iPod killed the radio star

While most CMU students were enjoying their winter vacations, a select few braved snow and bacteria alike in the pursuit of one thing: music. When WQED, a classical radio station in the Pittsburgh area, decided to dispose of their entire vinyl collection, Carnegie Mellon’s own WRCT was there to claim some of about 5000 trashed records.

“We dumpster-dove,” said Mike Szczerban, a senior English major and the staff representative of WRCT.

This is only the beginning of what makes WRCT unique as a college radio station, an activity for students, and a part of the city of Pittsburgh. Created in 1948, WRCT began with a signal so weak that it could only be heard within a few feet of the electrical wiring of CIT. Now, 58 years later, it has a signal a thousand times stronger than that of the University of Pittsburgh, boasting a radius of 12.5 miles. With that in mind, it might not be a surprise that many residents of Pittsburgh with no affiliation to Carnegie Mellon tune in to WRCT. What is surprising is just how few of the station’s listeners actually attend CMU. Hardly anyone at Carnegie Mellon owns a radio, let alone uses it. Although most people have a computer, they don’t know that WRCT can also be heard online.

Part of the reason for the lack of student interest is what Matthew Siko, a senior materials science engineering major and the general manager of WRCT, calls “the iPod effect.” The advent of the iPod and similar devices has allowed many college-goers to be content with their own music collections, and thus less interested in sampling new artists. Matt Merewitz, a fifth year senior history major and the station’s music director, explained that the population of CMU appears to be largely influenced by MTV and other mainstream sources, which offer music that’s rarely found on WRCT.

College radio is known for giving exposure to new or unknown artists, and WRCT is no exception. For example, Sufjan Stevens’ new album, which is becoming increasingly popular in indie music circles, was introduced by college radio. WRCT strives to air material that, as Merewitz said, “can’t be heard anywhere else on the Pittsburgh dial,” and in the pursuit of this goal, it has made an invaluable contribution to the musical palette of the city.

The employees of WRCT can draw on their different backgrounds to add variety to the music they choose to play. The DJs range from CMU students to Pitt professors to local DJs, all of whom share an intense passion for the music. And does gender play a role in the music that’s chosen? Well, maybe not so much. As Szczerban says, the station is basically “all dudes, all the time.”

The DJs are given complete freedom during their shows. As Szczerban described, “It’s like making a mix tape.” The DJs usually start with something and just go with the flow — they play whatever they think would go next, continuously until their time DJ-ing is over. “It’s like the difference between a professional chef and someone who cooks at home,” Szczerban said. The person who cooks at home can make a decent meal out of whatever is in his kitchen, in the same way that an iPod owner can make a playlist out of the songs in his library. On the other hand, the professional chef is able to create a culinary masterpiece in less time with more ingredients. Similarly, the DJs of WRCT are able to make a unique playlist, even integrating a new song here and there, often with little preparation.

The extensive library at the station, which holds more records and CDs than most people have ever seen in their lives, ensures that the DJs can always find a unique song to play on their show. The genres of the shows range from your typical indie-pop college radio to classical and jazz shows to talk shows. This diversity gives the listeners the opportunity to become connoisseurs of nearly every type of music.

Despite the meager following that WRCT has on campus, it has a cadre of devoted listeners of all ages in the Pittsburgh area. Some have been listening for years, even decades. What initially draws them to the station is the same thing that deters most CMU students: the body of music that it plays. WRCT isn’t trying to play popular songs that everyone wants to hear; it is trying to play new songs that people should learn about. One of the main goals of the station is to educate its listeners about all types of music, constantly giving them something to add to their bank of musical knowledge.

The station provides opportunities for everyone on campus to get involved, from the engineers in the technical aspects, to the music majors who put on their own classical shows. Carnegie Mellon does not offer a degree in broadcasting, so working at the station is the best place to develop these skills and share a love of music. Not to mention, it’s the perfect opportunity to turn off your iPod for a while and hear some new tunes. As Merewitz said, “it’s a labor of love,” and the only form of payment is hearing the music. As long as you’re into it, you’re sure to enjoy it.