When I scheduled my visit to North Central College’s radio station WONC-FM, I had no idea that a spring snow storm would hit. Undeterred, my husband I and embarked on a road trip through the Chicago suburbs on Monday, March 23rd to see the recently-named IBS College Radio Station of the Year.
Five inches of snow fell the night before and a light snow continued as we slowly made our way to Naperville, Illinois last Monday morning. We safely arrived at the station and parked just across the street from the house where WONC is located. Surprised by the plentiful parking, we soon learned that it was Spring Break, so things were quieter than usual on campus.
We were greeted by Station Manager Russell Tanzillo and Assistant Station Manager Sam Reiman. Tanzillo had just started a marathon 5-hour on-air shift, but was able to break away from the studio thanks to automation software (they use AudioVAULT and RCS Selector) that was able to play through a predetermined playlist. He darted back into the studio throughout our visit to do mic breaks. Although shifts are typically much shorter (2 to 3 hours), things are different over Spring Break when there are fewer students around.
As we peeked in to the studio, I immediately spotted a Leo Blais-crafted WONC sign perched atop some equipment. Tanzillo said that it had only been in the studio since January, after the sign was found in the basement. He told me that he remembered seeing the sign back was he was a freshman, so it’s been at the station for at least a few years.
I’ve been to a few radio stations that had their own houses (my trip to KDUP at University of Portland comes to mind) and there’s something pretty magical about a dedicated radio station dwelling. The main floor of WONC includes an entryway with a trophy case full of awards, a news room, the on-air studio, production studios, a classroom and a bathroom. Downstairs in the basement there’s an open space suitable for recording live bands (and it has an adjacent small room for an audio engineer to work) as well as a promotions closet. The top floor attic space has some desks for the promotions and underwriting departments as well as the General Manager’s office and the ever-important public file.
After my visit WONC’s long-time General Manager John Madormo (he’s been with the station since 1980) gave me some of the back story about the space. Over email he told me,
We moved into the house in 1996. The house was originally used by new faculty members who needed a place to stay while they looked for permanent housing. Then when the enrollment began to increase, it became a house for resident students. Right before we moved in, a group of football players lived there. When the college decided to relocate the station there, they finished the attic and the basement and turned them into offices; they converted the kitchen into a classroom, and bedrooms became studios. It was an amazing transformation.”
Although most DJs are playing digital music from the station’s automation program, signs of WONC’s physical music past (the FM station launched in 1968 and there were campus-only radio stations prior to that, dating back to 1949) are all over the station. Shelves in the on-air studio contain a library full of CDs featuring some of the heavily played songs from days gone by, including tracks by Stereolab and the Cure.
Steps away in Studio B, the surrounding walls house carts filled with even older music from the 1960s and 1970s (including Glen Campbell) and promotional spots. When I asked whether or not any of this material has been digitized, Tanzillo and Reiman then played an archived promo for me off of one of the studio computers. Old physical music continues in the back hallway, where an entire wall is covered with CDs from more recent years (I spotted Guster, OK Go, Beck, and even a Leo Blais CD). Although I didn’t see any vinyl, it was rumored to be in a locked closet in the basement.
The on-air studio still provides DJs with a wide range of equipment on which to play music, including carts, cassette decks, mini disk players, a DAT machine, CD players, and the computer. More equipment is also available in the production studios and there’s even a reel-to-reel machine that the General Manager shares with students during his production class. I asked if anyone still played tapes at the station and I was then shown a case containing a recent DAT from the Naperville Municipal Band and was told that their performances were delivered to the station every week on DAT!
Everyone working at WONC is required to be enrolled in the “Radio Performance” class at North Central College. Tanzillo told me that most of the students at the station are either majoring or minoring in broadcasting or communications. The total number of people participating at WONC tends to fluctuate across the year (the school operates on a trimester system) with between 45 to 65 students, according to Tanzillo. Everyone is required to do at least 4 hours of on-air work each week in order to ensure that all of the shifts are covered by live DJs 24 hours a day.
WONC broadcasts with 1500 watts of power and Tanzillo told me that there’s a potential audience of more than 4 million listeners. He marveled that during winter he’s been able to tune in as far away as the Sears Tower in Chicago. In addition to the terrestrial signal, it also airs over iHeartRadio, available to a national audience. The station has a pre-professional feel to it, with many DJs and hosts aspiring to careers in radio. Tanzillo already works part-time at Chicago commercial top 40 radio station WBBM-FM doing board op and promotions work. He started as an intern there two and half years ago and told me that after he graduates this June he hopes to get an on-air radio job somewhere.
The shift that I observed was in the station’s typical “pure rock” format. During those shows, DJs play through a pre-set playlist from the station’s digital music library, which is determined a week prior by the Program Director. While we were listening we heard a broad mix of sounds, including metal, 21 Pilots, Modest Mouse, Matt and Kim, the Smiths, the Cranberries, and Incubus. DJs do have the freedom to play 4 songs an hour of their own choosing, plus they can take requests. As we chatted with Tanzillo he got a few calls, with one listener requesting that he play Grizzly Bear. He commented that many of the “hard core” listeners know the WONC library really well.
During their shows, DJs have to play 3 songs every hour from the station’s collection of current releases (typically 12 a month). As far as other rules, DJs need to do at least two mic breaks per hour, although Tanzillo said that he tries to do breaks after every 3 songs. Tanzillo told me that the CDs at the station can be used as a back-up, in case something goes wrong with the computer system. There’s also a 1 hour emergency CD that contains a mix of music.
There are also some specialty music shows, which are run a bit differently. Tanzillo told me, “As far as specialty shows go, each host gets a open format playlist and they are required to have the music they are playing already with them. We have a few hosts who play the music off of their laptops, some add music into audio vault. We do occasionally play music off old CD’s but very rarely. We are almost 100% audio vault now.”
Some of the specialty shows include Sunday Standards (music from the 1920s to 1950s), a Christian rock show, a local music show called Local Chaos, a vintage rock show, some talk/music shows, and the long-time Sunday night metal show, Metal Oxide, which plays “Symphonic, Gothic, Folk, Heavy, Operatic, Black and Progressive metal from around the world.” In the past there was an electronic dance music show and a rap show as well. Many of the specialty shows air between midnight and 6am.
In addition to music programming, WONC also has a news department that crafts 5 minute newscasts that air at :55 after the hour. A large sports department with between 10 and 25 active members hosts a Sunday night sports talk show and broadcasts quite a few games, including football, baseball, softball, men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s soccer. Some alums have gone on to work at commercial radio stations, with several in Chicago.
Over the summer, WONC staffers runs radio camps for middle school and high school students (read about the 2015 Radio Camp on the North Central College website). Madormo told me over email that the camps have been taking place for 20 years and were “the brainchild” of the school’s former president Hal Wilde. Modormo said, “Hal was a marketing genius. He knew that aspiring young broadcasters would love an opportunity to see how a real radio station operates, and get a chance to go on-air. He was right.” Tanzillo’s first experience with radio was actually at a WONC camp back in 2005 when he was a middle school-aged kid! He told me over email that “The camp truly…opened up my eyes to the world of radio. It made me realize that it’s something I wouldn’t mind doing as a career.”
Besides the camps, WONC also helps out local high school stations by serving as mentors and regularly hosts tours of WONC for fellow stations as well as for Scout troops. It also hosts the annual John Drury Awards, a competition for high school radio stations. It’s the only college radio station that I’ve seen publicizing the opportunity to tour its facility.
A few weeks before my visit, WONC was named “Best College Radio Station” by the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System (IBS) at its annual conference in New York City. Tanzillo proudly showed off the collection of trophies that the station received in various categories and also told me a harrowing story of his trip to the ceremony. As six WONC staffers prepared to fly out to New York for IBS, a huge snowstorm hit and their flight was cancelled.
Although they considered not going, they ended up booking an Amtrak train, which ended up being a 22-hour journey from Chicago to New York. They arrived on a Friday night and Tanzillo said that it was “definitely an experience.” The awards were also gratifying because just days before the submission deadline all of their entries were deleted from a station computer. Luckily Reiman was able to recover the files just in time. In addition to its IBS accolades, WONC has also been awarded 20 Marconi College Radio Awards. Madormo told me, “We are tied with Marshall University for the most in the nation.”
Thanks so much to Russell Tanzillo and Sam Reiman for touring me around WONC and much gratitude to John Madormo for filling in more details for me over email. Also, I have to acknowledge my husband for braving the elements (and driving for more than an hour in the snow) so that I could fulfill my desire to see at least one radio station during our trip to Chicago! This is station tour #81 for me. I still need to report on two more Kentucky field trips and I have more station visits planned this spring. See my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and see all of my station field trips on Spinning Indie.