Fast beat | MIT Technology Review
WMBR’s corridors are quiet — empty of DJs having to comb through shelves to find the perfect song, engineers making sure the equipment broadcasts throughout the Boston area. The MIT campus radio station closed its doors in the basement of the Walker Memorial in March 2020, when the Institute sent staff and students home at the start of the covid-19 pandemic. Even if the campus reopens in a limited way for 2020 – ’21, the broadcast studio has remained closed to most DJs for more than a year.
But the 178 students and others involved in running the WMBR would not have been allowed to shrink these decades -old institution. You can still listen to 88.1 FM 24 hours a day and play pop-punk and rock shows Breakfast with Champions or warble with Americana, country, and bluegrass in FM path—All prerecorded and edited from the safety of DJ houses and submitted by Brian Sennett ’13, MEng ’15, host of the classical show Music of the Dead and technical director of WMBR.
When the campus closed, Sennett recalls, “a wise man said, ‘Bring all the equipment you need to keep moving. It will be a while. ‘”
Sennett joined WMBR as a sophomore in 2010 and is one of 40 alumni still active at the station, which for many feels like a family. That feeling has a lot to do with this ongoing alumni engagement — and why its members come together to make sure the station and its culture don’t become a pandemic casualty.
WMBR is an all-volunteer, student-run primary group that supports an eclectic range of films. Community members not affiliated with MIT work with students, alumni, and professors, all led by an MIT general student manager, now Julia Arnold.
MIT has had a radio station on campus since the late 1940s, but it did not begin using its current call letters — which stood for “Walker Memorial Basement Radio” —until 1979. That was when Jon Pollack, SM ’79, host of The Jazz Train, migraduwar. Briefly involved with the station as a graduate student, Pollack returned in 1987 and has been there ever since.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “That’s why I stayed. It’s about me at this point. ”
A list of WMBR team members reveals graduation dates from 1979 to 2020. Having that deep well of knowledge helped the station stay on track as technology and tastes changed.
As technical director, Sennett helped with the transition the station from in-studio to in-house operations by 2020. Now, after seven years in his leadership role, he has begun training Gillian Roeder ’24 to get it by the end of the fall 2021 semester.
“I’m happy to have this kind of torch transmission going on between generations,” said Jacob Miske ’20, host of Uncommon Grounds, where he plays a mix of older and newer underground and counterculture music. “It’s something I’m worried about covid-that a lot of traditions in student cultural groups have been obfuscated in this dead age.”
Evidence of WMBR’s traditions is engraved on the covers of records and CDs in the station’s extensive music library. Classical, jazz, heavy metal, blues, rock — every genre imaginable is laid out on floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
“We’ll write down who’s playing what on each disc,” said Marianna Parker ’00, one of the three touring hosts of the alt-rock show Hari Ghidorah. “I could go to the record library and get a record from 1988 and see that John was playing it, Sue was playing it.”
While their followers provide musical guidance, students can reap broader benefits from working elbow to elbow with alumni and community members. Miske, for example, was inspired by Dave Goodman, host of the WMBR political show Voice and Anger. A longtime radio professional, Goodman did not attend MIT but worked with WMBR for 30 years.
“Through his performance and talking to him, he encouraged me to come out and be political during the 2016 and 2020 primaries,” Miske said.
As for Parker, who has volunteered for WMBR since 2012 after a brief post-graduation hiatus and is now a doctor, he hopes his professional journey offers its own encouragement to the students he meets through at the station.
“I’m not pre-med. I went and did other things, then went back to medical school, ”Parker said. “I hope they see in me someone who is following a slightly different path and they can find a path for their future.”
The FCC is the limit
Parker is also involved with WMBR as president of Technology Broadcasting Corporation (TBC), the entity that holds the station’s FCC license and looks for its long-term financial and legal health. This corporation, made up of students, professors, and alumni, is one of the things that sets WMBR apart from other college radio stations. While day-to-day operations are 100% supported by audience donations, larger projects — such as moving the FM transmitter to a taller building in Kendall Square — have the support of TBC and MIT.
As unique as WMBR is in its support system, it is even more unique in its programming.
“Other than following the FCC, we don’t really have rules about what DJs can do,” Parker said.
Sennett learned that on the first day, when he was recruited to the station by a fellow violinist with the MIT Symphony Orchestra.
“He said,‘ I don’t know if you’re interested in radio, but I have a show on WMBR and I play classical music and death metal, ’” Sennett recalls. “And I said, ‘In the same show?’ And he said, ‘Yes. That’s what we do at WMBR. ‘”
“A lot of other radio stations have some kind of programming board that decides what to show,” said Valentina Chamorro ’16, host of the poetry film Lentils and Stone. “That’s not WMBR. It’s a great platform that we all have access to do whatever we want, and that’s a great privilege.
Losing friendships and the live radio experience was difficult for many members during covid-19. But they adapted, learning new skills like using GarageBand’s audio-editing software. While some hosts admitted that the result felt more like podcasting than radio, it stayed alive on the station. And the management hopes to continue to open up the option for remote production so alumni can submit performances from anywhere.
But for many DJs, the opportunity to get back on the station — to wander the stacks and say hello to colleagues — doesn’t come anytime soon.
“When I arrived and the DJ in front of me was in the air, I felt like it was the bridge of a ship,” Sennett said. “The music is playing, and it’s your turn. You flip the switch to go into the air, and you hit play, and the ship is in your hands. Then you say hello to the next entry — someone you haven’t seen in a week. They go on and you think, ‘Now the ship is in someone else’s hands. I’ve done my part. ‘”