Radio Days

WZBC marks its 25th anniversary of offering something new and unusual to Boston listening

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

On a clear night, listeners might pick up WZBC's signal as far away as Worcester or Woonsocket. But the influence of the small, 1,000-watt Boston College radio station, which is marking its 25th year at 90.3 on the FM radio dial, spreads far beyond its broadcast range.

Rolling Stone magazine once listed WZBC among the top 10 college radio stations in the country for its role as a launch pad for new and undiscovered rock bands. Well-known groups such as the Cars and REM have passed through the station's McElroy Commons studios before achieving stardom, and WZBC alumni have gone on to top jobs in the broadcasting industry. The station's non-rock programming, which ranges from country music to jazz, has won a faithful listenership in the community around Boston College.

General Manager Benjamin Hill '99, in the WZBC studios with disc jockey Jay Moschella '00. "There's always something new," Hill said. "You never know what's going to happen next." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Run entirely by students, but owned and funded by the University, WZBC will celebrate its first quarter-century with a weekend of events April 24-25. Station alumni will attend a reunion dinner at McElroy Commons that Friday, while an anniversary rock concert will be held the following night at two Cambridge nightclubs, the Middle East and TT the Bear's.

The anniversary will offer past and present DJs, sportscasters and producers a chance to salute the station that has grown substantially since its origins as a closed-circuit channel heard only in campus residence halls.

"WZBC is known around the world for its experimental programming. It's well known for taking chances and playing cool stuff," said Steven Riggs '85, assistant chief engineer for two of Boston's most popular music stations, WXKS and WJMN, who credits his current radio career to his student experience as WZBC technical director and jazz disc jockey.

"What makes the station unique is that it's run by students and that it has always been run with an eye toward whether people want to hear the music," said Riggs. "They're filling a need out in the community by playing music that can't be heard anywhere else."

Station lore is rich with stories of how REM used to play at the studio during the band's college-tour days in the early 1980s, and how Charles Laquidara and fellow WBCN disc jockeys broadcast over the WZBC frequency during a strike at WBCN in the late 1970s.

The station also has launched several distinguished careers. Station alumni include Herb Scannell '79, president of the Nickelodeon cable channel; popular St. Louis radio host Charles Brennan '82; Boston Red Sox Vice President for Broadcasting James Healey '75; and, from pre-FM days, William Wheatley '66, a vice president at NBC News, and Boston Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan '68.

What is now WZBC-FM grew out of the old WVBC, the "Voice of Boston College," an AM carrier-current station that broadcast music, sports and news on campus in the 1960s. "You could only pick it up on Upper Campus," said Associate Vice President for State and Community Relations Paul White '67, who has fond memories of his years as sports director at the tiny AM station.

The station became WZBC when it received an FM license in 1973, though an AM broadcast of music and community events announcements continues to be carried in McElroy Commons and on the Boston College cable system. Its broadcast range covers approximately 50 miles.

WZBC's current audience tends to be off-campus, say station observers. Its non-commercial mix of avant garde rock, ska, hip-hop, rap, Middle Eastern, heavy metal, reggae and Caribbean music, and neighborhood DJ-hosted folk and jazz programs cannot compete with large commercial stations for undergraduate listenership, they explain, but appeals to a wide range of listeners in the outside community.

"They're a lot better known off campus than they are on campus," said Associate Dean for Student Development Carole Hughes, a former longtime advisor to the station. "I happen to believe college radio is important. It's a great experience for the students. In a competitive market like Boston, it's wonderful that Boston College has a place and that we're offering something different."

"It's a calculated chaos around here," said Benjamin Hill '99, the station's general manager. "The chaos has added to the diversity of our music. We're open to everybody. Any style of music can be appreciated.

"There's always something new - you never know what's going to happen next. That's why we were ranked among the top 10 college stations in the country, and why the record labels would probably tell you we still are."

The station also carries BC football, basketball and hockey games, and several shows hosted by amateur disc jockeys from the local community. George Hauenstein, longtime host of a country music show airing Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., recently was nominated for a "DJ of the Year" award by readers of Bluegrass Now magazine.

One discerning fan is Buildings and Grounds Custodian Anthony Azul, who listens on headphones while cleaning Alumni Stadium on Sundays following football games.

"I don't like the [modern rock] music at all," Azul said, "but on the weekend, and I mean this, WZBC is the number one station in Boston, if you like country music. I will bet my paycheck against anyone that it can't be beat."

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