The walls of the X, WYBC’s studio at 142 Temple St., are plastered with recent indie-rock tour posters and promotional flyers for the station’s live-music events — “the best aural sex you’ll ever have.” Charley Locke ’14 and Leland Whitehouse ’14 lean over the soundboard into their microphones as they broadcast their Wednesday night show, “Soundtrack to a Life.”
Each week, a guest on the show shares their life story through a playlist. Conversation with Locke and Whitehouse’s guest for the evening, Yale Farm Coordinator Jeremy Oldfield, is casual — it jumps from the music, to cemeteries, to a recounting of favorite “Portlandia” clips, to the art of pickling. Most of the time, the mics are off as the music plays on air, and the atmosphere is not that of a radio show at all — it’s just a group of friends hanging out. At some point near the end of the broadcast, Locke drops the F-bomb.
After a moment of discussion, she hovers over her mic and says, “For all 12 of our listeners, if you need an apology, you’re not going to get it.”
The objective of the 100-plus Yalies who sit at those microphones hour after hour, day after day is essentially to create content for content’s sake. Whether it’s a desire to expound on musical knowledge or develop a ridiculous theme — a show last year centered on constructing a playlist to listen to after bringing someone home from Wednesday night Toad’s — the prevailing mentality is good content first, audience second. Listenership is an added bonus.
Now, in the first two years following the departure from AM to online broadcasting, the station has established its identity as a free-form platform, one that is unencumbered by FCC regulations, the need to be pigeonholed into any specific genre or, for that matter, the pressure to reach a large audience. Members — students who have undergone a semester of extensive training — come into the studio to share something they’re passionate about or to spend time with the diverse but tightly knit community that has developed. The prevailing purpose of radio may be to reach a large audience, but WYBCX is redefining this model.
Founded in 1941, WYBC initially operated as an arm of the Yale Daily News, which provided the original call letters: WOCD, “Oldest College Daily.” At the time, it ran on a closed-circuit system, broadcasting exclusively to the Yale community. But the bond was short-lived — the station split from the YDN a few years later and adopted its current call letters, WYBC, Yale Broadcasting Company.
In 1957, the station switched to AM, allowing it to reach not only Yale, but also the greater New Haven community, and it continued to grow when it added an FM channel in 1959. This station, 94.3, still operates today under the WYBC call letters.
As its audience continued to grow, so did the focus of its DJs. Kevin McKeown ’69 was a member of the station when it served as the “social center for the counterculture” and its broadcasts featured a blend of rock and politics.
Like it is today, the camaraderie at the station, not just its link to the larger New Haven community, was important. “You could go down at the station 24 hours a day and there would be half a dozen people hanging out,” he says. “It was like having a coffeehouse on top of having a radio station.”
This progressive rock programming was popular at the station’s peak in the ’70s, but by the late ’80s the organization was in decline, both in student participation and in revenue. By 1994, the station had to join forces with Cox Radio through a joint sales agreement, and most of the operations were handed over to a professional staff. To give Yale students a platform, WYBC purchased a new AM station in 1998, but student interest and participation remained low.
Part of this lack of enthusiasm stemmed from the absence of a Yale listenership. As technology shifted to favor laptops and iPods, students stopped owning radios. The airwaves that had carried WYBC broadcasts for decades were no longer delivering them to their target audience.
In 2010, General Manager Sean Owczarek ’11 spearheaded the station’s move to The X, also know as WYBCX, Yale Radio’s new internet venue. As he developed the station, he encouraged efforts to build a larger music scene offline at Yale through live music events, like Anti-Fling, an alternative to Spring Fling. “Students, I think, stopped caring about radio well before the general curve,” he says. “There are so many better things to do than listen to radio, but there are some interesting things that you can do over the medium of radio and if you make that your broadcast, then people will be interested in interesting things.”
After the establishment of The X, membership at the station rose from approximately 30 students to around 120, hosting close to 60 shows. When I visited, these numbers were slightly lower because the station was in the process of inducting new members and electing a new board.
Allyson McCabe, who is teaching “Styles of Academic and Professional Prose,” a new course that focuses on writing for radio, recognizes the power of the Internet to shape and transform the medium.
“It’s very exciting, this idea of radio without the radio,” she says. “You don’t have to be [like], ‘Okay, 4:00 on Wednesday is when this show is going to come on this physical object called a radio and I have to be present to be a part of that.’”
Despite rising interest on the production side and increased access, listenership at WYBCX remains small — some shows attract two listeners, others 40 (these numbers do not account for podcast downloads which slightly expand the listener base).
Due to this small following, the Internet station is not independently financially viable. It’s supported by its affiliate FM station, 94.3, an R&B and oldies stations which typically ranks #1 in terms of listenership in New Haven and the surrounding areas, with 150,000 listeners tuned in at any given time. Though student on-air participation on WYBC-FM is limited, Yalies maintain strong ties to its DJs and take pride in the station’s success. “When you walk into Durfee’s and Michael Jackson is playing or soulful R&B is playing,” says 2010-11 General Manager Carl Chen ’13, “that’s us. You’re listening to us.”
Visiting the Temple Street offices, which house both The X and the FM studios, on a weekday afternoon offers a glimpse into the convergence of communities. The children of the FM DJs play in the common room alongside WYBC members sprawled out on the leather couches listening to music and studying.
Whitehouse once repurposed an old pool table as a coffee table for this seating area, but it was deemed unprofessional and replaced with something more corporate. His contribution remains in the room, but is pushed up against a wall, serving no real purpose other than to remind visitors that WYBC is, at its heart, a college station.
While Yale students can claim full responsibility for the successes of The X, the success of the FM station is due in large part to its director of operations, Juan Castillo. Castillo came to radio looking for a hobby as an antidote to his job in law enforcement working with New Haven gangs. Students at the station taught him to work the boards 25 years ago, and he has been there ever since.
Castillo values the symbiotic relationship with the students not only because it keeps him young, but also because he says, “I respect them, I like them. I believe in the way the organization is set up because I think that we need to have young people put in these positions more often.”
He credits the students with keeping the station and its host on the cutting edge, both musically and technologically — 94.3 was one of the first radio stations in the country to switch to Macs.
The flow of expertise between Castillo and the students goes both ways. As the most experienced DJ at the station, he plays an important advisory role. During my interview with Owczarek, when the conversation shifts to Castillo, he stops to address me by name, as if to make sure I’m truly paying attention.
“Okay, let me put it this way, Caroline,” he says. “He was my greatest mentor at Yale. Better than any professor I’ve ever had. I’ll leave it at that.”
The community at WYBC is not necessarily about the relationships between the hosts and their small audience of listeners, but that’s not to say that the station lacks a strong sense of community. Rather, the members of the station have formed strong bonds among themselves and a social scene reflective of their ethos which, they hope, is also open to the campus at large.
Though the station does not aim to be all things to all Yalies, Events Director Nina Wexelblatt ’14 is working to expand the scope of cultural activities and social gatherings hosted by the station. When she began as a freshman, she described WYBCX as “a community in flux.” She’s attempted to lay a foundation for connections between members, as well as between the station and the Yale community.
Last year, WYBC collaborated with the Yale Film Society to host a film series. This year, record-release listening parties have filled suites with students looking to engage in a musical dialogue.
As we’re discussing the events she’s planned in the past, Wexelblatt gets a phone call about this year’s Halloween party. She’s DJing the dance party portion of the night, and the “DIY, decide if it works later,” ethos she’s brought to her position is evident in her approach. “I don’t really know,” she says into the phone. “I’ve never done this before. Whatever works to plug things into speakers.”
The lack of precedent has been a challenge for Wexelblatt. “The hardest thing is gauging interest and making sure that people know that they’re welcome at these events. I’ve heard from some people — and I just don’t think this is true at all — but I’ve heard from some people that they think that radio is really insular.”
This seems to be a prevailing opinion of radio — the perceived insularity and aloofness — when, in fact, members bond over a medium, not a shared mindset or a desire to set themselves apart.
Thomas Rokholt ’14, office manager at the station, pushes back against this belief. “It’s just a lot of people who are breaking that mold in terms of appearances, in terms of opinions,” he says. “There’s no possible way they could be categorized and put in that mold of sort of, ‘let’s label everyone at the radio station a hipster and that way we won’t have to deal with them.’”
“The Radio House,” as it’s colloquially known, with its musty basement and sagging couches, may have in the past contributed to this somewhat unfavorable perception. 216 Dwight serves as the venue for WYBC’s live shows and biweekly dance parties, though currently only two of the six residents at the house are members of the station.
Olivia Scicolone ’15 had never attended a radio event at 216 prior to moving in. She picked the house for the living arrangements, viewing the shows as a sort of added bonus, the social equivalent of a wood-burning fireplace. This year, whenever there’s a show, she’ll go downstairs before going out. Sometimes it’s only for 15 minutes or so. Other nights she goes down the steps and realizes, “Oh, the music’s great, I’m really enjoying this. I’m here all night.”
As she gives me a tour of the house, we stop by the stairs to the basement. She tells me that they keep the door closed to keep the mildewy smell out of the house, but “sometimes it seeps in anyways”— an apt metaphor for the relationship between the residence and the venue beneath it.
Chen, his eyes crinkling with laugh lines behind the thick, clear frames of his glasses, tries to explain the mentality of people who frequent 216. “It’s kind of like, ya! Basements ya! Or like, backyards with fires in them — ya! You know, or weird shit on walls, ya! Some people are really into it, and some people are a little too posh for it.”
Although the purpose of the X was to pave the way for a more extensive Yale listenership, WYBCX has had more success in building a community off air. But for most members, the focal point of their radio experience is still what happens in the studio, surrounded by the poster-covered walls and shelves with color-coded CDs.
Chen hosted a dubstep and electronic show last year called “I Never Learnt to Care,” a riff off of a James Blake song. Each week, he would craft his show around a few new releases, matching the content to his mood.
“The desire is to not be an iPod [or] Pandora,” he says. “You want to add personality to it.”
He would email some friends beforehand to let them know he was going on air. And that, for the most part, would be his audience.
“I didn’t really care — ‘I never learnt to care’ — how many people tuned in,” he says.
It’s more fitting to compare his show to a collection of journals, kept mostly for his own sake, to record moods, thoughts, and ideas rather than something created primarily for outside consumption.
For Caroline Lester ’14, audience plays a slightly larger role, but its size remains small. Her show is not a diary, but rather letters home. For the past three semesters, Lester and Evan Mullen ’14, have hosted “Gangster Time with Caroline and Evan.” Each week, their show centers on a random theme, usually chosen in the elevator on the way up to the studio — something like, “songs that won’t worsen Caroline’s migraine.” Sometimes, their theme involves their listeners and they field requests through texts, email, and the chat function on the radio’s website. Their peak number of listeners hovers around 40.
As much as the show is about Lester and Mullen hanging out to unwind on a Sunday night, it’s also family time for Lester, whose siblings and parents tune in from both coasts.
“Once a week my whole family would be listening and I could sorta talk to them and they would shoot me texts or emails during [the show],” she says. “It just made them feel not so far away.”
Afterwards, as she bikes home, Lester calls her siblings to recap the broadcast, exchange updates on their lives, and escape from the stress of a Sunday night. It’s this small but important listenership, and the chance to hang out with a friend, that brings Lester into the studio week after week, regardless of how many people are tuning in.
For Lester and the other hosts who frequent the station week after week, that bond is enough. Even though it’s radio, a medium that seems dependent on listenership, community at WYBCX is not defined by an audience — and they’re just fine with that.