel obsolete. So obsolete, in fact, that radios are slowly being phased out. Malter himself admits that the overwhelming majority of Yalies most likely do not own radios.

Yet while WYBC flounders, many other college radio stations have remained incredibly successful. Owczarek’s beloved Brown Student Radio boasts a listenership of at least 4,000 per month, and even this figure, impressive by Yale Radio standards, could be an underestimate due to iTunes downloads that the station cannot track. Listenership is alluring. Campuses with thriving stations like Brown’s boast more DJs and more producers; some even have talk shows. “I have a lot of friends who do college radio who got started because the station was so popular at their school,” Gliwa explains.

She cites competitive application processes, like the one at the University of Chicago, where, according to its website, prospective jockeys must submit a twohour playlist showcasing “unique and interesting music that wouldn’t otherwise be heard on commercial radio outlets.” Once applicants make the cut, they fight for airtime. “One of my friends’ first shifts was 2 to 4 a.m. because they give the freshmen the ones no one else wants,” says Gliwa. That friend DJs at the University of Oregon, where radio programming is live 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even in the wee hours of Saturday morning, people call or instant message with requests, a phenomenon that rarely occurs at WYBC even during primetime.

Currently, the Yale station struggles not just for listeners but for members. Malter considers the low level of student interest one of the major problems plaguing the station. Many attribute declining membership to WYBC’s move from Hendrie Hall to an off-campus building at Temple and Crown Street in 2000. “It’s a couple of blocks’ walk, and I bet we lose a few for every block we are from campus,” Malter says, only half-kidding. The facility’s atmosphere may also deter students. The office, shared by both the FM and AM teams, feels decidedly corporate. Its big leather chairs and conference rooms are emphatically unlike a romanticized picture of a grungy college radio station, and WYBC is no longer “the place to hang out” that it was in Devoe’s days. Most members come in just before their shows and leave directly after. While Devoe’s closest friends are his colleagues from his WYBC days, today’s station lacks such a community; Gliwa notes that she only knows a couple of other DJs, both from connections outside of WYBC.

Broadcast restrictions may also intimidate prospective DJs. The Federal Communications Commission charges $5,000 for an expletive on the air, and a missed station ID at the top of the hour comes with a similarly hefty pricetag. The FCC generally doesn’t waste limited resources monitoring non-commercial college stations, but WYBC, thanks to its commercial FM branch, cannot slip through the cracks.
Since the commercial station is YBC’s sole source of revenue, its members are wary of doing anything that might cost them their broadcasting license and participate in a grueling training process geared to adhering to FCC regulations. Until recently, training took an entire semester. A newly revised five-week program is more in line with other schools’ requirements, but it is still a considerably more tedious and less hands-on experience. Both in form and in content, WYBC has drifted from the scrappy reputation of college radio – and also from the spirit that sustains it.

And without a strong membership base, it’s hard to generate a listener base. While the station currently has about 75 members and will probably add a few more after this training season, the numbers can be deceptive; many of these members don’t work regularly, making it difficult for WYBC to a fill its schedule with original programming. Although the station broadcasts 24 hours a day, it is only live from 6-11 p.m. during the school week, with a couple of other shows scattered at other times. An autocaster takes over unmanned shifts, but the machine’s pop-heavy playlist is “not the kind of music the campus would be interested in,” says Gliwa.

In an effort to woo and retain members, WYBC has sacrificed programming structure. “We might have a rock show next to a sports talk show, back to back with an electronic music show,” Malter explains.

Gliwa also decries the chaotic schedule. “It makes it impossible to casually listen to WYBC,” she says.

But a Yale radio revival may be drifting on the not-so-distant horizon. The answer, like all answers these days, will be Google-able. WYBC-X, an internet stream, is set to launch in January. The X-stream, which Devoe calls “the future of radio,” will take on the AM station’s role as an outlet for student broadcasting. Although the station currently simulcasts over the internet, the new stream will contain downloadable podcasts of archived shows.

“People will be able to listen on their iPhones,” says Malter. Or on their computers, iPods, or any other mp3 player.

The makeover might also render WYBC more appealing to would-be members. Unlike its AM or FM counterparts, the internet stream requires neither broadcast-quality radio equipment nor strict compliance with FCC mandates. “We can bend some of the rules,” says Owczarek with a sly grin.

These changes will make it possible to broadcast from places far from Temple and Crown. “It may allow us to set up on campus. Someone might even be able to broadcast from a dorm room,” says Malter. Such flexibility of location has proven valuable on other college campuses. The University of Oregon’s station, for instance, often streams live DJ sets from an amphitheater at the heart of campus, a popular place for students to hang out between classes. Just as broadcasting outside on a warm fall day gives Oregon’s station a sense of place, the X-stream would give WYBC the flexibility to inject its stations with the character they once had.

Even as Malter and Owczarek are encouraging a more casual college atmosphere at WYBC, they are using the X-stream launch to add elements that will make the station a bit more professional. They plan to streamline the schedule and institute more block programming. And although Yale Radio is already better equipped than most college stations, the shift to the internet will be coupled with an infrastructural overhaul. The WYBC board plans to purchase special effects machines and equipment that will allow entire bands to broadcast from the station.

The contours of the culture of radio that Malter and Owczarek hope to create at Yale are not yet clear. College radio, after all, has historically served as a platform for students to voice dissent. During Devoe’s time, radio was the voice of demonstrators on the Green, and even today, the University of Oregon’s station features more than a handful of shows with titles such as “Anarchy Hour” and “Left Out.”

But these days, Yale is not exactly a hub of civil disobedience. As Owczarek puts it, “there are no Black Panther trials going on.” And when controversy does arise, most students don’t turn to radio as their outlet. “They seem to feel that the YDN op-ed page works pretty well,” he says.

One way WYBC hopes to re-integrate itself into student culture is by rejuvenating its news department; the executive board is about to appoint a news director. In Owczarek’s opinion, radio news is unique among news sources. “We cover events live,” he says. He pinpoints this quality as one of the reasons WYBC’s sports coverage is still thriving. Although such success stems in part from individual broadcasters’ yen for sports radio, it also comes from what Owczarek calls the “immediacy” of something like a sports game. But a hockey match isn’t the only event best appreciated live. A Yale broadcaster could have captured Grant Park the night of November 4, or the 700 Yalies singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” early the next morning, in a way that no newspaper reporter could. And although television, too, provides a medium to cover such events, it requires far more expensive equipment. Radio, especially internet radio, is simple. Have tape recorder, will travel.

The enchanting quality of WYBC’s potential revival—part nostalgia for radio’s heyday, part anticipation of its future—draws people in. “With the internet, you are no longer limited to the power of the broadcaster,” Owczarek says. “Your listenership is the world”: the student studying abroad, the parent tuning in from Denver, and the young Owczarek picking up BSR from Long Island. Like many members of WYBC, Owczarek has an unwavering belief in radio, a belief that has survived even the post-internet age. He wants to enrapture, to cast a spell. As the station’s new slogan promises, he wants to “put the magic back in radio.”

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