UNFAZED BY OCCASIONAL BRUSHES WITH SUCCESS, WZBC-FM STEERS TOWARD THE SINGULAR GOAL EMBODIED BY ITS BELLWETHER PROGRAM: NO COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL

BY SUZANNE KEATING

Ten miles south of Chestnut Hill, on a freeway jammed with sluggish commuter traffic, I switch on the radio in my Geo Prizm. I hold the tuning dial to the left, and the digital reading settles at 90.3 FM, WZBC, the University's FCC-approved radio station, which broadcasts some of the strangest  sounds and insights heard in metropolitan Boston. I turn the  volume dial to the right, and an ethereal pulse begins to fill the  inside of my car. I do not know how to label this kind of music,  and I listen closely, searching for a way to describe it.  None comes...

Twenty minutes later I park my car in the office lot, dash over to McElroy Commons, and jostle through swarms of students toward a long hallway housing wholesome student activities: the college newspaper, the yearbook, the Environmental Action Center. At the end of the hall is Room 107-its door painted matte black-home of tunes the station's literature describes as "acid-jazz, hip-hop, and other rump-shaking musiques." The office inside is windowless: basement apartment circa 1975. Fake wood paneling is plastered with cannabis icons, Unabomber bumper stickers, concert posters, graffiti. Wires dangle from the ceiling. Cassettes are crammed in cardboard boxes jammed under desks. A seedy brown couch is covered with a montage of stains, old and new.

Ruling this alternative universe at the moment I arrive is Jay Moschella '00, the station's 20-year-old program director. Funky and disheveled in his black shoes, black jeans, black socks, and a white undershirt washed so thin it looks gray, Moschella eyes me coolly through thick-framed black glasses. He is second-in-command of the 24-hour-a-day shoestring operation. As we talk, I tell him this music sounds like mere noise. He smirks. "The first time I came across the station, I thought my radio was broken," he says. "It sounded just like bad static."

Static or no, WZBC pumps out 1,000 watts of music that claims the attention of 40,000 listeners a week, including a devout audience in Allston, Somerville, and Cambridge and a solid following at the city's muscular commercial rock stations. Indeed it is these stations-WBCN and WFNX-that serve as foils to WZBC. To hear devotees of the station talk, WZBC is everything those other, wildly successful, moneymaking enterprises are not: truly alternative, innovative, willing to take risks, in love with music, and poor.

College radio has long been an outpost for the aural adventurer. Tune into any college station from Amherst to Stanford, and you'll find a mix of reggae, ska, punk, disco, hip-hop, rock, and even wispy-sounding female singers lamenting lost (pick one) loves, youth, beauty, independence, hope. But you'll also hear plenty of Top 40, university-sanctioned classical shows, and syndicated features from National Public Radio. Take WBUR, Boston University's station, which serves a steady menu of public-radio staples-cerebral interview shows and BBC news broadcasts. At the other extreme is WBRU, a rock station overseen by a Brown University advisory board; staffed by students and paid professionals, the station is run like the medium-market commercial station it is, complete with Bud Lite ads, tightly choreographed sequencing, and preapproved playlists. The music is no less slick than that played on MTV-and nearly as vacuous.

Not so WZBC. The 25-year-old station's mainstay is underground rock, a blend of techno - punk - acid - jazz - pop - angry - garage - rock - lounge music that is a far cry from so-called alternative rock. At least that's the way 'ZBC aficionados describe it. "The good side is that you don't have to play anything that people want to really hear," says Bradley J., a former nonstudent volunteer DJ at 'ZBC, who now hosts WBCN's evening rock show. "Most people have bad taste. Commercial radio has to program according to that lowest common denominator. College radio doesn't have to pay any attention to that." The title of WZBC's evening programming is an example of just how assiduously the station ignores prevailing standards: "No Commercial Potential" features just that-experimental tunes that will never sell, including songs in Welsh, Arabic, and Japanese; spoken word pieces by William S. Burroughs; and music the students describe as  "electronic, avant-garde, international, noisy and just plain weird." "We shy away from real successes," Moschella says. "Sometimes something is underground and we play it here. The next week it's on all the stations. Then we cross it off our playlist."

WZBC traces its roots back to 1960, when WVBC - the Voice of Boston College - was founded. A carrier - current - system station, WVBC transmitted through the electrical wiring in dorms and other campus buildings, and reached only BC listeners. Thirteen years later the University applied for an FCC license to operate a nine-watt radio station at 90.3 on the FM dial. (A closed-circuit-system station - WVBC-AM - still exists, pumping out more traditional rock music to such campus locales as the Eagles Nest.) In 1974 the FM station increased capacity to its current 1,000 watts, but still featured the soft pop hits of the day. It wasn't until 1979 or 1980 (depending on whom you ask) that the students running WZBC jettisoned the music of James Taylor and his ilk for an ill-defined category of music - underground rock - and thus converted the station from radio for Boston College to a station for the wider world. "The [BC] students tuned out," says Moschella. "And the rest of the Greater Boston community tuned in." Now the students who run the station see WZBC as a venue for artists whose work would not otherwise be broadcast. "Sometimes a piece of music will have value for no reason other than you just can't hear it anywhere else," Moschella explains. "The stuff we play comes from the culture we live in. It's real. It has value."  

To understand the station's ethos, he says, you have to understand the yearning some undergraduates feel for the subterranean. DJs create for themselves a niche away from the mainstream and an outlet for their talents and energies on a campus that Carla McKeand '98 calls "Eddie Bauer Hell." A former WZBC station manager, McKeand says when she arrived on campus she immediately applied to transfer to NYU. "I didn't want to go to bars or football games. I knew from the start I was a freak in this place." Then she found WZBC and a coterie of students who shared her interests. "We fought with each other a lot, but we still love each other. We spent all our time together - at times too much time." McKeand now works  for the American Stock Exchange as a television production assistant.

Moschella believes the station also serves a valuable function in a medium with too few choices and a tendency toward sameness.  "How much NPR do you want? How much classic rock? Radio is in danger of becoming way too serious on one end and way too  stupid and commercial on the other." A few days later, on my daily commute once more, I decide to see if Moschella is right. I spin the tuner and ease back to listen.What will ZBC's young DJs have in store for me next? If history is a guide, just about anything. Music from Super Furry Animals, Secret Goldfish, Beatnik Filmstars, Loud Family, All Scars, and Arab Strap. Songs entitled "My Own Private  Patrick Swayze," "Gin & Platonic," "Take Another Tranquilizer,  George," and one that aptly sums up my confusion, "Who Will Save  Rock and Roll?"

Soon I am daydreaming. No problem. After all, this article has been in the works for about a dozen years. In the mid-1980s, a writer named Ben Birnbaum, who used to have my job, strolled down College Road and entered the WZBC studio, sniffing out a story. When he got there, the DJ crew was putting on a live soap opera that starred a student named Jane. Birnbaum was handed a script and told to play a part, and before he knew it was mouthing the words of an unpleasant old professor on the air live for all of Boston. At skit's end, he fled. Birnbaum never wrote that story, and he still seems a little shaken when he talks about it. Today he's my boss; the wrap-up has landed on me. "BC tended to be - at least then - a very buttoned-down place, and here was one little corner that was not just unbuttoned but stripped to the waist," Birnbaum says. "From a BCcommunity - relations perspective, it would be nice to have Ron Della Chiesa on WZBC doing his "Classics in the Morning" show. But it's also something to have this little corner of anarchy on this campus, this one place where anything can happen." Student Development Dean Robert Sherwood, whose office oversees student groups, including the 'ZBC crowd, prefers to think of the station as a place in which students learn responsibility and skills that may lead to professional careers in broadcasting. It is his staff who must listen to 'ZBC and respond, quickly, when a passing motorist calls in to complain that some bit of overheard music seems to violate half a dozen FCC regulations. But  while Sherwood himself prefers classical music or oldies, he is philosophical about 'ZBC's fare. "They walk away with awards every year," he says. "Someone thinks what they're playing is pretty good."

One morning I arrive at the station and find Matt 
Dornbush '99 hunched over the studio's grimy soundboard.  He has been playing music since just before dawn. It's now  after 9:00 a.m., but the studio - a dark eight-foot-square  cavern illuminated by a single desk lamp - is redolent with  the sounds, scents, and anomie of a dormitory at 3:00 in the morning.

"This is why people go insane," says Dornbush, 
gesturing to the lighting and a thick green carpet tacked to 
the studio wall. "This place makes people sick." An edgy 
economics major who sports a plaid shirt, long sideburns, and a bemused air, he is at the moment solely responsible  for BC's on-air content.

"I'm doing this one because I met this girl this weekend from Omaha," he announces into the microphone as he flicks a set of switches and dispatches a song by a band called Omaha over the airwaves. Ray Lynch '99, Dornbush's roommate, enters the studio loaded down with mail. He tosses The Wall Street Journal across the room, then slides a Victoria's Secret catalog onto the soundboard. "I think this is yours, man," he says.       

Soon the studio is filled to capacity. DJ Margaret Croke '00 has arrived early for her first solo FM broadcast. Lynch hangs around waiting for a chance to insult his roommate before an audience of 4,000. And Evan Dooley '00, the station's operations director, hovers just outside the studio's door. The phone rings. "I've got a listener," says Dornbush, flashing a smile as if to signal he is casual about being on the air and, at the moment, a minor celebrity. The caller informs Dornbush the station's been emitting dead air for three full minutes. Dornbush crashes the phone down, spins in his chair, and starts flipping more switches, spinning dials, and popping tapes. The room is silent, then Dornbush is again on the air. "Hope you enjoyed that," he says before setting another CD spinning.

Despite such minor mishaps, the station just celebrated its 25th year, a history of pushing, as the current program guide says, "Funk to the Folks: Rare grooves from the '60s to the present day." The frontiers of contemporary music have become the station's signature on the airwaves. The students pride themselves not only for their nonconformity, but also for their prescience. WZBC staffers say their predecessors gave airplay to such bands as REM, Joy Division, Prolax, and Chumbawamba long before they made any Rolling Stone list. "ZBC played REM as soon as their first single came out," recalls Peter Choyce, a Boston-based artist who has volunteered as a WZBC DJ for 10 years. "We played Chumbawamba for years. They finally scored a hit with a drinking song,  "Tubthumping," after a 12-year history of intense anarchist philosophy. Doesn't that tell you something about what matters in the music industry?" Magnus Johnstone, another nonstudent DJ, was Boston's first radio host to play hip-hop on the air.

In 1990 Rolling Stone named WZBC one of the nation's top 10 stations. Record companies bombard the students daily with requests to play their latest offerings. And every day the DJs serve up shows and sets that are tracked by the region's commercial stations. "We know this is true," Moschella says. "We say bad things about another radio station and they call within two minutes."

The history of WZBC also includes a quarter century as an on-air music laboratory for students. Kelly Milward '99, the station's promotions director, is a classically trained pianist who also plays the saxophone. While attending Memorial High School, in Billerica, Massachusetts, she played Chopin but danced to hip-hop and rap. "I thought I was well-rounded," she says. Then she discovered WZBC's library, became a DJ, and tapped into the collection for a show she hosts on Thursday evening. One night last fall, she spun an entire set of nothing but sax. "I played one jazz piece, one funk, one just four saxophones playing noise," she says. "Here you can really start to understand the versatility of music."

The station exacts long hours from its staff and requires 
students to temper their musical idealism with more workaday  concerns, such as making sure that the microphones always  have a DJ in front of them and that scheduled shows actually  air. Much of this responsibility falls to Benjamin Hill '99, the  general manager. Moschella might wear black, but Hill, a BC  sports junkie who majors in business and math, wears a blue  oxford with a button-down collar. It is his reliability and  seriousness of purpose that keeps the anything-goes funkiness 
that might otherwise consume WZBC in check, says Moschella.  And he credits Hill with helping to hold things together-after  winning over the rest of the staff. "When he showed up, some  people wouldn't welcome the 'other BC,' " he says. "There was  an us-vs.-them attitude, a real elitist attitude."

Hill's idea of the ideal radio program is a sports talk show - the longer the better. "If I'm in the car by myself I'm either listening to sports radio or nothing," he says, and he means it. He owns only a dozen CDs, and one of them is the soundtrack from Rocky. Moschella says that it takes a certain breed - students like Music Director John Neylon '01 - to run the creative side of WZBC. And it takes another to do what Ben Hill does: supervising schedules, recruiting new DJs, dispensing the $38,400 contribution the station received this year from the University and another $32,500 collected in a 1997 fund-raiser organized by Hill's predecessor, Carla McKeand. "We liberal arts types almost rode the station into the ground," Moschella says. "Ben's gone out of his way to make the station more accessible."       

 The radio station consumes more than 40 hours a week of Hill's time. He says it is time well spent. "I take offense at the idea that this is not an intellectual effort," he says. "This station is far more intellectual than stations that play the same Top 40 over and over again."

Indeed, underpinning WZBC's defiance, jocular dialogue, 
and slacker decor is a powerful sense of purpose. In addition 
to underground rock, the station airs "Caribbean Forum," a 
Saturday-evening music and current-events program that 
focuses on Caribbean politics, culture, human rights, and the 
local emigre community. Sunday afternoon listeners can check 
out "Baghdad Cafe," which features music, news, and i
nterviews from around the Arabic and Islamic worlds, Europe, 
and Africa. Peppered throughout the weekend are Celtic, 
early-rock, and  even country shows.

"This music is a kind of enrichment in the arts," says Dooley. "People have such limited exposure to the wide variety of music out there. You look at the music collection of anyone involved in the station and you are not going to find just one kind of music. You are going to find jazz, classical, alternative stuff. What we do here is much more broad and enriching."

Of course, none of this means that the high ideals always prevail. On a rainy morning, my mind as blank as the computer screen in front of me, I tune the discount-store boom box beside my desk. I am looking for inspiration and, a recent convert, I tune in to WZBC.

As the music fades Moschella banters with fellow DJ Scott Anderson '01, who uses the on-air name Howard Bell and who describes himself, accurately, as a fifth-year sophomore. The two play a phone message Moschella claims a friend left on his answering machine after being admitted into the psychiatric unit of a local hospital. Then Anderson explains why he isn't wearing a raincoat despite the deluge outside. His trench coat, he says, is at the dry cleaners, and he's too embarrassed to pick it up. He tells a long, graphic story about walking his dog, bagging its excrement, and slipping said bag into his pocket, only to forget about it until after he'd taken the coat to the cleaners. "I cannot ever go back there," he tells Greater Boston. "No way. Not ever."

Then the humor veers from the scatological to the merely sophomoric. "What's all this hype about Mark McGwire?" Anderson asks. "When I played whiffle ball I hit 80 to 90 home runs a season."

WZBC has reached a new low, and once again I trek down College Road to investigate. By the time I arrive the two DJs have wrapped up their show and are lounging in the office, which is now strewn with backpacks, sandwich wrappers, and cardboard cartons of cassette tapes. The pair are suddenly very boyish looking, and a bit sheepish. Moschella confesses that Anderson's canine tangent stunned him. "I literally could not think of a thing to say. That was just so very grotesque." He shrugs.

Hill darts through the office, hands in the air and shaking his head in dismay. Then he laughs. I am reminded of a comment Moschella made on my first visit, when he tried to explain the longevity of a station that is older than he is. "The reason we have so much free rein is nobody cares," he said. "And the reason nobody cares is because no one in authority can bear to listen very long."

 

 

 

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WZBC 90.3 FM Newton-Boston | 2006