When I traveled Washington, D.C. earlier this year, it was tricky scheduling visits to college radio stations, as it was right around Easter weekend and some students were away. For that reason, I was really happy to squeeze in a trip to see American University’s student-run radio station WVAU on Friday, April 3.
American University is located in Washington, D.C., but it’s a bit of a walk from the nearest subway stop, so I was happy to find out that a campus shuttle regularly picks up from the Metro station and has stops all over campus. After I arrived on campus, I ventured to the Mary Graydon Center, the home of WVAU. General Manager Hyunjin Park and Promotions Director Allen Nguyen met up with me and various other station staffers and DJs were in and out of the station during our chat.
The online-only station has around 100-120 student participants (WVAU is 100% students), with a 13-person executive board. Live programs run seven days a week from 8am to 2am. At the time of my visit, the station was silent during late night hours because WVAU’s automation system was broken. I was told that they were expecting a new computer, so it was hoped that automation could be brought back during the times when there was no live DJ in the studio.
During my visit, I popped into the on-air studio and was amazed by some of the decor, including an old studio board mounted on the wall, with another college radio staple (a random skull) perched on top of it.
WVAU is a music-oriented station (when I visited there weren’t any news or sports programs) and its schedule is built around program arcs that cluster certain types on music on certain days of the week. When I visited, the 5pm to midnight programming focused on hip hop, rap, and R&B (“Low End Theory”) on Monday nights, was geared towards punk music on Tuesday nights (“Punk Rock Pizza Parlor”), played shoegaze, experimental, and no wave sounds on Wednesday nights (“Perfect Needle”), shifted to rock on Thursday nights, and electronic music on Sunday nights.
A wide range of music gets played at WVAU and DJs are required to play at least four tracks per hour from a bin of new music that’s been added to the station. I was told that the WVAU Music Directors do around 50 music reviews each week. Park said, “We like to keep it diverse…we don’t try to stick to one [genre].” Both digital releases and physical releases get added to the WVAU library, including an occasional LP. In fact, a highlight of my visit was looking through a crate full of random LPs with Park and others from the station. We spotted gems from Village People, Chuck Berry, as well as a college radio favorites from Fugazi and Neutral Milk Hotel.
Although we had a great time chatting about the LPs, Park told me that not many DJs actually played vinyl on their shows. Nguyen explained that it’s “easier to people to plug in” to their computers or digital files, than to do a show using LPs or CDs. I was also interested to hear that WVAU has cassette-collecting DJs, but that they don’t tend to play them during their radio shows because of the lack of access to cassette players.
I’m always interested in learning more about a station’s history and tried to get some insight during my visit. Nguyen told me that he’d met someone who’d been at WVAU in the 1980s and after talking to that former DJ he said, “I feel like they were a lot more punk.” I didn’t find out too much more, although I spotted a yellowed newspaper clipping from 1988 on the studio wall that alluded to the days when the station could be heard over AM and cable FM in the dorms.
In addition to doing radio, WVAU also produces its own ‘zine called The Stream and at the time of my visit they were publishing them once a semester (see the Spring 2015 issue here). As part of the Student Media group at American University, WVAU shares a lobby with the campus television station ATV and the station works closely with other student media groups on the Student Media Board. When WVAU brings bands to the station to play for the “Live in the Hive” series, they will often play at the station or in ATV’s green room. Edited videos of some of these performances can be viewed on WVAU’s website and a compilation CD featuring these sessions was released last year.
The station is in a pretty central location since it’s the building that houses the University Center, including eateries, a dining center, lounges, an event space, computer and photo labs, a theater, and the School of Communication. As one walks by the station, it’s possible to peek into the studio through a window. Park said that it was like being in a “fishbowl.” The station is also across from an apiary, which is what inspired the live music series’ name “Live in the Hive.”
A number of WVAU participants have connections with the local music and radio scene, either through playing in bands or through internships at record labels, NPR, and SiriusXM. Because of this, WVAU has been able to do tours of a variety of stations and has been to events at NPR. As you might guess, some WVAUers have dreams of working in the music business.
It was nice to hear that people like to hang out at WVAU and I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were quite a few staffers milling about when I visited late in the afternoon on the Friday of a holiday weekend. A cork board is full of polaroid photos of WVAU DJs and a new couch, lamp, and carpet make for a welcoming space outside the studio. A chalkboard covers one wall and Station Manager Sean Carolan described it as “Democratization of Decoration,” since anyone can write or draw on it.
Thanks so much to everyone at WVAU for the great visit. This is my 90th station tour report. I still have a few more trips to write up, including stations in Portland (Oregon) and San Francisco. As always, I also have a bunch of station visits planned in the months to come. See my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and see all of my station field trips on Spinning Indie.
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