UNFAZED BY OCCASIONAL BRUSHES WITH SUCCESS, WZBC-FM STEERS TOWARD THE SINGULAR GOAL EMBODIED BY ITS BELLWETHER PROGRAM: NO COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL
BY SUZANNE KEATING
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.
One morning I arrive at the station and find Matt
"This is why people go insane," says Dornbush,
"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
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."
Indeed, underpinning WZBC's defiance, jocular dialogue,
"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."
WZBC 90.3 FM Newton-Boston | 2006