At Beloit, streaming didn’t kill the radio star

Beloit College students rally around the freedom and creative spirit that WBCR 90.3 FM represents. In one form or another, Beloit voices and music tastes alike have been on the air for decades.

On Sunday evenings, when the other Round Table editors and I have cocooned ourselves inside of our office in Pearsons Hall to assemble another issue of Beloit’s weekly student newspaper, there’s nothing more soothing than the feeling of a bass-heavy track bumping from a few rooms away. It means that one of our neighbors in the WBCR office is also at work, and that between our two organizations, the third floor of Pearsons is a hub for carrying forward Beloit’s tradition of student-driven media. 

I’ve always loved tuning into WBCR (that’s 90.3 FM), if sometimes just to hear the voice of a friend who’s hosting their own show. But during the Fall 2019 semester, I noticed that the radio was becoming an even bigger presence on campus than it was when I arrived here in 2016. There was a glamorous new website and a blog highlighting student and alumni musicians; a meticulously planned music festival on the last day of classes; and, of course, new swag. To get in on some of this momentum, as well as for decoration inspo, I headed across the hall a few weeks ago and talked with some of WBCR’s current staff members.

WBCR staff Standing, left to right: Charlie Starenko'22, Bobby Musker'20, Hana Hassanpourgol'20, ... WBCR staff Standing, left to right: Charlie Starenko’22, Bobby Musker’20, Hana Hassanpourgol’20, Sophia Townsend’20 Kneeling, left to right: Lu Going’20, Sydney Ortiz’21
Credit: Zhengyue Li’20

“Okay, now it’s going to be good,” Lu Going’20 told me she thought, upon learning that Sophia Townsend’20 and Evan Shepard’21 were going to co-manage the station this academic year.

Although WBCR had been operating continuously in its current form for more than half a century, current staff agree that at the beginning of this school year, it was functional mostly in the sense that it was still on air. Sophia and Evan created new positions and a to-do list to grow the station’s online and on-campus presence. Their energy inspired Lu to get involved as Promotions Manager, running WBCR’s website and social media and designing new stickers.

Now, “I’m really bummed that I only started doing the radio this year,” Lu said. “I hope that future people that join the board are as passionate as we are about it.”

Hana Hassanpourgol’20 also became interested in working for the radio when she noticed Sophia’s dedication to it. She began by organizing CDs and records in the studio library (she’s a Virgo), and now she’s in charge of interviewing musicians for the new blog. Most importantly, “I try to bring the good vibes,” she told me.

Sophia arrived at Beloit in Fall 2016 with a mental “college checklist” that included hosting her own show on the campus radio, but “I never, ever expected that I would work for or manage the radio station,” she said. That freshman checklist show was called “Grumpy Jams,” and she joined the WBCR staff the following year. Looking back, “I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

The campus’s very first radio telegraph assembly was set up as a pet project by a physics professor in 1908, about a decade before radio’s popularity took off. In the century or so since, Beloit College radio has known many homes and names; it became WBCR in 1957, and moved to Pearsons Hall in 1985. For decades, it’s been a venue for hosts to share their favorite music. Chris Simer’79 told the editors of a 1994 history of the station, which can be read in the college archives, that “all you needed to be a DJ was an exhibitionist streak a mile long and the desire to inflict your musical tastes on your fellow Beloiters.”

Fred Burwell’86, Beloit’s archivist, is still in touch with friends he made by hosting shows on WBCR when he was a student here. “I used to imagine truck drivers passing through Beloit and discovering a cool, alternative station,” he told me recently.

“My favorite thing about Beloit is the student culture that’s been left by generations of students, and WBCR is where it’s really intact,” Sophia told me. She wants to focus on “bringing back a DIY mentality to Beloit,” and showing other students that “you can put on a really cool event that’s not totally school-sponsored,” like the WBCR Fests that she organized in December 2018 and 2019. She’d had a “counter-culture Folk ‘n’ Blues [Festival]” in mind, she said. At both events, WBCR handed out free hand-screen printed T-shirts featuring art by Sophia (Lu also contributed to the 2019 design).

The staff acknowledged that streaming services are changing how today’s college students discover and consume music, but none of them were worried about the station’s future. “How people interact with the campus is by having a show,” Sophia explained, “and how people connect with their parents—my parents loved listening to me on the radio.” She also pointed out that radio is a medium with room for evolution: “the station can be an event.”

As they prepare to hand off their station to a new generation of broadcasters, the seniors on the WBCR staff see potential for the radio everywhere. They all agree that their first goal is to become more involved with the community in the City of Beloit. A couple of off-campus community members already have shows, and a few members of the Beloit College faculty do as well; the staff would also like to start promoting small businesses in the area and getting air time in those shops. A zine is also in the works, and some shows covering local news and college sporting events that students would be able to apply to host each semester.

But for any other show, “all you have to do is apply, and we’ll say yes,” said Sophia. Lu said it was worth it, reminding me, “college radio is a really unique experience that you can have… once you leave college, you can’t just go out and get your own radio show.”

By: Clare Eigenbrode'20
February 20, 2020

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