Are you ready? Drum roll… It’s time for my 100th radio station field trip post. Eight years after my first radio station field trip, I’ve traveled to various pockets of the United States (covering 14 states, plus District of Columbia) and Ireland in order to feast my eyes on a wide range of radio stations, including high school, college, commercial, religious, pirate, community, low power FM, and even a pop-up radio station. For my 100th report, I ventured to Princeton University’s college radio station WPRB-FM.
I’d been wanting to see WPRB for awhile and was particularly focused on visiting during its 75th anniversary celebration so that I could see its historical exhibit. If you hurry, you may just have time to see it as well, as it is set to close in a few weeks, with its last day on Saturday, June 11, 2016. Special festivities are taking place that day, including live music and WPRB DJs spinning. This will also be a rare (and final) opportunity to view the exhibit on a weekend.
A bit off the beaten path, Princeton University is located in Princeton, New Jersey, which is about 40 miles from both New York City and Philadelphia. Since I started my East Coast trip in Manhattan, I opted to do a day trip to Princeton. WPRB’s Educational Advisor Michael Lupica met up with me at the Princeton train station on the morning of Friday, February 19, 2016.
The 75 Year History of Radio at Princeton
Our first stop was the WPRB History exhibit in the Seeley G. Mudd Library. “WPRB – A Haven for the Creative Impulse,” celebrates 75 years of radio at Princeton University and includes displays of a wide range of station artifacts. In addition to providing a historical timeline, the exhibit captures the culture of the station through its inclusion of albums, artwork, playlists, promotional items, fan letters (one from 1985 reads, “yours is by far the most interesting and varied station I can get on my radio”), studio notebooks, and even a massive old board. Take a look at the accompanying WPRB History website for more tidbits, including photos, DJ stories, and audio.
Campus radio at Princeton first began in a dorm room in 1940 and that station was called WPRU. Erik Barnouw, in his 1941 article “Radiator-Pipe Broadcasters,” characterized WPRU as “small but swanky,” and pointed out that, “Amid the severe modernity of this radio studio there is only one grotesque touch – a bed.” In a piece for the Nassau Literary Review from 1940, station founder Henry Grant Theis wrote enthusiastically about the power of radio, saying, “Radio is the modern medium of communication. In a surprisingly few years it has become the greatest molder of public opinion in the world today.” By 1955, the campus-only carrier current station was transformed into a full power commercially licensed FM station with call letters WPRB. According to WPRB, this was the “first commercial FM undergraduate radio station” in the United States. Over the years, the station has increased its power and added online streaming (in 1999). See the WPRB History website (more about that here) for details from every decade of the station’s existence.
After perusing the exhibit, we took a lunch break to see the town of Princeton and even got to pop in at the local record shop, Princeton Record Exchange, a regular haunt for WPRB staffers. As the afternoon approached, we headed over to WPRB.
Located in a dorm basement, WPRB occupies a healthy sized space, with room for several offices (including Lupica’s and a music office), the on-air studio, a hallway-like record library, production studios, a live music space, engineering room, and business office with cubicles, a conference table, and storage for promotional items like T-shirts and stickers.
WPRB is an interesting station as far as its governance, as it is a student-run college radio station whose license is held by an outside non-profit. Additionally, it’s one of a handful of FM college radio stations with a commercial license (others that I’ve visited include University of Illinois-related WPGU and Harvard’s WHRB).
WPRB boasts an impressive signal of 14,000 watts at 103.3 FM, reaching a potential terrestrial audience of millions of listeners in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Although the station is student-run, it also welcomes non-student DJs. Overall, WPRB’s format is quite varied, with classical music in the mornings and a wide array of genres throughout the day.
I stopped off at Lupica’s office to drop off my coat and bags and was impressed by the collage of ephemera on the walls and his collections of vintage items. A long-time DJ himself (there’s a mid-1990s WPRB studio shot of him on his wall), Lupica hosts “The Freeform Pathogen” on WPRB. His office is jammed with books (including “Guide to Old Radios” and a tome about the hip hop generation), music (“2001: A Space Odyssey” is over his door), a Mitt Romney mask, and a live houseplant. He started doing fill-ins and reviewing records at WPRB back in April 1992. Lupica recalled, “I took my FCC written test, handed it to the station manager, who looked it over, nodded a few times and then said: ‘Looks good. Hey, can you cover my show tonight? I want to go see Versus at CBGBs.'” He ended up getting his first weekly show that June and was on the air until mid-2000 (when he left for WFMU). Lupica returned in September, 2011 to work as the WPRB Educational Advisor (the station’s first).
Music at WPRB
We walked down the hall and greeted several WPRB volunteers who were in the music department office. The space had an unusual layout, with glass doors separating two halves of the office. On one side, DJ Joshua Becker was sitting on a couch working on a laptop, while music staff worked on the other side. Stacks of CDs were in piles on the floor, mail tubs full of music were stacked on a counter, and a turntable and CD player were available for previewing music. It was hard to take in all of the interesting items affixed to the walls, including posters, hand-written notes, coloring book pages, novelty lights, stickers, buttons, a dart board, a broken record, a flip flop, and an animal print (perhaps a rug or a costume).
Music Director Aida Garrido was going through the mail and told me that the station gets around 50 CDs a week. She said that maybe five to eight a week end up being added. The remainder are sold and some score a place on the station’s wall of shame. As far as other physical formats, the station gets maybe two or three vinyl records a week and perhaps three cassettes a month. Although there isn’t space in the studio for cassettes, they do get saved.
For the most part, DJs play CDs on their shows, although I happened to be there right before an all-vinyl week was starting. In preparation for that, they planned to disconnect all of the CD players in the studio. Music Director Olivia Bradley-Skill said that the “majority of people are really excited.”
Lupica added that it will be good as it will take some DJs “outside of their comfort zone,” especially since some DJs do play mostly digital music. As part of WPRB’s push to get DJs playing a variety of formats, there’s a new policy in place in which new incoming freshman DJs cannot play digital music during their first semester on the air. Bradley-Skill said that when she started that rule wasn’t in place and as a result she felt that people didn’t get as familiar with WPRB’s music library. Program Director Harrison Waldon acknowledged that the library can be “intimidating,” but that it can be “rewarding” to spend time using it. Garrido added that “the point of the library is to learn” and said that the reviews are there to help “make the library less intimidating.” She said that the all-vinyl week was planned in part to help get rid of what some see as “library apathy” at the station.
Garrido revealed that she’s been “preoccupied” with saving written DJ reviews on records, telling me that she wants to “preserve them properly,” which can be challenging with tape degenerating over the years on older reviews. We then wandered to the station’s music library, where I got to see some of those reviews, as well as a whole lot of music. One wall is covered with a unique mural for former WPRB DJ Dr. Cosmo. Completed after he died, the mural depicts a WPRB radio tower, Dr. Cosmo, and a rocket-like superhero flying towards a disco ball-esque planet.
Rolling library-style shelves house music across many genres, including classical, world, rock, jazz, blues, folk, and arcana. The “arcana” category started out because there was an avant classical show of that name at WPRB (read more about the history of that contemporary classical show here) and now it houses “the weirdest of the weird stuff,” according to one DJ. That includes John Cage, early electronic music, and some classical crossover, to name a few categories.
Live Music and WPRB Archives
It’s always hard for me to leave college radio music libraries, but we eventually made our way to the live music room. The photogenic space has clean white walls and dramatic colorful spattered paint on the inside of the gear closet. Stocked not only with audio equipment, but also instruments and speakers; the room had been quiet for the two months preceding my visit due to final exams. I was told that it comes in waves and that fifteen bands played at the station last summer.
Adjacent to the live music room is a studio that had one long shelf full of vintage reel-to-reel tapes that are in the process of being digitized. Lupica said that the reels contain a variety of “college radio detritus.” He pointed out a particularly exciting group of tapes from “The Woodstock Generation,” a WPRB radio documentary about Woodstock, featuring interviews that a Princeton undergraduate recorded in 1969 at Woodstock. Digitization has been a collaborative effort at WPRB and Lupica said, “everyone does a little.”
We also made our way to an auxiliary record library, which contained music that should only be played “occasionally” on WPRB. I had a 1990s flashback in that room, as I spotted music by the Meices, Ben Lee, REM, and Sonic Youth.
Blagga Blagga! Seeing the WPRB Studio
Finally, I found myself in the WPRB on-air studio. The large room has a window overlooking the entrance to the station and the DJ faces out of that window while working the board and talking on the microphone. Towards the back of the space there is a small couch, whose arm was patched together with duct tape. Above that there is a bulletin board and next to that is a file cabinet containing both the public file and the WPRB logs.
The back wall of the studio is outfitted with shelves of new music, identified with WPRB-specific acronyms like “OLD EMPH” and “NEW EMPH” (meaning “emphasis” and referring to records getting extra attention). I also noticed the mysterious word “blagga” on a few items, which piqued my interest. During my visit I got a vague explanation that “blagga” was just a “nonsense word,” so I followed up with Lupica later. He explained,
Blagga is a complicated story! It appears all over the place at WPRB, especially on loud/obnoxious records in the library. I’m not sure who started it, but the earliest LP I’ve found it scrawled on is either the Germs (GI) LP, or the first Flipper record. From there, almost any record with cover art of some sweaty/screaming human might easily earn a ‘Blagga blagga’ thought bubble rendered in crude Sharpie. At some point, it kind of took a life of its own and just became all-purpose WPRB slang. A friend of mine in SF actually registered blagga.com for her old food blog (now shuttered, but the domain is still active!) after she graduated from Princeton.”
Additionally, there were some great artifacts on the walls, including a WPRB sign crafted by Leo Blais, a cross-stitch sampler that reads “WPRB. Home is Where the Transmitter Is,” and hand-made gloves with WPRB emblazoned on them. DJ Misha was doing her “Slow Fade” show (see the playlist here) and I hung out with her in the room for a bit while she cued up music, read the WPRB Concert Calendar, back announced music and fielded phone calls. Music that she had pulled filled the space, including vinyl records and CDs. She played a mix of sounds, ranging from Syrian superstar Omar Souleyman to electronic music by Roska.
In addition to a computer, the studio has two turntables, three CD players, a broken cassette deck, DAT machine, and an instant-replay machine (for recorded announcements). Lupica told me “the DAT only serves as an intermediary device to allow DJs to interface personal devices like laptops with the board.”
As DJ Misha continued her show, I finally tore myself away from the studio in order to make my train back into Manhattan. After a full day immersed in the world of WPRB, I was fairly certain that I had plenty of material for my field trip post. In reflecting back over the whole day, Lupica’s words echoed in my head. He described the station as “a haven” at a “very conservative school” and told me that it has been a place for “misfits” and “creative weirdos” for years. A Spin magazine award that I spotted in the WPRB history exhibit perhaps says it all. The 1986 Spin Radio Award for Excellence in a Commercial College Station plaque reads, “WPRB Princeton New Jersey has managed to keep its balance in the battle between free-form and format.”
Huge thanks to Mike Lupica and everyone at WPRB for your generosity in showing me both the WPRB exhibit and the station. This is my 100th station tour report and there are more to come. See my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and see all of my station tour reports on Spinning Indie. 7/26/16 Update: Hear more about this epic tour and about my 100 radio station tours project on Episode #48 of the Radio Survivor Podcast.