The past decade hasn’t been kind to radio. The rise of digitized music — Spotify, Pandora and iTunes, among other innovators — has meant the decline of traditional FM radio across the country. And WYBC, Yale’s college radio station, has not been spared.
“Nobody at this school owns an FM radio,” said Nick Henriquez ’16, the office manager of WYBC, as we lounged on couches in the station’s Temple Street headquarters.
The station now broadcasts student shows exclusively online, and DJs struggle to push listenership into the double digits.
Yet, for decades, WYBC was a campus stalwart. It stayed in operation during the Second World War, when the majority of Yale’s undergraduate organizations all but shut down; in 1970, the station broadcast live from the New Haven Green as Jean Genet spoke to protesters and bombs exploded in Ingalls Rink during the Black Panther trials. Old photos of managing boards from the 1950s hang on the walls in the station’s Temple Street offices, showing suited men looking dour and serious. But today’s WYBC bears little resemblance to its former self. Its unofficial motto, as general manager Jeff Zhang ’16 told me, is: “Radio is dead — Long live radio.”
Zhang’s apparently contradictory statement encapsulates the state of WYBC’s existence on campus. Even as radio dies, WYBC lives on by finding new ways to make itself relevant. The radio-affiliated house at 216 Dwight St. is Yale’s only consistent venue for musical acts outside the traditional domains of a cappella and large ensembles, while Ante-Fling annually draws hundreds to Toad’s Place for a show featuring bands that few students would have otherwise encountered.
With its broadcasting, live events and social network, WYBC stays afloat. And despite changes, it still manages to offer a unique attitude, distinct from that of campus as a whole.
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But WYBC is no longer a radio station, at least not in the sense of broadcasting over the airwaves.
Although the station still owns its 94.3 FM frequency, students don’t use it to broadcast, instead streaming their shows over the Internet. Professional local DJs use the FM frequency, and 94.3 FM, “The Rhythm of the City,” is New Haven’s most popular radio station — but Yale students have almost nothing to do with its operation.
They do, however, profit from it. Because WYBC isn’t officially affiliated with the University, it receives no money from Yale. That, combined with the fact that the online-only student broadcasts make no money, means that the student side of the station, called WYBCx, must rely on advertising revenues generated by the professional side. The station also receives income from leasing its 1340 AM frequency to a talk station at Sacred Heart University.
WYBC has no on-campus location: instead, its strikingly clean headquarters — accessible only through a back entrance in an alley off Crown Street — occupy a suite in an office building across from the Omni Hotel. WYBCx shares the space and a small staff with the FM station, making the Temple Street headquarters one of the few places in the city where Yale students work alongside everyday New Haveners outside the confines of campus.
The station’s out-of-the-way location lends it something of a foreign air — it’s part of student life, but it’s not quite part of Yale.
“There are a lot of people who don’t even know that this place exists,” Henriquez told me.
But the station’s presence extends beyond its radio broadcasts and its physical location. A few of the station’s leaders — members of the Executive or “E”-Board, as it’s called — live in a house at 216 Dwight St., the basement of which often serves as venue for live shows on weekend nights. Zhang said the unofficial radio house has a unique status on campus.
“216 is one of the few places that I think really supports non-traditional [art forms],” he said. And despite its relatively remote location and eclectic lineups — which include bands from any background and any genre of music — the allure of 216 often extends beyond the radio crowd: Some nights, Henriquez said, a cappella groups arrive together to catch a show; other times, shows manage to attract students who typically fall outside Yale’s musical community.
For many students, shows at 216 provide their only substantive interactions with WYBC. Phoebe Petrovic ’18, who is involved with a narrative radio journalism organization on campus, said she has remained relatively distant from the station, and doesn’t typically listen to its online broadcasts. “The extent of my association with WYBC is going to a concert in the radio house basement,” she said.
Josh Feinzig ’16, whose band has played at 216, said the house fulfills a certain need on the Yale campus: a place that can support a late-night concert scene without the hindrances of quiet hours. Places like the Underbrook can host small concerts, he said, but they don’t have the capacity for full-on rock shows.
“216 serves the incredibly important purpose of being a place that could support a Yale music culture,” he said. “But it’s also a place where New Haven and Yale bleed into each other a bit. At no other Yale-affiliated party would there really be an opportunity for a New Haven band, not entirely comprised of Yale students, to play.”
While shows at 216 cater to a subset of Yale’s population and allow those fans to seek out the music they enjoy, WYBC also works to enhance its visibility. The station’s biggest event of the year is Ante-Fling, a free, annual concert held at Toad’s Place in early April. The station spends a large portion of its annual budget on the event: This year, they allocated $13,000 to book Silk Rhodes, Allies, Mistki and Giraffage, although cost overruns made the budget tally somewhat higher.
This year’s lineup was typical: four bands, all essentially unknown outside of certain music scenes. Compare that to this year’s coming Spring Fling, featuring the bona fide pop star Jessie J. But that contrast is what WYBC aims for, Zhang told me. Like 216 on a larger scale, Ante-Fling is meant to make WYBC’s unique culture available to the student body at large.
“The goal of Ante-Fling is a different goal from what Spring Fling has in mind,” he said. “Spring Fling brings a lot of established talent, and Ante-Fling is about bringing in rising talents, catching acts before they’re big.”
WYBC’s programming director Chris Cappello ’17, who had a major hand in planning this year’s Ante-Fling, agreed. He said WYBC searches for acts relevant to people who pay attention to the undergrad music scene.
“The point of it is really just to showcase the music that we’re into, to put together a bill that really reflects what WYBC is and what it’s about,” he explained.
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When I visited the station earlier this week to get a feel for its atmosphere, a three-man show called “Yeezus Rocks: There Arose Such a Clatter” occupied one of two broadcast studios — “The X” and “The Moon,” to those in the know. The show’s online description reads: “Literally the only place you’ll hear Kanye West alongside Titus Andronicus.” Later, I watched Chloe Lizotte ’16 run her show, which she described as “psychedelic,” but which sounded like some form of sparse electronic music I had never before encountered.
None of the station members I spoke to said the organization favors any form of music over any other. DJs play soul, garage rock, punk, metal and even pop hits, Henriquez said; they talk about folk music and follow Yale sports teams around the country to broadcast their games. And WYBC’s broadcasts of YSO concerts can attract close to a hundred listeners.
The station’s vast record collection spans the history of popular music, from 1950s swing and big band to new releases sent straight from record companies. Cappello even has a Sunday night show called “How The Turn Tables,” on which he plays exclusively vinyl records. The artists range from Bomb The Music Industry! to Neil Young to Sufjan Stevens, for whom he has a particular affection.
With the station boasting that kind of musical diversity, it’s nearly impossible to form a definitive stereotype of its members, who number around 200 and together host 67 shows with titles like “Fluorescent Adolescence,” an indie-pop show, or “Indie Eye for the Mainstream Guy,” which aims to “explore the Wilds of the Underground.”
Tim Follo ’16, WYBC’s station manager, said whatever stereotypes do exist about the station — for example, that it’s full of countercultural dissenters who sometimes host good parties — are likely an extrapolation from the E-Board and the larger, distinct Extended Board.
WYBC is the primary social world for those people, who number fewer than 20. They party with radio people and often live with them; they spend free time writing for the station’s zine or running their own shows. But Cappello said that most members are more casual in their affiliation with the station. Many students, he said, come into the Temple Street headquarters once a week to do their hour-long show and rarely attend WYBC social events, but love their role in the organization nonetheless.
But that’s not to say that a certain culture surrounding the station doesn’t exist.
“It’s not oppositional, and it’s not separatist,” Henriquez said of the station’s general attitude. “The word ‘alternative’ sounds stupid too, and ‘indie’ doesn’t make sense either. But it’s this weird sort of thing that’s certainly not the dominant Yale culture.”
Nearly all the members I spoke with noted that, until last year’s Ante-Fling, the event was called “Anti-Fling,” explicitly declaring its opposition to Spring Fling. The name change occurred last year in an “executive manner,” as Cappello put it, to make the station appear less hostile and more welcoming. Still, Henriquez said that some of WYBC’s old attitude of non-association with and antipathy towards “big Yale things” has lingered. He noted that athletes and those involved in Greek life tend not to join WYBC, and the station can’t honestly claim to represent a complete cross-section of Yale.
“It’s definitely a different culture than Yale at large,” he said.
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Still, a rapprochement between WYBC and Yale might be possible. Both Henriquez and Cappello mentioned plans to move the station’s headquarters somewhere more central to campus. It nearly happened last year, Henriquez said, but the property deal fell through. However, he remains hopeful that the relocation will occur before the current class of freshmen has graduated.
Not that its distance from campus has left WYBC totally isolated. The Board of Directors, which includes many alumni, oversees both the online-only and FM branches of the station, and Follo noted that the station’s bylaws mandate that undergraduates, as opposed to aspiring professional DJs, make up a certain proportion of any class of trainees. But it’s unlikely that WYBC will substantially increase its formal affiliation with Yale, at least in the near future. Henriquez suggested that the two organizations — one a non-profit university, one a for-profit radio station — might be functionally incompatible. Indeed, part of WYBC’s split with Yale in the late 1990s, when the station moved out of its longtime headquarters on Elm Street, stemmed from the difficulty of maintaining the organization under Yale’s umbrella.
Members of WYBC are optimistic about the organization’s future. Cappello said next year’s Ante-Fling budget will likely be larger than this year’s, and the station is currently in the process of remaking its website.
“In the coming years you’re going to see a lot of shows we’re organizing,” he said. “And not just in basements, but also in venues across the city. We have to maintain a good image, and we have to continue recruiting new members each year.” WYBC is currently on a positive track, he said, one that will allow the organization to continue carving out a niche in the Yale community. When the last-ever FM set rolls off the production line, WYBC hopes to still be around.
Radio is dead — long live radio.