Music History Hidden in the Depths of Mac
Published: Sunday, November 11, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
The headquarters of WZBC has stickers—on the walls, on the furniture, on the CDs, and on the vinyls. There is a palpable sense of history at Boston College’s radio station, tucked away in the back hallways of McElroy Commons. Its black walls can barely be seen under layers and layers of cool chaos. Barely-heard-of bands from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s live on in this cozy enclave, which looks and feels more like an Allston apartment than an official radio station. It is the only place where a lot of these albums live on at all.
Each CD or vinyl has a sticker on it for DJ’s comments, making the collection itself an evolving forum for passive aggressive debates and enthusiastic discoveries from BC’s most passionate listeners. “It’s like 40 years of ‘ZBC’ showing you what to listen to,” said Lev Omelchenko, a member of the station and A&S ’15. No matter what your taste in music is, you will find an opinion on its best and worst works in the annals of WZBC.
WZBC started in 1973 and expanded further in 1974 when BC purchased its first large-scale transmitter and began broadcasting across the Boston area. But in its early stages, the station was not in the hands of students. Community members who had little to no affiliation with the school mostly controlled the programming, and the quality of programming suffered because of that.
“You’d have old people doing very weird things,” said Samantha Tilney, general manager and A&S ’13, with a laugh.
Yet the station has developed over the past few years into an almost purely student-run organization. The rate of student involvement has grown exponentially for the last decade or so, and Tilney noted the growing sense of community at the WZBC. “It’s a new student group at the station that really does get involved with other stuff at BC, not just the radio station.”
Both Tilney and Nick Benevenia, a member of the station’s board and A&S ’14, see the increase in student involvement and popularity of the station as reflective of larger music trends. The radio station’s vast collection of music allows students to limitlessly explore, and coming to college as a fan of even one lesser-known band can lead to a insatiable interest in new music when this collection is discovered.
The incredible availability of all types of music on the Internet has led to an increase in knowledge of musicians that are not featured on popular radio. As a result, the general prevalence of underground or alternative music has increased. “With making [these] things more popular, it’s lent itself to more students coming into BC with knowledge of alternative music,” Tilney said.
Still, WZBC is committed to pushing the boundaries of contemporary music for their listeners. Devoted to underground, up-and-coming, and avant-garde music, the station’s DJs all share a passion for widely broadcasting songs that otherwise may be ignored. Songs by Arcade Fire and Passion Pit may have been played again and again by WZBC years ago, but when bands lose the status of up-and-coming, it’s time to move on to others. “We want to give bands airplay that wouldn’t get it otherwise. Being able to provide this outlet is something we’re very proud of,” Tilney said.
It is an outlet that may not be found elsewhere. One of the station’s underlying efforts is to broadcast “No Commercial Potential” programming. This is music that stretches the boundaries of what can even be called music. Yet WZBC is one of the few stations that play a lot of these types of things, giving it national and even international listeners who tune in to hear music that’s off the beaten path. Many artists make it a point to send their new music to WZBC, knowing that it is one of the few stations willing to experiment with just about anything. Tilney likes to tell a particular story at general interest meetings to describe the types of things that can go on at WZBC: “I was in my car, and I called the program director and I said ‘Erin, turn on ZBC now. I’m listening to cats meowing and pots banging.’” It’s music to somebody.
While the station broadcasts general rock music for most of its daytime hours, it’s clear that “No Commercial Potential” and other types of specialty programming shape the passions of the DJs. Benevenia called the station’s content “challenging,” and Tilney noted that the station has a very different set of goals than other college radio stations. “I’d like to think we provide more intellectual programming than those commercial [stations].” Many colleges, such as Emerson College and their station WERS, have radio broadcasting programs woven into their academic departments so that student DJs are working both for the station and for class credit. BC’s DJs, on the other hand, work purely for the passion they have for the radio. “There’s a bunch of people who put the radio ahead of school work,” Tilney said.