News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 28, 2006

College radio is the only place listeners can hear edgy groups most commercial stations don’t play

By Mark Bennett

It’s 3 o’clock on a Monday afternoon. The really hard stuff is four hours away.

Down the hall from Dave Sabaini’s office in the WISU studios, disc jockeys Rachel Carl and Ashley Hood ponder what musical mood they’re in today. Carl is leaning toward a retro binge of 1980s punk, full of the Ramones, the Clash and the Cure. Hood prefers spinning some more current Dead Can Drive. To help a reporter unfamiliar with that band’s style, Carl explains that Dead Can Drive plays “industrial Goth,” which she adds, “is just not what our audience likes.” So instead, Hood settles on hardcore rockers Clutch.

Clutch’s “Passive Restraints” CD can be found on Earache Records.

Suddenly the thought behind Sabaini’s “7 o’clock rule” unfolds. It’s one of the few WISU playlist restrictions imposed by Sabaini — the 51-year-old director of audio operations who’s been tutoring fledgling DJs at Indiana State University since 1983.

“No screamers before 7 p.m.,” he explains. “After 7, guys like us want earplugs and Tylenol.”

Sabaini, a fan of classic rock and the blues, and his wife, a classically trained musician, have a vast CD collection in their Terre Haute home. “We have about everything except what we play here,” he says.

And that’s precisely the quaint beauty of college radio. It’s the only place the under-25 crowd can hear edgy groups such as The Diffs, Bouncing Souls and Bad Brains. Kids can’t find that music in their parents’ album stack or on most commercial radio stations.

“You will never have heard of any of it,” says 43-year-old Chris Newton, operations coordinator at DePauw University’s WGRE, “but the kids have.”

WGRE (on FM 91.5), WISU (FM 89.7) and Rose-Hulman’s WMHD (FM 90.7) are three of more than 600 college radio stations in America, estimates the editor-in-chief of the College Music Journal. And each offers “a lot of freedom, a lot of variety, a lot of options and a kind of programming that isn’t dictated by commercial dollars,” says the CMJ editor — known as “Reverend Moose” — in a telephone interview from the publication’s New York City offices. “It’s a breeding ground for new ideas and free-thinking minds and everything you always thought college radio should be.”

Occasionally, older folks call to tell Sabaini what they think WISU shouldn’t be doing. The lyrics sometimes make the station’s telephones ring.

“I’ll say, ‘Was there an objectionable word, or an objectionable idea?’ And they’ll say, ‘Well, it was an idea,’” Sabaini says. “And I have to say, ‘Well, sorry.’”

Despite such complaints, WISU’s ratings and awareness around the ISU campus and Terre Haute community are stronger than ever, Sabaini says. And that strength is linked to a decision a few years ago to switch its musical playlist from an eclectic mix of classical, jazz and blues to what the station now calls “real good rock” through the week and “urban” tunes on the weekends.

That move wasn’t just to please the students, even though it did. The decision, Sabaini says, was practical. A segment of the campus and city community may have enjoyed the sounds of symphonies or jazz trios. But since 1983, only two of the hundreds of radio/TV/film majors who have worked at WISU have gone on to become classical music DJs. The new format, Sabaini says, offers more valuable experience for students hoping to work in commercial radio, where more contemporary genres dominate.

Carl, a senior who serves as WISU’s student station manager, appreciates that.

“Some people complain that we’re getting too close to mainstream,” she says. “But for students, that’s a good thing, because we’re preparing them more for what they’ll do when they get a job.”

Appealing on, off campus

Serving as a DJ is only part of students’ duties at WISU, where 30 to 35 of the 160 radio/TV/film majors work each year. They must also learn how to program a station’s offerings, operate the technology and sell ads. Some are also involved in broadcasts of university sports. Right now, WISU is a hotspot for fans of the Missouri Valley Conference-leading Sycamore women’s basketball team. Rose-Hulman sports can be heard on WMHD. And at DePauw, WGRE also carries several Tigers sports events, as well as basketball and football games involving the four Putnam County high schools.

“We try to be a small-town college radio station,” says Jeff McCall, faculty adviser at WGRE.

Jon Coffin, a senior with a political science major and a minor in mass communications, moderated a Greencastle mayoral debate. And in 2004, the modern WGRE studios provided one of only two face-to-face meetings between congressional opponents John Hostettler and Jon Jennings.

“That’s one of the ways we reach out to the local community,” Coffin says.

And they’re accessible. When university classes are in session, a live DJ sits behind the microphone 24 hours a day. That’s a rarity. Most radio stations — whether college, public or commercial — carry some sort of automated programming, especially at night. A song request or call about the weather at 4 a.m. lets WGRE know real people are out there listening to real people on the radio.

“They make mistakes that teenagers make,” says Newton, a 1985 DePauw grad. “But they don’t blow the station up, and they don’t have the FCC calling us.”

Heavily formatted commercial stations seldom feature such glaring mistakes. But, as McCall puts it, “That’s what people like about us. It’s a charm. When we’re good, we’re really good. And when we’re bad, we’re really bad.”

So far, the good seems to outweigh the bad. Last fall, the Princeton Review ranked WGRE as the fourth best college radio station in America. Its 800-watt signal carries 30 to 40 miles and seems to appeal to more than just the 2,200 students at DePauw. The music — WGRE calls it “college alternative” — is a prime attraction. Like WISU, this Greencastle campus station receives handfuls of CDs by unheralded, independent bands hoping for some airplay. A committee from the 150-student staff listens to as many as possible and picks the best for the playlist.

In the WGRE music room filled with old vinyl LPs (yes, the station still has a turntable, just in case) and CDs, Coffin picks up a random mail package, tears it open and finds an album submitted by the band Elephant The Black Magic Show.

“I’ve never heard of them,” Coffin says. “But who knows, they might be good.”

Cutting-edge is its edge

Therein lies college radio’s power. Names on those stations’ current playlists such as Death Cab For Cutie, The Killers or Egghead could become the Green Day of tomorrow.

“People come to us with music, because we’re a station expected to break new music,” Newton says.

That concept anchors WISU too. “That’s really our number one job,” Sabaini says.

WISU gets lots of CDs from independent labels, as well as self-produced works by local and regional bands. Though groups with a national following or some past mention in College Music Journal get some preference, songs and albums by locals aren’t disregarded, Sabaini says.

“I tell the kids, every time you listen to a CD, you’re holding somebody’s dream in your hands, and very possible their life’s work,” he says. “And we can’t be cavalier about that.”

Although its staff is smaller than WISU and WGRE, Rose-Hulman’s WMHD offers a wide-open forum for new music. Unlike the DePauw and ISU stations where students are usually majors or minors in radio, WMHD relies on 50 members of the engineering institute’s radio club to handle its broadcasts. But it lures these future engineers to dabble in radio with one key enticement.

“We tell people, ‘You can play whatever you want,’” says Rachel Young, a senior and the program director. “And they’ll say, ‘Really? Whatever I want?’”

And so they do, with live DJs typically on duty from 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Like WISU and many other college stations, WMHD fills in off hours with pre-recorded or “automated” music shows produced by the students. But while others purchase the software to record those programs, WMHD created its own software.

When DJs such as senior Brooks Borchers or sophomore Leven Browne are on the air live, they’ll work from a song playlist they came up with on their own, and do some homework too. Their program schedule also includes some specialty shows hosted by professors. David Voltmer has spun bluegrass songs for more than two decades. And metallurgist Pat Ferro hosts a popular heavy metal show. “He plays metal and talks metal,” explains Borchers, the general manager.

But their staple is a style that now has its own name — college rock. It might be grinding guitars and screaming, or the Talking Heads-ish quintet Clap Your Hands And Say Yeah, or the offbeat warbling of the White Stripes on “My Door Bell.” Commercial stations might play these same songs after they’ve filtered through college radio and into the mainstream, as they sometimes do. But for now, young people have this music to themselves.

“Occasionally we get requests for mainstream crap,” Young says, laughing with her fellow WMHD staffers. “But we’re like, ‘We don’t have that album right now. Bye.’”

Mark Bennett can be reached at or 1-800-783-8742, Option 6, Ext. 377.

College radio stations

WISU-FM 89.7, Indiana State: Broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 13,500 watts, with college rock on weekdays and urban music on weekends. Staff includes ISU radio/TV/film majors. Station first hit the airwaves on April 1, 1964.

WMHD-FM 90.7, Rose-Hulman: Staffed by the WMHD Broadcasting Club with a power of 1,400 watts. Format includes college rock, as well as specialty shows including bluegrass and heavy metal. Station began broadcasting in early 1972.

WGRE-FM 91.5, DePauw: Ranked fourth best college station in America in last fall’s Princeton Review. Staff at 800-watt station includes mass communications majors in the private university’s Center for Contemporary Media in Greencastle.