January 19, 2013
When I was planning my trip to Virginia, I had hoped that I would be able to see college radio station WXJM-FM, as I'd long been interested in its association with the MACROCK music festival. Now in its 20th year, the event was launched by WXJM in 1996 and at the time was called the Mid-Atlantic College Radio Conference (MACRoCk).
According to the MACKROCK website,
MACROCK began in Harrisonburg, VA in 1996 as an extension of James Madison University's student-run radio station, WXJM, founded in 1984. With college radio as its underlying foundation, the mission of the founders was to foster independent music and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture to the Mid-Atlantic region. Since the mid-2000s, MACROCK has branched off from James Madison University and has been independently run by a small group of dedicated volunteers who annually plan, fundraise, and coordinate the event in venues across downtown Harrisonburg. Our panel series serves as a conversational platform on which topics, spanning everything from gear nerd indulgences to the present socio-political atmosphere, are addressed amongst a diverse group of panelists. Our expo hosts independent record labels and radio stations, local artisans, zinesters, authors, and collectors."
Although MACROCK is run by a separate organization now, it's still part of the ethos at WXJM, with many station members participating in the grassroots festival (which is coming up on April 7 and 8). The station also regularly has a table at the event's label expo. Both WXJM and MACROCK have deep roots in the DIY music scene in Harrisonburg, which was a topic that we touched on when I visited with WXJM staffers on Thursday, March 16.
Located in a stand-alone building away from the main part of campus, WXJM is housed in the back of James Madison University's public radio station WMRA. WXJM has a separate entrance, but benefits from shared amenities and resources, including a visitor parking lot, restrooms down the hall, and a tech director who is on staff at WMRA. Since I made my way to Harrisonburg from Fredericksburg, a two-hour drive that took me through some mountain passes dotted with snow and the beautiful landscape of the Shenandoah National Park, it was an added bonus to have easy parking.
General Manager Sidney Yi and Publicity Director Mary Dobis met up with me to give me the full scoop on the station and long-time adviser (for 21 years!) Tom DuVal popped in briefly to introduce himself on his way out. I mentioned that I was in town for the College Radio: Then, Now, and Next symposium at University of Virginia, which Yi and Dobis hadn't heard about, but were quite interested in. Because it was on her radar at the last minute, I was especially pleased to see Yi at the event the following day.
Aware of my interest in college radio history, Yi and Dobis had pulled out old station photo albums and other items from WXJM's past and filled me in on some station lore. WXJM's 25th anniversary in October, 2015 was marked by celebrations, including a broadcast led by the original General Manager. He played the station's playlist from the first day of broadcasting in 1990, song for song. The first track was Jimi Hendrix's take on the "Star Spangled Banner."
WXJM is the result of student interest in a college radio station beginning in the 1980s. According to the WXJM website,
It all began way back in 1984, when a SGA ballot had an overwhelmingly positive response for a student-run radio station. WXJM's first General Manager, John Pezzulla, along with a small group of students formed WJMU, which would later morph into the WXJM we all know and love today.
It was decided the station would be broadcast on an FM signal instead of any other type of radio broadcast. The 88.7 frequency was selected after about a year long search in May 1987, the FCC application was submitted in 1988, and finally was approved in November 1989. To go along with our newfound FCC approval, WXJM moved into a new station in Anthony-Seegar Hall in 1990, and finally had its first broadcast, featuring original WXJM General Manager, John Pezzula, on October 1, 1990."
In the 2005-2006 school year, WXJM moved to its current location. The space includes an open lobby area, with the on-air studio, a production room, and a storage/record library space opening off of it. Down the hall are offices for station staffers as well as a studio for live performances with an attached production room. Live bands play at the station every Thursday night.
A big music town, Harrisonburg has an active scene comprised of club shows and house shows. Over email in advance of my visit, Yi told me, "WXJM has a strong connection with the local music scene. Harrisonburg loves DIY music, and many members of the station are involved with the local scene in some way. Members of the station book shows in the area, are in bands, and record at the recording studios here in Harrisonburg. The town is very supportive of the arts in every way, and [encourages] patronage of independent artists."
Dobis mentioned that a good number of genres are represented in the local scene, including occasional folk and jazz shows. Yi added that the town used to have more of a "punk, math rock" music scene, but in the past year or so there's been a "huge shift" and there is a greater variety, including more hip hop shows. WXJM also has a budget for hosting shows.
A show booker herself, Yi said that she only books hip hop shows, since she saw such a lack of representation in the past. She also makes a point to book artists who are people of color, queer or femme, for the same reason. Dobis said that the broader array of music shows is a nice shift and pointed out that it encourages students to see more types of music. WXJM focuses on music on independent labels and local artists and has traditionally aligned with the slogan, "Put something different in your ears."
Over email Yi added that, WXJM DJs "...are only allowed to play music from the past 6 years and the music must be from independent artists. We believe in supporting independent and DIY artists, and supporting new projects." Yi joked that she had pretty mainstream taste in the past, saying, "Before I got here, I was listening to Macklemore." Dobis added, "I was listening to a lot of Hendrix" and explained that the station has added to her experience.
Both Yi and Dobis revealed to me that they wished they'd joined WXJM earlier and admitted that it can be hard for students at the large public university (James Madison University has around 21,000 students) to find out about the station. It's about a 15 minute walk from the main part of campus and even though WXJM participates in a student organizations night, the event is arranged alphabetically, so many students don't make it to the WXJM table positioned all the way at the end. The station competes for members with 384 other student organizations on campus.
Even though she's running the station now, Yi had only joined WXJM the year before after meeting station members at house shows. She started out at WXJM doing the "Dame Theory" feminist talk show and then branched out becoming the station's publicist and eventually General Manager. She also hosts a freeform music show called "Glitterati." Dobis does publicity for the station now and hosts the indie-rock focused "Nutjobs Anonymous" show. She told me that she loves radio and that she's a third generation radio participant, following in the footsteps of her dad (who did ham radio) and her grandpa (who was on the air in Detroit).
Under the oversight of the school's Media Board, WXJM is student-run and one must be a student in order to participate. With an impressive roster of around 400 participants, the station has approximately 200 active members. After some challenges with improperly screened music, the station was asked to take its student shows off FM temporarily. The full schedule streams online, with live shows running from around 6am to 4am.
FM broadcasts are currently overtaken by Possum, the station's automated bluegrass music programming. Yi said that she hopes to have student shows broadcasting over FM by the end of the school year. In the interim, WXJM has been furiously working to screen all of the music that it is entering into its automation system in order to ensure that all of the tracks comply with FCC rules. When the station resumes live shows over FM, DJs will be required to play approved music that is in the station's automation system. DJs will still have the ability to get new music added to the system, under the condition that each track is listened to twice in order to check for obscene and indecent content.
When I asked Yi what makes WXJM different, she explained over email that, "WXJM exists in a middle-ground between the thriving DIY local music scene of Harrisonburg, and the stereotypical JMU college experience. WXJM gives students who feel out of place, a place to fully be themselves. We are supportive of each other, and we emphasize inclusion. Some students have told me that WXJM has changed their lives, and WXJM has definitely changed mine."
As I wrapped up my visit, Yi and Dobis handed me my own pair of WXJM socks, which is possibly the best college radio swag that I've had bequeathed to me. Thanks to everyone at WXJM for the great visit. This is my 126th radio station field trip report, with more to come from my Virginia and Philadelphia-area travels. My most recent field trips can be found on Radio Survivor and a full list of all my station tour reports is compiled on Spinning Indie.
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