The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

Teddy Hutchinson '99 and Alooma Givens '99 get it going during a Nyte Flyte show.
by John D. Hubbard

Tiffany Alvarado '00 was up "before the plows," headed for Drake Hall and her 7 a.m. WRCU slot. It was her first Colgate radio show and one of the station's first shows of the spring semester.

"I'm mixing in what I know -- classic rock -- with more alternative music," says Alvarado as Nirvana's Lithium goes out over the airwaves.

There isn't much time to talk. Changing CDs, watching the sound board, selecting upcoming cuts, charting songs played and following FCC regulations -- "This is WRCU, Hamilton, New York" -- ensure an accelerated pace.

"Okay, 40 minutes left," says Rachel Lutwick '97, who hosts "Live Estrogen," a show devoted entirely to female artists, with Jennifer Young '97. "It can be a little stressful to play music for two hours straight."

Even with the pace and anxious moments most of the DJs agree their shows are great fun to do. Even Rachel, especially Rachel, enjoys doing the show. "I'm working on a thesis, taking Virgil, all this torturous stuff. I need something fun."

WRCU has been a source of fun as well as serious broadcasting with a professional approach since its founding. According to A History of Colgate University 1819-1969 by professor of history emeritus Howard Williams '31, the "Radio Club of Colgate" was formed in 1913 by undergraduates who had built a "wireless apparatus" and wanted to study communications. The group, however, evolved into the Physical Society and there is no mention of ever broadcasting. Colgate also holds one of the earliest ham radio licenses, but it wasn't until the 1950s that a radio station -- WCU -- began to broadcast.

Jerry Eisenberg '58 remembers walking into East Hall as a freshman in 1954 and seeing a sign. "New radio station. Needs technical help. Soldering a plus." Eisen-berg found his way to the basement of Spear House and in a stripped room there met three seniors -- Bill Heurmann, Phil Hubert and Marvin Clinch -- surrounded by miscellaneous equipment that had been donated.

"We were interested in doing radio in a serious way," remembers Eisenberg, who has spent more than 35 years in communications and radio broadcasting and production. The group managed to put together the necessary equipment to send a carrier current transmission across campus via telephone lines.

The CD library is replenished.

What the station lacked in power was more than compensated for by the pioneering spirit that drove the staff. In addition to playing music, WCU went out in search of stories. They interviewed a hermit living off the land on Bonney Hill, covered the Utica vice trials and carried Sunday services live from area churches.

"The attitude of all of us was we wanted to know more about our surroundings. I was from New York City and I quickly realized there were two things I knew nothing about, Republicans and Presbyterians," says Eisenberg.

WCU continued to grow. Through an agreement with the Rural Radio Network, the station rebroadcast hourly news and classical music programming. In 1954 the first live remote of a Colgate football game was broadcast from New Haven. Two years later the station was on hand when Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign made a stop in Syracuse.

Closer to home, DJs provided the music for area high school record hops, and a sales force, under the direction of the irrepressible Ralston Russell '57, sold advertising time, cutting into the Maroon monopoly.

"There was an attempt, through the station, to bring the campus and town together." By 1958 the broadcast area had expanded to 10 miles in every direction. The station's call letters were officially changed to WRCU when Eisenberg met with three FCC commissioners in Washington, D.C. The NBC radio network later offered $10,000 for the rights but WRCU wouldn't budge.

"It was a whole new dimension to our educations," says Eisenberg of the undergraduate radio experience that grew into his life's work.

Seniors Jen Young and Rachel Lutwick are "Live Estrogen".

Continuing education
Kevin Reynolds '97 has devoted a good part of his Colgate life to WRCU. He is the station general manager and has been program director and produces WRCU's jazz shows. He also hosts his own weekly two-hour jazz show.

"I fill in a lot of holes," says Reynolds, who has taken the lead from Jon Dolan '96 and Moira Cannon '96 and been on hand as WRCU sets about recreating itself. Years ago the station moved from Spear House to another subterranean home in the basement of Dodge House. When Drake Hall opened in August 1994, WRCU left behind its history of cellars and moved into a first-floor suite of rooms just down the hall from the Residential Life headquarters.

WRCU is no longer underground but it remains alternative. Radio, of course, has changed over the years as surely as WRCU went from carrier current to AM and finally FM. The advent of punk rock provided the seismic shift that shook college stations. As the WRCU DJ handbook puts it, "College radio assumed a role as not only the harbinger of the new sound . . . but also as the self-conscious foil to the dinosaur -- big, dumb, and slow rotting large commercial stations."

Punk, new wave, no wave, rap, two-tone, ska and reggae were all part of the mix of that new sound and became collectively known as "alternative," the stuff of college radio stations, which exist, again according to the WRCU handbook, "as a way to get new music heard regularly."

Today, WRCU's programming is roughly 70 to 75 percent alternative, another 10 to 15 percent is devoted to urban music -- rap, hip-hop, reggae and dance hall (known at 90.1 as Nyte Flyte) -- with the remaining 10 to 20 percent of the air time filled by specialty shows featuring jazz, blues and classic rock.

The board of directors.

Reynolds feels WRCU has a "responsibility" to expose new bands and new types of music.

"We can't just go out and buy CDs. We really depend on music directors to get record labels to service us." Beyond mere economics, Reynolds believes there is an educational component in hearing the unknown and unexpected. "It's part of learning how to expand your mind. That's what we're all here for -- to open ourselves up to new ways of learning."

James Wohl '98 attests to the educational nature of hosting a WRCU show. A tenor sax man with the Colgate Jazz Band, Wohl says, "I've learned a lot about jazz. Many people have learned about music here just by listening to it during their shows."

Sandi Hemmerlein '97 has had a show on WRCU since she returned to campus from the London Study Group. "The rotations introduce me to a lot of new music," she says. The DJs are required to play nine songs -- rotations -- three in the "old emphasis" section and six from a list of new music, which is changed weekly by the music director. With the requirements out of the way, DJs are allowed a certain amount of leeway in what they play. Hemmerlein, who was strongly influenced by the London club scene, leans toward dance-oriented grooves and what has been labeled as "techno" or "trip hop" music. Says the handbook, "The two hours you have are a blank canvas and your job is to paint the picture using materials we give you."

Many of the DJs use the word "eclectic" to describe the shows they create. Perhaps no one splattered more colors early in the semester than James Woods '00. Gothic Voices, post chant, pre-western harmony, gives way to Merzbow ("It's my noise section") and then a bluegrass cut is followed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Ventures with their guitar-heavy '60's surf music.

Hilary Sizemore '00 takes a request.

The DJ Handbook once again: "What we want to do is keep things off-kilter and challenging, but still cool and listenable." Preprogrammed commercial radio WRCU is not. Catherine Sykes '99, along with Tom Holland '97, is the station's co-music director and spends a good deal of time on the phone with record companies. From DJ playlists Sykes is able to track how albums are being received, information she passes along to labels such as Sub Pop, Touch and Go, Matador, Lookout and even some of the majors.

"I like dealing with the smaller companies," says Sykes. "I like their music better and they are more receptive."

About 30 CDs a day come into WRCU and Sykes and Holland listen to them and write short critiques, which are available on computer for the DJs. The music directors also put together the rotations -- Sebahoh and Yo La Tengo are hot right now -- and discard the music they feel doesn't fit the WRCU format.

Another alternative
"Jazz is an alternative everyone can agree on," says senior Stephanie Williams and again Reynolds notes the educational role WRCU plays in exposing a mostly college audience to the genre. One of the art form's leading advocates is professor of English emeritus Bob Blackmore '41, whose weekly "Date With Jazz" began "tippin' on thru" the WRCU airwaves in 1961.

Students asked Blackmore, who had returned to Colgate from Life Magazine, to be their advisor. "I felt I had to know what went on at the station so I decided to do a jazz show." He has been keeping the weekly date ever since.

Anthony Gikonyo '97 plays mostly vinyl.

"Is there anything more demanding than having the FCC looking over your shoulder with the clock spinning as you try to organize?" asks Blackmore, who always stressed a professional approach for both broadcasters and station operators.

"Date With Jazz" (The title is borrowed from an Earl Hines tune, the theme music is Benny Colson's "Tippin' on Thru" and Blackmore has worn out three albums playing it) quite naturally carries the educational component. One Monday evening Blackmore played the same song 23 times. "The composer was Gershwin and the song was `I Got Rhythm,'" says Blackmore, who demonstrated how a score of artists used the chord structure to launch a wide variety of takes on the classic.

On other Mondays he has played the works of only Johnsons or recreated Duke Ellington's first American concert, which was sponsored by the KDRs and held in the Colgate Chapel on December 12, 1940.

Guests were a staple on the show, too, but none more unexpected than drummer J.R. Mitchell, who was driving down Rt. 20 when he heard Blackmore and decided to drop in to talk about the music they both love.

"Jazz isn't dead," says Blackmore, who put himself through Colgate with his trombone and today measures his record collection in tons, "but it is not in great shape."

WRCU does more than its share to revive the patient. Jazz shows are featured every night from 5 to 7, with other shows dotting the broadcast schedule at random times.

"Hey there, Hamilton. It's Hillary Sizemore and this is Ladies of the Night, a celebration of blues and jazz." Nina Simone opens the show with "I Put a Spell on You," and that's just what the singer did to Hillary, a first-year student who is sharing the music she loves ("Edith Piaf, Dinah Washington and who doesn't like Billie Holiday?") with friends and other listeners.

"Some friends called in and said, `You put us in such a great mood.' I've been told there is a potential listenership of a quarter million. It's nice to know you can reach at least three of them."

Jacob VanRyn '99, left, works a hoop game with Jeff Monty '99.

Voice of the Red Raiders
"This has to be the worst-officiated Division I men's basketball game I've ever seen." Jeff Monty is telling it like it is during the waning moments of Colgate's loss to Holy Cross in February. Whether it is courtside in Cottrell or above the ice at Starr Rink, Monty, a sophomore (and high school teammate of Adonal Foyle) brings WRCU listeners action and opinions.

Monty does play-by-play for hockey with commentator Brian Boyle '99. Jacob VanRyn '99 calls the hoops action while Monty provides the color.

"Working at the station has shown me what it's really like to do this type of thing on a day-to-day basis. There's a lot more to doing this than you hear over the airwaves. Travel arrangements, scheduling conflicts, technical difficulties -- things can snowball."

Away game broadcasts are transmitted over a phone line, which is converted to a radio signal at the station. As Monty explains, there is plenty of room for error but even failing to get the Navy game over the air is a learning experience.

WRCU is in the process of recharging its news department. Ten percent of a recent $50,000 grant for the station is earmarked for news ($10,000 is slotted for student leadership and the balance committed to station improvements, including technology and the CD library). GM Reynolds admits that efforts have been slow but points to "weekly comprehensive coverage," which he would like to see expanded to the daily schedule.

In the past WRCU subscribed to a news wire service but the cost strained the budget and the staff is now looking for a good service that would be available via the Internet.

One of the strengths of the station is opportunity. Rory Thomas put together a feature based on Cornel West's appearance last semester, and Reynolds is receptive to that type of potential. He is also aware of the power of WRCU's voice on campus. Public service annoucements are frequently heard and notices of Colgate events are a constant throughout the broadcast day.

"Radio really does reach out into the community," says assistant professor of the classics Drew Keller, who serves as WRCU's advisor along with associate professor of English Michael Coyle. "College radio plays a role on the dial. It gives voice to a variety of music and is a learning experience, both for listeners and DJs. This kind of radio does function in the unfamilar. At its best it should surprise, inform and entertain. That's no easy trick."

Catherine Sykes '99 updates her CD critiques.

Keller has had his own regular show in the past, and Coyle plays blues and jazz every Monday night. Trish Glazebrook, assistant professor of philosophy, has a late night show of world music, and Campus Safety officer Kevin Carter, another night owl, hosts Nyte Flyte from 1 to 3 a.m. Still, it is students who define the station and who make it run nearly around the clock.

WRCU is one of the largest student organizations on campus and among the most public. It has a tradition rooted in student entrepreneurship and a history driven by a sense of professionalism. Hardly static, the station seems to remake itself periodically and these days, with solid leadership and engaged staff, WRCU has grown "by leaps and bounds," in the words of professor Keller.

Tuning in to 90.1 can be an aural adventure. The range of music is challenging but also unique and unavailable anywhere else in Central New York. WRCU's personalty is multiple, changing, sometimes radically, every two hours.

WRCU FM 90.1 is in a good place as the first station in the '90s.