As the lead singer of Young the Giant belts out the final verse of “Mind Over Matter,” Denise Smith inches toward the microphone and delivers a dose of encouragement, capped with a “love you,” to her audience.
Listeners of the Indiana State University’s student-run campus radio station know her as Nece Lynn. “It’s like my alter ego,” Smith tells a visitor, watching her Tuesday afternoon show on WISU from inside the control booth. The senior from Indianapolis serves as assistant news director and coaches new station staffers on interviewing techniques. As a DJ on the air, Smith boosts listeners’ spirits.
“It’s OK to mess up,” she tells the audience, “because you learn from mistakes.”
Standing nearby is student station manager Max Slizewski, also an ISU senior aiming for a radio career. He, Smith and any of the other 50-plus student staffers who plan to work in broadcasting get a variety of experience at the ISU station, which is undergoing big changes. In fact, as WISU prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary next month, the edgy forum known as “college radio” — mysterious to the outside world — is experiencing a large evolutionary step in Terre Haute.
Back in his office, Slizewski explains the transformations and says, “The sky is the limit for us.”
A perfect storm, in a local radio context, opened up that sky. Last year, WMHD, the campus station at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, shifted to an online format, leaving open its 90.7 spot on the FM dial. Across town, ISU decided to acquire the licence for the 90.7 FM frequency from Rose. That allowed ISU to expand its broadcasting reach from one to two campus stations. The old student-run WISU-FM 89.7 will now rebroadcast National Public Radio programming from Indianapolis-based WFYI. In addition to the simulcast material, ISU students will be able to produce public-affairs shows for WISU, work in behind-the-scenes production roles and prepare for internships at WFYI in Indy.
Meanwhile, the traditional WISU menu of music, news and sports programs — delivered by students — moves to 90.7 FM as WZIS. The changeover hit the airwaves at noon Thursday, Sept. 18, a landmark moment for the university, which launched its WISU station on April 1, 1964.
“We get to fully rebrand a station,” Slizewski says, grinning. “We get to re-create it.”
Fans of the longtime student station who live beyond Terre Haute’s city limits may notice a difference at the outset. Its former home on the radio dial — the 89.7 frequency, now the WISU public radio station — packs 13,500 watts and sends its signal 30 to 50 miles away from its West Terre Haute transmitter tower. The 90.7 spot — now the students’ WZIS — is 870 watts. Its signal should carry throughout the city of Terre Haute, and perhaps further, says Phil Glende, ISU’s executive director of student media.
“It’s definitely a smaller footprint,” Glende said from his office in Dreiser Hall on the west edge of the campus quadrangle and a few doors down from the station’s control room. “But we think it’s going to be a strong signal in the immediate Terre Haute area.” The lower power may be temporary. ISU is investigating an upgrade (requiring a special antennae and transmitter), Glende adds. WZIS’s signal could be 7,800 watts by the upcoming spring semester, says station manager Rich Green.
Regardless of its signal’s breadth, WZIS plays music that often can only be heard on that station. As Green describes it, WZIS is “digging deep into” a blend of alternative rock, hip-hop, electronic dance and classic rock. Throughout the previous decade, the former student-based station, split its offerings between “real good rock” and urban music. The late Dave Sabaini, Green’s predecessor who passed away at age 58 in 2012, had a tongue-in-cheek “7 o’clock rule” for the student DJs in that era.
“No screamers before 7 p.m.,” Sabaini said in a 2006 interview. “After 7, guys like us want earplugs and Tylenol.”
By contrast, the current format ranges “from boy bands to the Black Keys,” Green explains, “and everything in between.” Though the playlists feature songs from as far back as 1997, much of WZIS’s tunes are new. Brand new. Many of the songs and artists earning air time haven’t yet been heard on commercial stations.
“With a college radio station, we like to catch music early,” says Slizewski.
WZIS compiles its own Top 40. Topping that list last week were acts such as Ariana Grande, Mary Lambert, Onerepublic, Jesse J, Taylor Swift, Jungle, Dirty Loops, PartyNextDoor, Iggy Azalea and DJ Khaled. Down at No. 16 was the song “Bare Hands” by the Giants, up from No. 26 the week before. Slizewski, who worked internships at a pair of Chicago stations near his Illinois hometown of Bartlett, pitched “Bare Hands” to the WZIS DJs.
In the studio down the hall from Slizewski’s office, two of those DJs — freshmen Tyler “Mac” Golday and Collin Szymanski — record their show, which runs during the overnight hours. Unlike many 21st-century commercial stations, which air pre-recorded shows from metropolitan companies, the ISU station features all student material, and carries live programming from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. “We’re probably more live than most stations in town,” said Green, an Illinois State University graduate who worked as the afternoon DJ at a light-rock station in Bloomington, Ill., while earning his master’s degree.
He understands the image conjured by the term “college radio.”
“In the basement of a building, just a few people up all night, playing the songs they love,” Green says. Though WZIS’s format allows for a variety of specialty shows — a student DJ interested in electronic dance music could host a two-hour show and select the material, for example — the station follows its format. “Music that all college students can relate to,” Slizewski explains.
Across town at Rose-Hulman, WMHD still adheres to that nostalgic image of college radio music. Fitting for an engineering school, though, that retro approach comes with a modern twist, given that the station’s signal now comes through the Internet at wmhdradio.org. The station is also in the midst of “rebranding” itself to the students, staff and alums, said Kevin Lanke, advisor to the student-run WMHD. The small crew of volunteers — Rose has no radio or communications department, unlike ISU — intend to let the campus community know “the station is alive and well” online, as Lanke put it.
It still airs 24 hours a day, thanks to an “unattended broadcast system,” or UBS, created six years ago by a group of Rose students. The technology maintains a smorgasbord of music and selects songs randomly, and mixes in public-service announcements, when no DJ is manning the controls of the station in, yes, the basement of a residence hall.
When the DJs — there are currently about 10 — are on the air, they play whatever they want (within reason, as far as tastefulness goes). Each week, stacks of CDs from promoters pour in, and the station directors (one for each genre of music) spread them on a table, take a share, and listen. If they like a song, they’ll play it. WMHD has a legacy of being the only radio venue for local and regional bands to be heard.
“We have such a deep collection of music for people to dive into,” says Doug Collett, a senior civil engineering major from Terre Haute who’s served as a DJ for three years. That includes vinyl. The studio, in addition to modern equipment, also maintains three turntables.
Sitting in his chair near the microphone, Collett pulls jazz LPs from a mail crate sitting on the floor. He favors classic jazz artists like John Coltrane, in addition to serving as hip-hop director. Whether he and the WMHD DJs are playing a track on digital, CD or LP, the listeners hear it via the Internet.
“I am a firm believer that Internet radio is the future of radio,” Collett says.
WMHD enters that chapter of its history in its 42nd year, just a bit shy of WISU’s 50. Meanwhile, WGRE-FM 91.5 at DePauw University in Greencastle is now 65 years old. It shows no signs of aging, though. For the past 16 years, it has ranked among the nation’s 10 best college stations, according to the Princeton Review.
“I think it’s just the great array of programming we have here,” says Caitlin Hutchinson, a senior from Atlanta who serves as station manager, heading an impressive staff of more than 200 student DJs and program directors.
The sounds run the gamut, and WGRE’s specialty shows illuminate both popular and overlooked genres. “We’ve had everything from local artists to a Disney hour,” said Hutchinson.
The 21-year-old communications major hopes to work in public relations after graduation. Some DePauw students pursue radio careers, but not all. Some just enjoy the experience, and learn to express themselves on the air. The same goes at ISU. “My goal is to make sure they’re having fun, going to class, and if they’re goal is to get a job in radio, we’ll get them there,” Green says.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.