I arrived a bit early in the Minneapolis area when I was in town for the College Broadcasters Inc. conference in October and was very thrilled to see some historic college radio stations, including WMCN 91.7 FM at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
After checking into my hotel and picking up Mike Lupica from WPRB (it’s always fun to have another radio geek along for the ride), I got to campus on the evening of October 21 and met up with WMCN’s former summer General Manager Hope Johnson and Communication Manager Alex Edelman at the school’s Campus Center. Both are juniors at Macalester. The four of us then walked over to the dorm where WMCN is housed. It was the eve of fall break at Macalester, so things were pretty quiet as many students were preparing to leave town.
One of the biggest organizations at Macalester College, WMCN has around 150 DJs, which is even more impressive when you consider that the school has about 2,000 students total. The station also has a staff of 14 students, which is the biggest staff in recent years. Johnson pointed out that the station is “on the upswing.”
Live DJs, who do mostly one-hour shows, blanket the schedule from around 8am until 1 or 2am daily, with automation (which consists of archived shows right now) kicking in during the late night hours. During school breaks some DJs continue to broadcast and I was told that the schedule was pretty full last summer on weekdays between 8am and 5pm. It helped that there are a few paid positions at WMCN and that DJs from the nearby community also stepped up to cover shifts.
Located in the basement of a substance-free, quiet dorm (where it’s supposed to be quiet 24 hours a day), WMCN is still able to occasionally have live bands play in studio, but it needs to get permission first due to the quiet policy. The space contains an office (which must be below a kitchen, as we heard rattling noises overheard while we were chatting), large on-air studio, a record library, and a production room. Down the hall is the office for the campus newspaper.
WMCN’s Illustrious Past
According to a June, 1917 edition of The Wireless Age, students at Macalester formed a class in wireless telegraphy around that time in 1917. Along the long hallway that bisects the station space is a timeline of WMCN radio history, which stretches back to 1926, when a radio club was active on campus. It’s unclear if a station was built during that era, but the rise of campus-only carrier current radio stations in the 1940s led to the creation of what was originally referred to as MCBS (for the Macalester College Broadcasting System). It ultimately chose the call letters WBOM when it launched in the 1947-48 school year from the top floor of the library.
After its initial stint over carrier current, radio apparently lay dormant from 1955 to 1961 and then re-emerged as dorm-based radio station KMCL in 1961 (there’s a great photo of the station here). By the 1968-69 school year, the station changed its call letters to KMAC and switched its format to mostly rock music. Ultimately the station received an FCC license for FM, with WMCN-FM launching in 1979.
Johnson mentioned that alumni come back to do radio shows and they even had some who were celebrating their 50th college reunion stop by to reminisce about doing radio at Macalester. She explained that the radio stations have always been “a small, but active face on campus.”
College Radio at WMCN in 2015
When we got to the station a DJ was finishing up his show. Other than that, we had the station to ourselves. While it’s a mostly student radio station, there are a handful of DJs from the community. It’s been a recent goal to get more involved with the community outside of the school, in part by attracting more listeners. Some proposed programming changes over the summer were meant to add more consistency to the schedule.
Overall, though, WMCN considers itself to be a “freeform station,” according to Johnson. Edelman added that they don’t want DJs playing music that can be heard over the airwaves in the Twin Cities area already. Instead, they are “encouraging weird alternative programming,” as well as local music. The station has historically had a close relationship with the Minneapolis-area music scene and some rock band luminaries have even passed through the station as DJs and staff.
As we glanced around the back corners of the WMCN office, we spotted some old carts from decades ago. Edelman remarked that they do have some old station IDs from bands that emerged in the 1980s, including the Replacements and Husker Du. Bob Mould (of Husker Du and Sugar) attended Macalester College and members of the project Walt Mink were also students and were active at WMCN.
The station’s record library is also full of some historic gems, including 7″ records, LPs, and old station equipment. Johnson said that DJs don’t have access to the record library, but the goal is to get everything digitized and into the Automator system. CDs were digitized over the summer.
While wrapping up our visit, Edelman talked about his love for radio and shared that he’d tried to start a station at his high school. He’d heard about an old, unused system that was used to broadcast to cars in the school’s carpool lane and tried to take it over for use as a radio station. Although he held a few meetings, the station never came to fruition. Luckily he had WMCN waiting for him when he arrived at college.
Thanks so much to Hope Johnson and Alex Edelman for the tour of WMCN. This is my 95th station tour report. Coming up, I have one more tour recap to post from Portland and two from California. See my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and see all of my station field trips on Spinning Indie.