Me in Studio A, Picture Credit: The Phoenix
When I was a Freshman in 2019, I had a radio show called "Dank Tunes with Derrick" that would air on Thursday nights. Then, the pandemic hit. After the pandemic, the radio station was gone. WSRN, Swarthmore College's radio station, has been around since the 1940s, and probably existed as an unlicensed club before then. Later on, sifting through club records, I uncovered hints that the station has gone through multiple hiatuses and reconstructions. So I suppose this was not the first time WSRN has shuttered, and not the first time that it has been revived (nor will it be the last). In this blog post, I will write a little bit about the extent of my involvement in the radio station in the last two years.
These fragments I have shored against my own ruins. (T.S.Eliot)
After my gap year, I came back to Swarthmore and was immediately recruited by Michael Wehar (a faculty member) to work with Zeus Borrego (the station manager) on rebooting the radio station. Having very little to do (and wanting to impress Mike), I jumped on board.
The station was in very rough shape when we got there. The furniture was moldy, almost none of the equipment worked, and it was generally unclear what we needed to do to get the station up and running again. The problem was physical: how do we get sound into our FM transmitter? After some weeks of dismantling the broken setup, rifling through cabinets, and rewiring, we arrived at the following setup:
It's a little scrappy, but it worked. The inputs and microphones go into a mixer go into a EAS box go into a computer we scrapped from the CS department, which fills in the dead air if there is no DJ and broadcasts to the internet, and finally outputs to our FM transmitter. We also had a couple speakers and a handheld radio for testing.
We used all our money to buy a new EAS box (federally mandated to stay licensed), and also I had a lot of time on my hands, so I rebuilt our broadcasting stack using open source software instead of using third party broadcasting apps. Specifically, LiquidSoap for automation (filling up dead air / scheduling audio) and Icecast2 as our stream server. I also made a new website using React, and bought a new domain name after a country music station poached our name during the hiatus. You can check our our website here
I had come to know the station fairly well as its newest architect, and to be frank I thought my involvement with the station would end here. It was another side project executed and added to the resume. But as it turns out, the station was not done with me.
In Fall 2022, Zeus graduated, so Mike approached me about being station manager. Somewhat reluctant to see all the work I did last semester go to waste, I decided to take over as station manager. We had sort of a closed beta situation during Spring '22, with maybe 8-9 DJs who would come into the studio occasionally and test out our setup. Having reached a stable place in our setup, I decided to open up signups to the entire student body.
And we got something like 20 new DJs, which amounted to 11 shows per week. It was around this time that I started to spend a lot of time around the studio training DJs, troubleshooting, and generally observing how people used the setup. I noticed three things:
- We had a truly prolific record collection that DJs wanted to play on air but couldn't.
- DJs complained that the space did not feel moody enough.
- There were not enough chairs.
Consequently, I salvaged a record player & CD player and hooked them up to our mixer, installed some LED lights and picked up some stools off of Craigslist.
I also visited some neighboring stations at Haverford College and Villanova University, which were also undergoing radio revivals. Somewhat amazingly, Haverford's station which rebooted around the same time as we did had 30+ shows and 4000 monthly listeners. Villanova's station was always fairly beefy, since some students studying media had coursework that involved the station.
Around this time I started to spend a lot of time around the station. I would go there often after class and just look at the grafitti scrawled on the walls. Or play a couple of records that probably haven't been touched in several decades. I sort of became sucked into the lore and aesthetic of college radio, without really knowing why I was spending so much time on it. As station manager, people would ask me all the time why I was so bent on bringing WSRN back to life, what function it serves today when you can send a soundbite or record an entire podcast on your phone and make it public without the aid of FM airwaves. And my honest answer is: I just think it's neat. To start with, there is the space itself, which, on a campus that is constantly being turned into glass and concrete, is a rare student-run facility where history is allowed to accumulates on the walls and in the shelves. Then, there is the strange feeling of tuning into another student's broadcast, catching some glimpse of their life that you might never had otherwise caught, knowing that (unless they recorded the episode) you catching that glimpse was a specific product of you being in the right place at the right time. Or maybe I had just spent too much time on it and was unwilling to back away now. Any of those explanations sufficed.
At this point, I started to get really tired of rushing into the studio at 8pm on a Friday to help another student troubleshoot the buggy program that I wrote. So my priority this semester was simplifying the broadcasting experience, improving the training, and finding a successor. It was Junior year, and I was starting to get busy.
So I finally bit the bullet and switched us to a third party software (AudioHijack) for broadcasting and mixing. I also managed to poach a Mac from the school newspaper, which was more user friendly than the Ubuntu machine we had hidden away in the computer room. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed to have to deprecate software I wrote myself (our recording service written in Python, and our Liquidsoap broadcasting service). But, badly written software that faded into obscurity once the author graduated was one of the reasons the station fell into hiatus to begin with. So I think switching to third party software is a win in the long term.
I also created training videos and some technical documentation for posterity.
These investments really paid off, since we had 19 shows that semester, and somewhere around 30 DJs. Maintaining the old, buggy system would have meant sacrificing most of my free time helping all the DJs put out fires.
Around this time, we also started to branch out into some wackier projects. For instance, we fixed up a smaller studio within the station so a music production group on campus could use it to record music. And Mike (our faculty advisor) became obsessed with digitizing some of the 16' records in the station, which were amongst the oldest audio artifacts at the college.
My biggest accomplishment that semester was finding a replacement - the current station manager, Hope Dworkin. Hope is only a sophomore, meaning they are also our hope (get it?) to carry the station into the future.
Fall 2023: Retirement
After Hope took over as station manager, the station sort of just ballooned, due in no small part to their prolific indie cred. We now have 30+ shows, and more than 50 DJs.
I still maintain the website and fix a few problems here and there, but the station pretty much runs itself now. This semester is my retirement from management, but for the first time in 4 years, I now have a radio show of my own, which I co-host with Hope. Our show, New Music Sundays, resolves another long standing problem we have ignored for some time: artist submissions. We get email submissions occasionally from local / rising artists, so once a week, Hope and I go through the backlog and play as many submitted tracks as we can. Being in the studio as a DJ and not a technician has made me want to go back and tweak parts of the broadcasting experience. But it's also the small things that we never nailed that stand out. For instance, stools are just not that comfortable to sit on for a whole hour. It's always a little chilly inside the studio. And the knobs on the mixer are just a little too fickle. If I could go back, I would have dogfooded our broadcasting setup much earlier by starting this show two or three semesters ago.
I wouldn't be surprised, one day, if WSRN goes on indefinite hiatus again, if another student comes upon the broadcasting stack that we have so painstakingly put together and decided to do away with it. There are also plans from the administration to "rethink the logistics of Parrish 4th", which is where our station is located. So perhaps in a couple years the station will become a laundry room. I am tempted to end with a cliched "but the spirit of WSRN will never die". But I know that isn't true. All things die, and WSRN has died many times over, whenever students leave, or records are lost, wires are severed and equipment tossed. But as Joyce reminds us, the Dead are all around us, shaping our present in invisible but deft hands. Part of the appeal of engaging with antiquity is seeing the way the past continues to shape the present and the future. And so part of the appeal of college radio, the generous upside of having spent several semesters and hundreds of hours co-creating WSRN, is something like communing with our past at our particular present.
And that, I think, is worth doing, even if it doesn't last forever.