Sound Source: Filling the Airwaves Remotely

Susanna Kemp, Reporter

WNUR seniors talk Zoom dance parties, broadcasting from a closed radio station and leaving a community that’s defined their time at Northwestern.

SUSANNA KEMP: What do you do when you’re a radio DJ and the studio is closed? The station still has to operate, but you can’t talk into a mic or slip a disc into the CD player.

HENRY MOSKAL: We are still broadcasting. We’re also still streaming on our website. But what normally happens is the people in the studio are dictating what goes out on those broadcasts. What we’ve had to do in lieu of having bodies in the room there, is rely on our automated programming software. It’s not perfect, but in a time like this, it’s actually doing a pretty fair job. The program we use is called Zetta and it allows us to upload recordings that DJs provide to us, whether it’s something that they put out on the air previously and recorded or something that they’ve recorded from a home studio setup.

SUSANNA KEMP: That’s Communication senior Henry Moskal. He’s one of the two general managers at WNUR, Northwestern’s radio station. He’s also a DJ on the station’s Rock Show.

HENRY MOSKAL: I think this has kind of opened our eyes and made us realize what our critical needs are as a radio station. And being able to broadcast remotely is starting to look like one of them.

SUSANNA KEMP: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Susanna Kemp, and you’re listening to Sound Source. I spoke with some of the seniors at WNUR about what it’s like to be broadcasting from afar during their last quarter at Northwestern and what they’ll take away from their time at the station after they graduate.

ANNA LAFFREY: I’m Anna Laffrey, and I’m one of the two music directors of the Rock Show.

SUSANNA KEMP: Rock Show has the largest chunk of airtime on the station. Medill senior Anna coordinates the different DJ blocks within that time and hosts meetings for DJs to get together and learn about rock music.

ANNA LAFFREY: Rock show DJs usually host programs from 2-9 p.m. every Monday through Friday. The music directors, of course, aren’t really involved in that because the DJs take their own courses, but when we can, we try to be around to help impart a sense of community. And I think that that physical space is often what’s most important for DJs in Rock Show. We call it the OACR. It’s the On-Air Control Room, where all of the shows for WNUR are produced.

SUSANNA KEMP: Anna says the OACR is often where DJs meet new friends and explore music. It’s also a place where DJs tend to come into their own throughout college.

ANNA LAFFREY: I think some of my favorite moments of hanging out with people have been just in that sort of grimy room wasting away the hours. There’s absolutely no sunlight. Could be any time. It’s always been just this omnipresent place, so having it shuttered is pretty bizarre.

HENRY MOSKAL: I remember the first time I was in the studio and got a phone call. I was still an apprentice on the Rock Show. And somebody called in and said, “Hey, I dig what you’re playing.” That’s the kind of small thing that makes a big difference. That kind of weird mix of deep, personal, human connection and anonymity is so weird and so special and so unique to a radio station like WNUR.

SUSANNA KEMP: Medill senior Amanda Gordon says she feels like she’s part of a larger community when she’s over the airwaves. She’s the music director for Streetbeat, the station’s electronic and hip-hop show.

AMANDA GORDON: DJing is the ultimate music sharing experience because you’re curating, like, a vibe for a whole room of people, or if you’re in the OACR, for you and your friends and the listeners. I just love the idea of being able to share and create this, like, music moment with people that you care about and being able to weave different unexpected genres together. I just like, it always gives me a little rush.

SUSANNA KEMP: Something that’s guided the seniors during their time at WNUR is the station’s mission to play underrepresented music. Amanda says it’s pushed her to dig deeper as a DJ.

AMANDA GORDON: My freshman year I was really seeing the tip of the iceberg, and I’ve tried since then to sort of learn as much as I can about different scenes in different cities and the labels that are really, like, making social and cultural change with their music in the cities that they’re based in. For example, I got the opportunity last year to interview this DJ in Paris that I really love and got to see him DJ at a club there. I think WNUR, like, cultivates a passion for leaning into the creative process of music and the people behind it and not just taking music at face value but, like, really taking the time to learn about the people that make the music and where the music comes from.

SUSANNA KEMP: One Streetbeat meeting really stuck with Amanda. It was her freshman year, and a DJ named Yuliya was presenting about drum and bass, which is a genre of electronic music. Yuliya began the presentation with something unexpected.

AMANDA GORDON: She started out the meeting by playing the Powerpuff Girls theme song because it technically fell within the drum and bass genre. And it was just really fun and cool to see this subgenre that I had never really learned about in any, like, official capacity contextualized with this cartoon theme song that we all grew up with. Little aspects of meetings like that really stand out, and it really fosters a passion for music and DJing in a way that is sort of addictive and I think is why I’ve loved being a part of Streetbeat throughout my four years.

SUSANNA KEMP: The station’s mission is geared toward music, but Medill senior Avery Van Etten says it’s influenced how the news show operates too. She’s one of the show’s directors.

AVERY VAN ETTEN: Rather than doing the stories that all the other campus publications are doing, we’re trying to find different angles or find different sources, so like, my co-news director will often say, “We don’t want to be one of five student journalists at an event. We want to try to be the only student journalists there,” and that means that we’re finding things to cover that aren’t being as widely covered.

SUSANNA KEMP: Right now, WNUR News is playing old shows during its time slot. But the reporters are putting together a COVID-19 special broadcast for the end of the quarter.

AVERY VAN ETTEN: Students from grade schools from, like, around the country put together packages about their experiences with COVID-19, and they’re gonna send them in to us, and we’ll look over them, and we’re gonna play them.

SUSANNA KEMP: Rock Show is still holding its usual Monday night meetings where DJs can learn about new music, but over Zoom.

ANNA LAFFREY: I think if this had happened my college career, I might have tried to come up with some sort of grandiose replacement plan and get people producing or more involved somehow. But I think we’ve all learned through our time at Northwestern that less can definitely be more. We’re hosting the Monday meetings, which is nice, and it’s great to see everyone’s faces and feel like, yes, we all still exist. And yes, the music that we’ve been caring about all year is still going to be important to ourselves and to the station in the future. But I think it’s best to just not put any more burden on people’s plates.

SUSANNA KEMP: Anna’s been working with WNUR’s exec board to reschedule Rock Show’s annual Sonic Celluloid event, which brings together noise artists and visual artists. It was originally scheduled for March 13.

HENRY MOSKAL: An unfortunate reality of being in quarantine and social distancing is that live music in Chicago, nationwide and around the world is pretty much on hold right now.

SUSANNA KEMP: Rock Show is planning instead to have artists play sets on Twitch, a live-streaming platform. They’re calling the new event Sonic Simulation. Its first installment was last Wednesday.

ANNA LAFFREY: People can tune in to that who otherwise, you know, maybe wouldn’t have been able to come to the event in Chicago. It’ll be open to WNUR fans across the country and the world.

SUSANNA KEMP: Streetbeat’s hosting weekly meetings like Rock Show and DJ parties over Zoom too.

AMANDA GORDON: People will take turns mixing songs on their computer or on a controller for a half hour, an hour at a time. Everyone puts on these crazy Zoom backgrounds, like you’re at the club or whatever, and you sort of feel a little bit like we’re all in the same room dancing to the same music even though we’re all very far apart.

SUSANNA KEMP: Of course, though, it’s not the same.

AMANDA GORDON: It’s definitely weird. That’s what I’ll probably miss most out of the whole WNUR community is just those times we can gather in someone’s backyard and just play a bunch of music and have fun.

SUSANNA KEMP: Amanda especially loves the annual WNUR tradition of getting together as a station on the morning of Dillo Day.

AMANDA GORDON: You just have the whole community together, and there’s just this lightness. And everyone’s just there to have fun but also playing a lot of cool music, and there’s always chicken and waffles. And I think it’s just, like, the best of WNUR vibe. I think it’s always really a great opportunity for people who don’t normally cross paths to sort of hang out with each other.

SUSANNA KEMP: Amanda remembers her sophomore year Dillo Day especially well. It was a pretty wet day, and everyone was gathered, kind of romping around in the mud.

AMANDA GORDON: There was a boombox, and we were dancing to, like, “Bololo” by MC Bin Laden. Ancd the reverie of Dillo mixed with the chaotic energy of WNUR is always a great time. I think that Northwestern can feel like a really cold, competitive place, and WNUR has brought out, I think, the best of what Northwestern can be and what a college campus and larger community can be like.

SUSANNA KEMP: Avery also appreciates the growing interconnectedness between the station’s shows.

AVERY VAN ETTEN: When I first came in, it felt very much like News was its own thing, and I had no idea what was going on with the rest of the station. And I would come in occasionally and be like, what is this music they’re playing? I’ve never heard this before. And now I know people from the other shows. It’s been really cool to see the community of WNUR kind of become more cohesive across the shows. When Maddie Jarrard and Alisa Nazaire were the news directors for WNUR, they were really trying to get us involved with the station as a whole. So if there was something like a station-wide barbecue, they would try to spread the word to News.

SUSANNA KEMP: For Amanda, the radio feels far removed from any sort of academic pursuit.

AMANDA GORDON: It always just felt like the antidote to some of the more stressful periods of my student life. It’s always a space where I feel like I can relax and just, you know, enjoy being around friends and discovering new music. It’s just given me a community of people who love to dance. And I will be forever grateful for that.

HENRY MOSKAL: I’m confident that everything’s gonna be OK, because it’s such a resilient community. This is really a place that defines somebody’s experience in college and defines people’s friends and sort of how they engage with the world. It really is something that you make a part of your identity, and I think that’s a special thing.

SUSANNA KEMP: Henry knows DJs who’ve been at WNUR for close to 30 years, alumni who continued DJing after they graduated and people who live in the area and joined the community.

HENRY MOSKAL: Nobody gets paid to do this, right? It’s all a volunteer operation. And so knowing that there are people dedicated enough to continue doing that for decades is remarkable. The friendships and relationships that are formed at the radio station are strong enough that even this weird, tumultuous end to myself and my senior peers’ college experience, I think it’s going to be OK.

SUSANNA KEMP: This episode was reported and produced by me, Susanna Kemp. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected]

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