Student radio still makes waves

Radio as an artform may not have the ubiquity it once did, but the airwaves are still full of great programming, from NPR to Swarthmore’s own WSRN, or Worldwide Swarthmore Radio Network, which has broadcast out of Parrish since the sixties. Started by engineers, the student-run station is host to thousands of vinyls and CDs and broadcasts its signal as far as West Philadelphia. Its eighty or so student DJs therefore have access to a nearly limitless library of obscure music — plus everything the internet has to offer — and their shows, which are a combination theme shows and talk, are interesting and weird in the tradition of college radio across the US. Think “Tune in and drop out,” for those who merely fantasize about going full hippy.

WSRN’s student-DJs do their utmost to keep their shows fresh, coming up with themes that can give focus to a one or two hour program. Jonah Schwartz ‘15, a junior who has been broadcasting with WSRN since his freshmen year, has run three different programs: “Not This” played music which fell into “anti-themes” such as “not made in America,” or “not under five minutes,” whereas “Electric Current” played only electro, and his latest project, “Mix It Up,” plays only covers and remixes. Schwartz finds most of this music online, and not in WSRN’s extensive record-bins, but there are DJs who will just throw on something that catches their eye around the studio. Caleb Cochrane ‘15, whose “Blue’s Tuesday” educated both its DJ and listeners about the world of blues, would selectively work through record bins to fuel his program, beginning with artists whose names start with “A” and progressing weekly through the alphabet.

WSRN is also host to a recording studio, which is still used, notably by the NOISE Collective, a Chester based youth rap group. Legend has it that in the nineties, this studio was host to a vinyl-only record label called “Pottery Records.” According to Trip Lenahan ‘15, who, along with Ariel Swyer ‘14, is the current manager of WSRN, the story goes that this label pressed a records for John Darnielle, the lead singer of indie-rockers The Mountain Goats. In the early 200s, a manager found an unlabeled cassette in the studio and identified it as a Mountain Goats track; however, he could not identify the song itself. He contacted Darnielle’s manager, and was told only to burn the cassette.

Instead, relates Lenahan, the WSRN manager — who was “a pretty big Mountain Goats fan” — “stomps on the tape, burns it, but not before learning all of the words, all of the chords.” It’s this near-obsessive love of music that’s made WSRN a unique place to spend time over the years, a refuge from mainstream culture into a world of lo-fi rock and funk you’d not hear elsewhere. But that doesn’t stop DJs from playing more conventional stuff, too.

Treasure Tinsley and Amanda Epstein, who co-run a program called “Butternut Squash” — so named when Tinsley began listing food off her Sharples plate at random — select a different theme each week, and bring their “very different tastes in music,” as Tinsley put it, to bear on that theme. They’ve done “music from the movies,” and “covers,” playing songs like “Till the End of Time” from Little Miss Sunshine, and “Baby, I Don’t Care,” a cover of Buddy Holly by Cee-Lo Green. Other notable programs include Axel Kodat’s “The Quadruple Axel,” named for the as-yet-uncompleted figure-skating trick, and Swyer and Lenahan’s own programs — though there are around twenty more.

With its long history and eclectic spread of DJs, one would hope that WSRN also has an appropriately large and devoted fan base. Generally, when DJs open their programs up to calls from the public, no one calls in, yet one man — known only as “John” (and not Darnielle) — has been for years WSRN’s biggest, if somewhat creepy, fan. Though Swyer thinks John gives “pretty good recommendations,” he can be hard to get off the phone, sometimes prompting anger from DJs. “‘Don’t be mean to John,’” is one of our main rules,” she said. However, Lenahan reports that John, perhaps incensed by mistreatment from various DJs, has in the past left “insane rambling voicemails” that resulted in calls to public safety. Either way, John — whoever he is — has been radio-silent for the past year. “I’ve been waiting for the call for the last two years,” Schwartz said. “I hope he’s not dead.”

Even with the absence of John, WSRN provides a place for DJs to connect with listeners across the world, potentially. “I’ll post a link [to WSRNfm.org, where shows livestream] on Facebook every night before a show,” Tinsley said. Yet while DJs look outward, alerting their Facebook friends of their programs, they also use WSRN as a place to build on-campus relations. Tinsley said that “Butternut Squash” provides “a fun time for me and Amanda to hang out. We can talk about anything, both on and off the air.” Indeed, Swyer hopes to bolster this communal aspect of WSRN in the coming year, hosting get-togethers in the large public space next to the studio. Tinsley wants to do a collaboration with Paces Cafe, which she runs, and Lenahan has plans to hang a giant banner out of the studio window, on Parrish 4.

Whether or not such plans come to fruition — and I hope they will — you can get your fill of student radio by tuning into 91.5, in your car or online at WSRNfm.org.

The WSRN Big Meeting is tonight at 8:00 in the WSRN studio on Parrish 4. Those who’d like to host a program or simply to learn more about WSRN  should walk from the 4th floor lounge towards Kohlberg.

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