Radio Somewhere

Commemorating WBRU

“This place is a shithole!” yells Annie Clark, the face behind the indie/art rock icon that is St. Vincent. Clark is giving a concert in downtown Providence at the famed Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, a spacious yet intimate venue on Washington Street. Clark, donning a dress of sequined silver and black flames, is perched up on a balcony that she excitedly climbed during her encore set. With her untamed curly hair everywhere and eyes wild and open, Clark clutches the balcony, which has begun to fall apart. As the molding from the veranda begins to fall onto adoring fans, a lucky security guard hugs Clark into his arms and attempts to bring her down to safety. Clark then screams out the memorable phrase and quickly struts to center stage, where she throws herself onto the multitude of people and begins to crowdsurf. As she holds out her arms to both sides, parting a sea of bodies, one can hardly overlook the giant banner behind her. The flag of sorts reminds us just who exactly was able to bring this huge artist to a tiny venue in an ever tinier state: WBRU.

According to most sources, WBRU has been around since the mid-1930s. The first college radio station in the country, WBRU was started by two undergraduates who wanted to share music from their own room in Slater Hall. After decades of growth and studio visits from bands like Nirvana, WBRU became a New England institution. Now that the FM signal has been sold in response to a declining, profit-losing radio industry and the station has begun to shift into online radio content a decision that came with its fair share of media controversy and community and alumni protest WBRU and its listeners look back on what this entity has meant to themselves and the community around them.

For Sam SaVaun, who has worked at WBRU as a DJ, a Media Director, and a Music Director, working at the station meant an opportunity to learn. SaVaun credits the station for teaching her valuable business skills that were incredible to obtain in college. A live music fiend, SaVaun was also given the unique opportunity to attend showcases, concerts, and music festivals as a part of WBRU, even attending events like Lollapalooza for free.

It was not unusual for colleagues music representatives from the area, or New York and Boston to take SaVaun out to dinner to talk business. She was wined and dined and treated like a professional, all while having midterms and finals to worry about. Evidently, part of the magic at WBRU has always been this notion that the station is largely student-run. Its ability to innovate and be a riskier, more experimental radio station stemmed from students who loved to push the boundaries of what was playing, including advocating air time for local music. And when WBRU wasn’t supporting local talent, it was bringing in new talent, hosting annual events like the Summer Concert Series which evolved into a staple of the New England summer music scene.

Hannah Maier-Katkin, who has worked as a General Manager and a a DJ, recalls that WBRU brought bands such as Paramore and The 1975 when these groups were still running in alternative circles rather than performing on sold-out tours. Now, without an FM radio to pull them in, SaVaun is worried bands will skip over Providence.

For Maier-Katkin, live music is only one portion of the community engagement that WBRU carried out and seems to be of lesser importance; she instead seems to propose a focus on efforts to keep WBRU News and “360” programming running, as these two programs are unique to the station and crucial to WBRU’s commitment to service the community.

WBRU’s “360 Degree Experience” was a program on Sundays (now available 24/7) that exclusively featured hip-hop, soul, and R&B.

“360 largely served the incarcerated community of Rhode Island because our signal could go through concrete walls,” Maier-Katkin explains.

Incarcerated people would send letters to loved ones to be read on air via 360. Maier-Katkin says WBRU is currently looking for a way to get an FM signal for 360 back on the air.

“Those listeners can’t just transfer over to a digital stream,” she points out. The community is at risk of being left behind.

In a similar manner, WBRU’s news team, which covered local events and local organizing, served as a foil to “big news” organizations like The Providence Journal. In the hopes of filling voids in local coverage, WBRU News will continue as an online podcast.

“It is a huge gap,” says SaVaun, explaining that alternative radio made room for this kind of unique programming. “A big part of what WBRU meant to Providence was that we’re the only alt radio station.. and [the] signal is huge…if you’re the kind of person who listens to alternative radio in your car, you’re going to feel that gap.”

Maier-Katkin says WBRU can find a way to stay true to its community-centric history. While a SaVaun-ian way of looking at the pivot to online may evoke feelings of true loss (“For decades, [alumni] knew they were kind of getting home because they’d be driving and start to get the signal”), Maier-Katkin suggests the station pursues a future that is committed to its past, rhetorically asking, “Is WBRU, as an entity, more than a radio station?”

For those of us who love old school radio, who grew up listening to WBRU, and who hopefully won’t have to go to Boston for our live music needs, St. Vincent sang some timely words during her now-iconic Lupo’s performance: Call the twenty-first century / Tell her give us a break. And for those of us all of us who are moving forward in this digital age with WBRU, she sings a brilliant next line: Every tear disappears.