This One Goes Out to the Ones Who Love Vintage College Radio

March 20, 2009

I often wondered, as I grew up, why my father would occasionally walk around the house belting out a quaint-sounding tune called "Ballin' the Jack" in a basso profundo. Strangely, it was here — in the studios of WRCU, Colgate University's student-run radio station — that I finally got some kind of an answer.

My dad, Don M. Read, had been the station's news director and then its general manager in the 1960s, and he was among several dozen alumni invited to attend the dedication last month of WRCU's lavish new headquarters. Would he like to host an hourlong radio show that weekend? he was asked. He jumped at the chance, and since I'd been a DJ in college too, he invited me up to sit in. During my visit, I caught a glimpse of a distant era in campus radio, and I looked in on a part of student culture that has changed a great deal even in the eight years since I was last on the air.

Once we got situated in the studio, the first tune he had me cue up was "Ballin' the Jack," as recorded in 1962 by the Colgate 13, the university's longest-tenured a cappella group. My father was a fan of the group and, especially, this song, which called on the bass singer to stretch almost impossibly low on the chorus ("that's what I call ..." — each note farther down the scale than the last). He'd managed to keep the record in virtually pristine condition since he bought it in the campus bookstore more than four decades ago.

At the time, his vinyl collection amounted to little more than a couple of Colgate 13 albums. But at the radio station, he found a music collector he could look up to: Robert L. Blackmore, a professor with a basement full of records.

Mr. Blackmore spent most of his adult life in or around Colgate: He graduated from the university in 1941, returned as an English professor in 1960, and served as chairman of the English department and dean of the faculty before retiring in 1986. For those 26 years he was also the faculty adviser to WRCU.

Alumni almost inevitably recall him striding across the campus with a cigarette in one hand and a stack of records in the other, often en route to his weekly radio show, "Your Monday Date With Jazz." Mr. Blackmore didn't have the buttery voice that many night-owl DJ's fall back on — his cadence was "almost staccato," according to my father — but his knowledge of the material was encyclopedic. "Once he got into talking about an album," my dad says, "he'd start flowing."

To this day, my father speaks in hushed tones of rare visits to Mr. Blackmore's legendary basement, which was lined, floor to ceiling, with a collection of more than 50,000 jazz LP's that he eventually bequeathed to the university. (For many years, the room also held one of several miniature transmitters, dispersed throughout Hamilton, that amplified WRCU's signal.)

"You'd ask him, 'What was Count Basie doing in 1947?'" said Robert J. Fraiman Jr., an alumnus who spoke at the dedication, "and he'd disappear into the basement and come back seven or eight minutes later with an armful of records."

After Mr. Blackmore died, in 2002, the radio station's home base — then nestled in the basement of a dormitory — was rechristened the Robert L. Blackmore Media Center. Like campus radio facilities across the country, it was far from luxurious. "The space was literally closet-sized," says Paul Osmolskis, a senior who recently finished his term as WRCU's general manager. The local fire marshal had decreed that no more than three people could occupy the studio at one time.

So a group of former DJ's, led by Mr. Fraiman, decided that the best way to honor their mentor was to build a center worthy of his name. Several years and about $750,000 in donations later, the new Robert L. Blackmore Media Center — now located in the basement of the university's much-trafficked student center — was completed.

The dedication ceremony drew about 100 students, alumni, and well-wishers, and the center fit the crowd quite comfortably; the broadcasting studio itself can easily accommodate about 25 people. It will take some time for the space to develop an ambiance befitting an authentic college station — right now it's just too shiny and clean, and the walls have yet to be papered with the requisite promotional posters and concert fliers. But it's a lovely, sprawling, state-of-the-art space. And by the standards of campus radio stations, it's remarkable.

Vintage Vinyl

It seemed fitting to pay tribute to Mr. Blackmore and his epic collection by devoting most of our hour on the air to jazz — and by opening the show with my father's vintage vinyl.

Spinning vinyl and sifting through towering stacks of dinged-up LP's had always struck me as the college DJ's defining activities. When I hosted my radio show, at the very beginning of the Napster era, the station's vinyl archive was the only place I could turn to hear music that was weird, obscure, or out of print: I can still remember the thrill and triumph of excavating Pere Ubu's Dub Housing, a record so hard to find at the time that it almost seemed like a myth.

Of course, Dub Housing has long since been reissued. And not only can you get it on compact disc, but you can buy a digital copy of the album from retailers like iTunes, Amazon, and eMusic. Or you can download it illegally from a peer-to-peer network, a BitTorrent hub, or one of a slew of blogs whose owners digitize old records. Honestly, there's almost no reason for students to go searching through the vinyl stacks when they can put Pere Ubu's entire discography on their laptops in a matter of minutes.

So now WRCU doesn't even give students the chance to browse the stacks. Up until several years ago, the station required DJ's to play at least one vinyl track every hour. But the staff got rid of that restriction — too many students didn't really know how to use the turntables — and then, a few years later, it got rid of most of its vinyl. The records were sold in bulk to a reseller, according to Mr. Osmolskis, and the money was put toward operating costs.

As for the turntables my father and I used, WRCU keeps them on hand because every once in a while a DJ will want to spin his or her own records. But that equipment, I soon found out, had been brought out specifically for the alumni. For most of the year, the turntables are put aside so DJ's have a place to plop their laptops.

Since most students use their computers to store their music libraries, and since iTunes makes it easy to assemble radio-show playlists, Mr. Osmolskis and many of his fellow DJ's now bring computers to the studio instead of lugging a satchel of CD's or records. For the time being, WRCU draws the line at iPods because they don't give DJ's an easy way to move seamlessly from one song to the next.

"Laptops and iPods kind of devalue the snobbishness" of college radio, Mr. Osmolskis admits, but he points out that the Internet has already had that effect on music fandom in a much broader sense. "Even with sites like Wikipedia, you can learn a band's entire discography, which albums are worth hearing and which ones aren't," he says. "It's way easier to know a lot now, and I think that makes the shows better."

The ubiquity of music online has democratized campus radio, says Bill Gabler, a former WRCU music director (he sheepishly takes credit for relaxing the vinyl requirement) who now works for Colgate and is an adviser to the radio-station staff. "Five to eight years ago, WRCU was really about people who were into the culture of college radio — discovering music and finding new bands," he says. "Now we've reached out to a broader population, to students who are just curious about radio and want to see what it's like."

For DJ's enamored with the craft of radio — the feel of cuing a song on a record by finding the right groove, gently guiding the vinyl back and forth with a finger or two, and using the muddy, mutated sound to spot the beginning of the track — the move to newer machinery might augur the loss of something ineffable.

But it's much easier to sound amateurish when you're trying to man turntables and CD players than when you've just got an iTunes playlist to worry about. As we moved through our show, Mr. Osmolskis was kind enough to let me manage the board and to indulge my bush-league errors: It was halfway through the hour, for example, before I realized that I had one CD player set at about twice the volume of the other one.

Sharing the News

During the songs — and between them, as we spoke on the air — my dad told stories from his time at Colgate. There was the Ravi Shankar concert he attended (it was long), and the basement dorm room he stayed in to save money one year (it was tiny), and then there was the day John F. Kennedy was shot.

My dad, who was a sophomore at the time, was sitting in the station's auxiliary studio when an alarm bell on the teletype machine, a constantly clicking behemoth that spat out a steady diet of UPI wire reports, sounded nine or 10 times in succession. "I remember being told that if the thing ever rings more than eight bells, you'd better pay attention," he said, "because that signifies some kind of a disaster."

He stumbled over to the machine and read a garbled report of the shooting — filed in the heat of the moment by a reporter who was obviously distraught, it was littered with typographical errors — then broke into the main studio, where another DJ was playing pop tunes, to tell Colgate students that the president was wounded. Over the next few hours, he stayed at the station, gathering new reports from the teletype and providing updates on the air.

That evening the station staff scrambled to put together an hourlong news program on the assassination and on Kennedy's life. They brought a TV down to the studio for real-time updates, trekked to the library to dig up information about John Connally, and plunged into the vinyl stacks in search of theme music (they wanted something stately, not saccharine: Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" ended up winning out).

"I can remember hearing the closing theme — the Copland piece — and just kind of sitting back in my chair and thinking, 'Oh my god, what's happened? Is this real?'" my dad said. "You'd spent so much time putting this information together that you really hadn't thought about the significance of everything."

On their shows during the weekend of the dedication, other DJ's issued similar dispatches from an era when college radio was a source for national and state news, a sounding board for visiting politicians and lecturers, and a coordinator of College Bowls and other campus events.

"We had people from 55 years' worth of graduating classes, and they all showed the same passion for Colgate radio," says Mr. Gabler. "To have that energy back in the space, and to hear the old names that came up. ... It's just great to get a picture of the station through the years."

When I check back with Mr. Gabler a month later, he tells me that the new media center is already proving to be a recruiting boon for WRCU: People ambling through the student center stop by all the time, he says, either to check out the roomy studio or to gaze at the newly installed widescreen TV that advertises upcoming shows and special events. "It's really refreshing," he says, "to see people taking an interest in us."

The turntables, alas, have been put away once more. Section: Students Volume 55, Issue 28, Page A25