January 19, 2013
While in Virginia last month, I had the chance to visit nine different radio stations. My last stop on Saturday, March 18 before heading to the airport was to Williamsburg to see WCWM-FM at the College of William & Mary. I'd never been to colonial Williamsburg, so it was a treat to catch a glimpse of historic buildings as I made my way to campus.
Located in the basement of the school's Campus Center, WCWM's spacious digs were once home to a bowling alley. One of the first things that co-Station Managers Lizzie Fulham and Colin Morgan pointed out to me was an old electrical panel whose labels referenced bowling alley functions, including pin-setting.
I'd met Fulham and Morgan the day before at the College Radio: Then, Now, and Next symposium at University of Virginia, so we spent some time debriefing about the day. They were both energized by the event and told me that they planned to present what they had learned to other station members. A couple of presentations at the symposium (including one of mine) focused on college radio history, which was fortuitous for WCWM, as the station dates back to 1959 and has many historic items.
Fulham and Morgan shared various tidbits of station history, including that it used to be controlled by the faculty (until maybe the mid-1960s) and was originally piped into the dorms. At some point there was a "music revolution" and around the late 1980s or early 1990s, WCWM moved into its current basement home. In the past, news and sports were broadcast, including a Gerald Ford/Jimmy Carter debate that ran live, several seconds ahead of other stations.
As we talked history, they showed me a variety of vintage station documents and ephemera, including 'zines, a letter from a prisoner and playlists. Morgan actually works in the university's Special Collections, which has a collection of WCWM material that he has made scans of. Alumni have also been an important source of information and WCWM used to do an alumni newsletter that's chock full of details about the station's past, including both anecdotes and recordings. See the first issue (from late 2005) on the Internet Archive.
It's always fun when I get to peek behind locked doors, so it was a treat to get a glimpse at the contents of a back room containing 7" records that spanned many decades. WCWM has a huge record library, with an estimated 15,000 LPs lining the walls of a large common area. A long hallway which leads to the studios is covered with shelves full of CDs. The station is currently undertaking a project to catalog its music collection and as part of that, station volunteers have been assigned cubes of music to sort through.
There are around 60 DJs at WCWM on a campus of approximately 8,000 students and Fulham told me that most students are aware of the station. It was interesting for me to learn that the College of William & Mary is the second oldest college in America, having been chartered on February 8, 1693, by King William III and Queen Mary II of England. A public university today, the school has been supported by Virginia since 1906.
Broadcasting over 90.9 FM today, WCWM has a signal that reaches about 30 miles in a given direction. WCWM started out as a part-time classical station, but has morphed over the years and is now a student-run station that plays music from a wide variety of genres. Students and faculty members are able to volunteer at WCWM and according to the station's website,
...we now broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a programming lineup that seeks to encompass as many different themes, genres, and formats as possible. We broadcast with the intention of exposing listeners to a diverse selection underground and independent music, whether it be from up-and-coming artists or from older, forgotten favorites. Shows range from all-purpose variety to rap, international, folk, talk, psychedelic, soul, electronica, metal, experimental, shoegaze, the hybrid offspring of the aforementioned, and even some genres that haven't been officially recognized by The Man yet."
In addition to what WCWM does on-air, the station also has a recording studio, produces the glossy Vinyl Tap 'zine every semester and a puts on a big live concert event every year called WCWM Fest. The most recent event was in October, 2016 and the line-up included The Masaharu Effect, EDM Club, Talk to Plants, the Duskwhales, SOHHL and Frankie Cosmos.
It's always fun to hear station lore and also learn about famous alumni who have called a college radio station home. Among those who have spent time on the air at WCWM are comedian/former talk show host Jon Stewart, who was apparently into really weird jazz when he was a DJ. More recent graduate (class of 2014) Will Barnes (aka Will Toledo) of the band Car Seat Headrest was also a participant at WCWM. Fulham joked that he wrote a song about "pretentious radio club people," adding the caveat, "but it's a hit single!"
Fulham also shared that when she joined up with the station as a freshman, she did find it to be "scary," as she felt judged for liking more mainstream bands like Vampire Weekend. It's been part of her goal to help change the image of the station so that it feels more inviting. Along with that idea, DJs are encouraged to bring their friends along to WCWM so that they can help spread the word.
Additionally, WCWM tries to hold open houses every semester, luring new recruits with free pizza. Morgan explained that they are trying to build a social scene, saying, "I made my best friends here." He even lives in what he describes as "the radio house," where they also host various gatherings, including taco nights for new students.
Morgan explained that music discovery is still a really important goal of the station and he and Fulham shared that the current team of music directors, based on their own favorite genres, work to bridge the gap between "heavy metal bands that sound like a machine is coming" and more mainstream indie-rock like The Shins.
WCWM also gets out into the local community and has been collaborating with the DIY venue the Meridian on some projects. Additionally, the station is working on a compilation of campus music groups, with the title "The Other Williamsburg." Perhaps my favorite description of the musical ethos of the station is written on a WCWM flyer that reads, "Williamsburg live music. It's not all fifes and drums. WCWM 90.9 FM."
Thanks to Lizzie Fulham and Colin Morgan for the inspiring chat and tour of WCWM. This is my 127th radio station field trip report, with more to come from my East Coast and California travels. My most recent field trips are on Radio Survivor and a full list of all my station tour reports is on Spinning Indie.
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