Purdue Student Radio – A (mostly) failed experiment.

Every once in a while I feel like I should post about things I’ve worked on in the past. Sometimes it’s as a point of pride and others I feel like it’s just a matter of documentation. In this case, I was recently reminded of my time working with the Purdue Student Radio Station so I’m going to reflect on that here.

[Wow.. this post has been in the works for.. well, the first draft was logged in 2015. lol. I’m trying to do more writing, and dredging up some of the many things I’ve started in the past but not finished.]

A conservative place..
Purdue University is a conservative institution. Especially considering the aptitude for curiosity and exploration of many of the students (and some of the faculty) there. A former supervisor during my time working in IT at Purdue told me it hadn’t always been so stuffy. Things apparently got really conservative during the Hovde administration. This supervisor had a story from his undergrad experience at Purdue wherein a couple of students built a small hot air balloon that landed on top of a campus building and caught fire. The point of the story was that these students were expressing a healthy desire to create and learn, and weren’t punished for the relative danger they incurred in this pursuit, while a similar event in the current political climate (this was around 2000 mind you) would have gotten the students thrown out of school and probably sued for damages. This conservative tone echoed in many aspects of student life. “Mass” media was one.

[As an aside, I noticed something interesting as I researched for this article. The duration of time that Purdue presidents hold office is seriously diminishing over time. Cordova – 5yr | Jischke – 5yr | Beering – 17yr | Hansen – 11yr | Hovde – 25yr | Elliot – 23yr | Stone – 21yr … not sure what to draw from this, although I suspect it somehow fits into the discussion of “what’s wrong with higher education”]

Student life and media consumption..
Purdue as a University during my time had three main student facing media outlets: Boiler TV – the campus cable network, airing several regular cable channels along with a couple of terribly curated campus information feeds. The campus newspaper, “The Purdue Exponent” – once referred to by my friend Matt F. as “The leading source of misinformation in Tippecanoe County”. And finally, a radio station called WBAA – This is operated by the university, but seemed, at least during my tenure, to not consider students as their target market. The station played mostly classical music and some select NPR programs. It seemed like, in general, the University was very wary of either campus-wide communications, or campus -wide communications with students at the helm. There was also a general perception that it was unwanted, but I never had problems finding other students who were into the idea.

That said, Purdue has a long history of student run radio in the form of so called “dorm stations”. Many residence halls at Purdue had their own closed circuit stations at various times, some also having low power FM in times of less heavy regulation. WILY, WCCR in Cary Quad, Shreve.. There were more, but I don’t have any more info than this. For a time, something called PRN – Purdue Radio Network connected several of the dorm stations. (it seems to still exist in some form but is focused on sports coverage?) I DJed at WCCR when I lived at Cary Quad in 1996 and 1997 and learned a lot of the station lore. WCCR was purported to be the first station nationally to broadcast stereo by sending the left and right channels out two separate transmitters. They had a hell of a vinyl vault. Unfortunately, by the time I got there it was all melted due to improper climate control.

The problem with these dorm stations was that listenership was very low, mostly because to hear it you 1. had to live in that dorm and 2. had to go to the front desk and get a “splitter” to connect your cable TV line to a stereo.. if your stereo had an antenna input. In my time, I was lucky to get 2 or 3 of my friends to listen in. I suspect the dorm stations were more popular before tv and internet was readily available in the dorms. In the mid 2000’s some of the dorm stations experimented with web streaming. WCCR would get a handful of listeners from time to time.

[Some of these stations seem to continue on in some form and have web presences: WILY, WCCR]

My experience at WCCR was both informative and disappointing. The station had a cool vibe – there was a big lounge with typical institutional sofas and lots of old copies of CMJ laying around. The air studio was a small, but functional room with one wall lined with CDs. Some manner of junky Arrakis board was the operational centerpiece along with a chronically broken mac of some kind. I don’t remember a lot about the other bits, being new to it all, but there were surely a couple of CD decks, a (also broken) cart machine and at least one semi-working turntable. There was some manner of operational organization – station officers that we DJs were supposed to somehow report to, and send our play logs to, but now that I think about it, I had no idea what any of those people actually did, and honestly, I don’t think I ever saw them past the callout meeting.

Still, I had fun doing radio shows for my friends, playing my favorite stuff and also digging through the station’s CD collection. Once I even plugged my guitar into the board and played on “air” for a whole show. And lol, I remember Enrique, a guy who lived down the hall calling in with a fake voice every time I did a show and requesting Tool.

The start of “Purdue Student Radio” as a station..
Maybe a relevant piece of information in this story is that I was a student at Purdue for over 17 years, so I saw things come and go. When I moved off-campus, the dorm stations became little more than a fond memory. But I was still looking for things to do on campus.

I remember going to a callout for PSR, Purdue Student Radio, at some point prior to 2004. It was a kind of odd group, seemingly predicated on doling out various “director” positions to students volunteering. But lets jump outside of my personal experience and backtrack.

Apparently, the station had been formed under the premise of being a place for business students to practice.. business stuff. I don’t know the full story, but this seemed to be the brainchild of an undergrad who somehow had the ear of people at Krannert with money. Regardless, the business model was based around selling on-air advertising. A Purdue Staff director or engineer of some kind, Michael Gay from WBAA, was involved in planning an AM transmitter installation using gifted money. The transmitters would augment a web stream, and added a touch of legitimacy that the dorm stations lacked. WBAA also provided a massive, antique Harrison console and some other miscellaneous hardware. This was all housed in a room in the old student organizations area in the basement of the Union.

And that all happened. Kind of an amazing feat. But that’s about where progress stopped it seemed like. When I found out about all of this, it was kind of in a proof of concept state. The transmitters worked – 6 low power AM units perched atop the Krannert building, the transmission barely made it to Chauncey Hill at AM1610. The studio had all the parts it needed and was capable of doing most of what it was supposed to.. but there were many broken things, no music library, and not a lot of institutional knowledge.

And so back to my experience.. we had a lot of these meetings where people were trying to figure out how to synthesize the structure and operation of a college radio station. I remember the Programming Director instructing us, the non-director volunteers, to try to generate a station handbook by plagiarizing other college station’s handbooks. Little progress was made under this regime, and said Programming Director later was kicked out of school for some dubious reason if I recall. Another prime activity of these meetings was trying to recruit people to do the “sales”. The only training was “go talk to businesses and see if they’ll give us money”. Needless to say, this didn’t work. I always surmised that the real shortcoming in this plan was that the station wasn’t actually broadcasting anything yet. Eventually, the guard driving all this was changed. I’m not quite sure what happened. Probably some people graduated, and probably some got bored with the lack of progress. A couple of good people stayed for a while and did what they could, but there was really not enough knowledge to make it work.

The reorg..
At this time, somewhere in 2007, there were a few of us in the non-director set who were there for the music rather than the business and we decided to change the approach to: lets have a functional station and then try to get some money later. We started by building a music library. I knew a little about how this worked from my limited time doing record label promo. All of the labels and distros were quite happy to give you more music than you could handle if you were reporting to CMJ, (College Music Journal) so we shelled out the cash for CMJ membership. I recall this was over $1k for a year, which seems excessive.. but I digress. I handled the chart reporting, basically grepping the logs of our station automation software, SAM, for what was getting the most plays. At this point, the station was largely on autopilot so this was an easy process. We dumped some mp3’s in, and it played them randomly. Later we got more advanced, doing programming blocks by genre, etc. CD’s came in droves. More than we could deal with, in fact. [as an aside, when we wound down the station, there were still dozens of CDs a week coming in for our PO Box in Stewart Center. I remember the mail folks asking/demanding that we tell companies to stop sending stuff, but I didn’t even know where most of them were coming from. Labels and distros just chucked that stuff out to any entity on the CMJ list. Hopefully they’ve finally stopped or else someone in the mail department of STEW have just started taking the music for themselves.] There were also the starts of digital distribution, which eliminated some steps but added new ones. We initially hoped to get all music we received into the digital music library. I set up a ripping lab with four PCs with multiple CD drives so we could at least rip 4 discs at a time.

It seemed like we were doing pretty well. There were several regular shows, constant content with music and syndicated programming, I was keeping station manager office hours and reporting to CMJ weekly, and it felt like we were growing. At one point, because we still didn’t have any money and still weren’t really interested in doing sales, we hit up all the old dorm stations to see if they had gear they’d give us. One came through, told us to take whatever we wanted, then mysteriously stopped responding to emails/phonecalls after we took the first load. We also talked to WCCR at this time who were still going. They didn’t have any equipment for us, but we had some interesting talks about piping in their programming.

The death..
Things eventually just petered out. People weren’t showing up to do their shows as much, keeping the equipment working was hard, staying on top of ripping CDs that came in was daunting.. and the real nail in the coffin – the AM transmitters quit working. Their demise coincided with a re-roofing project on the Krannert building that we weren’t notified about until after I started investigating the dead transmitters. I got permission to go to the roof with the building deputy to inspect the equipment. ..and noticed that some of the 6 transmitters’ ground straps had been removed for the roofing and not reattached. I suspected that maybe they got a lightning strike, but who knows. The university seemed to have a stance of “we’ll we’re not real sure what happened, but we’re also not going to do anything. Sorry.” Not having the knowledge or motivation to troubleshoot any further, we basically packed it in. As far as I know, the transmitters are still up there, connected to the streaming box in the penthouse.

We folded the club, and sent most of the remaining gear to a burgeoning podcasting club that a couple of our folks were in. The Harrison console went back to WBAA, and God knows what dark basement it’s hanging out in now.

Looking back..
Well.. the station didn’t do what it was supposed to. Very few ad sales were made, if any, and in it’s prime, we didn’t do advertising at all. For music nerds, it worked a little bit. Longer than I would have expected.

It was an interesting thing to be a part of for sure. I’m glad I did this. I made a lot of friends, and it’s always good to have a shared goal with people. While this wasn’t an exercise that added a lot to my CV, it is one of the handful of things that I’m proud of. Notably, we had a couple of show hosts go on to minor celebrity in broadcasting and comedy, and I’d like to think that having a radio station to do shows on was at least a little boost for their skills and resume.

Shoutouts:
I realize I have a bias for being negative, and accentuating the struggles in things like this over the good times, so I want to take a minute to thank people involved in this radio thing that brought joy to me in one way or another over the years that we did it:

Nur – for keeping things going in the transitional period mentioned above

Doug – for wiring up the whole thing in the first place

Emily, Jake and Andy – for being the core of motivation and participation for this thing.

Pat, Mike and Nick – for helping to keep things going

Ryan, Coby, Alex, Wes and Blair – for doing shows and keeping them going

Aaron and Michael – for all of the tech help and time spent

I’m probably forgetting a lot of people, but thanks for being there.

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