Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2006


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Diane (Dede) Buchanan Wilsey ´65

WCNI´s Djs do it for the love of music

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For the Love of Music

For the Love of Music
John Tyler spins tunes on his Friday morning show, John-E´s World.

WCNI is a beacon of free-form radio in the New London area.

By Ben Johnson ’04

Be it funk or polka, heavy metal or folk, indie rock or blues — and that’s just the conventional stuff — WCNI radio offers its listeners an incredibly diverse schedule of commercial-free programming.

If you’re in signal range of 90.9 FM (or on the Internet, where you can listen at, you have the opportunity to embark on a musical journey into the unknown — a realm that is explored and expanded according to the station’s motto: “For the love of music.”

“WCNI, as an icon, was the first thing I ever believed in,” says Ross Morin ’05. “I never had a sense of what community was until I was part of ’CNI. Where else can you hear three hours of Latin gospel music or polka?”

Morin, who was station manager while a student at CC, is just one of hundreds of people who have been touched deeply by their involvement with the station.

The radio station started as a student club in the 1960s on a barely audible AM frequency when the College was an all-women’s institution. Back then, they called it Palmer Radio, and it didn’t stretch far beyond the reaches of the campus dormitories. Over the years, however, the station moved to FM and switched its signal power from 10 to 500 watts. In 2003, it upgraded to 2,000 watts.

While it may have started as a campus-only endeavor, WCNI’s reach into New London and beyond has been important in the evolution of the station, and involvement with the surrounding community is now arguably one of the station’s most important defining characteristics.

Tim Heap ’90, who grew up in southeastern Connecticut listening to WCNI, became a DJ and station manager as a CC student.

“CNI always had a great cross-pollination kind of thing,” says Heap, lead man in the New York City-based band Heap. “When I was there, the kids that were managing the station were very much in tune to the community members. The students had great play lists, and the community members were turning the kids on to their own musical tastes.”

Hugh Birdsall (who is the son of the late Charles J. MacCurdy Professor Emeritus of History Richard Birdsall) and Peter Detmold, who play in the regionally famous pub rock band The Reducers, have had their Dead Air radio show (along with DJ Paul Sweeney) since 1979. Birdsall says that the longevity of their show is due to the medium and their connection with the greater New London area. “WCNI is absolutely indispensable to that fringe element of nonconformists, punks, artists and musicians who are scattered throughout the region,” he says. “The local music scene thrives in large measure because WCNI is there to play the music that comes out of that scene ... .”

WCNI’s other important feature is, of course, its music programming. Unlike many stations, Connecticut College’s radio station doesn’t have bloc or rotation programming, which restricts the DJ’s power to choose what he or she plays.

This means that for each three-hour slot, be it 6 to 9 a.m. or 9 p.m. to midnight, the person with the headphones, microphone and CD players/turntables can say or play pretty much anything, as long as it complies with basic FCC regulations (i.e., no cussing on the air).

Ray Szymanski — “The Polka Man” as he is known on his biweekly radio show The Polka Jam — represents this diverse programming. While polka is often stereotyped as “oompah” music for older people, Szymanski maintains that he and his wife, Mary (the two met at a polka dance, of course), play a show that caters to the younger polka crowd, utilizing a mix of country, zydeco and rock music with a polka flavor.

“We get Internet listeners from all over the United States,” says Szymanski. “I’ve got a girl who calls in from Africa almost every show.”

And if you think WCNI can’t get stranger than polka-rock, you’re in for a surprise. Jim Miller and Jana Savanapridi ’00 are two DJs who have been involved with the station for many years, and their radio shows push the boundaries of conventional programming.

Savanapridi has done it all at WCNI, from serving as program director and music director to holding the general manager position for the last seven years. She happened on WCNI Radio freshman year while walking home one night from studying at the Charles E. Shain Library.

“A DJ was standing outside the station, and he asked me what I was doing studying on a Friday night,” says Savanapridi. “He said, ‘Well, what do you like to do when you’re not studying?’ and I said, ‘Sit in my room and listen to records.’ Then he brought me into ’CNI and showed me the music library, and I spent the next several days there, listening to all of the records. I would get out of class, and go straight to the station. They wanted me to do a show, but I was too shy. So they told me that only DJs were allowed to be inside the station, and if I wanted to stick around I’d have to do a show.”

Though she has the wealth of knowledge of a bona fide rock musicologist, spinning tunes from obscure rock bands like the Residents or San Francisco’s Negativland on former shows, on her current program, Pretend It’s Fiction, Savanapridi fuses excerpts of literature with an eclectic mix of music.

Jim Miller happened upon college radio while attending a summer program at Wesleyan University in the 1980s. One day, on an invite from a girl he had a crush on, Miller visited the Wesleyan station. He found two college students playing German beer drinking songs and Krishna yoga chants simultaneously on two turntables.

“Nobody was stopping them, and people were actually listening to the show,” says Miller.

Miller’s WCNI show, Paper Cuts, is mostly spoken word and rebroadcasts of radio storyteller Jean Shepherd’s old programs. He also plays old self-help LPs over the radio, and even some hypnosis-inducing records. His show is one of the strangest things you’ll hear on the FM dial, and he’s obviously proud of this fact.

“Airwaves still belong to the American people, and that ownership hangs by a thread,” says Miller, who says that WCNI is special because it offers a rare-breed of DJ autonomy in a society that is increasingly driven by the dollar. “WCNI creates space, one listener at a time. Our only demand is quality. The most important relationships at WCNI develop between the single DJ and the single listener.”

Craig Rowin and Rory Panagotopulos, two seniors at CC who do a comedy show every Sunday, know about this personal connection between the DJ and the listener. They depend on people calling into the station for the inspiration for their five-minute improv skits, which they break up with music.

“We’ve got a guy named Jim, who lives in New London, and calls in every show — he loves it,” says Rowin.

WCNI is one reason that some students were drawn to the College in the first place. Richard Brukner ’87 says that he only applied to colleges that had radio stations. When he found out how accessible the station was, even for freshmen, Brukner knew Connecticut College was his first choice.

“The other colleges had these stations that were very intimidating,” says Brukner, who now works for Time-Warner Cable in NYC. “At Conn, I figured I could get in there from the very beginning and take it over by the time I was done, and that’s sort of what I did.”

The College provides space to the radio station free of charge, but no financial support. It’s entire $25,000 annual operating budget is financed by fundraising in the community, primarily from listener contributions. But despite struggles with fundraising and management, the station has managed to build a bridge from the College to the community, maintaining the freedom of programming that makes WCNI so important to its listeners and DJs.

“The equipment is often old and breaks down regularly — and the studio is beat up,” says Lee Hisle, the College’s vice president for information services who, along with serving on the WCNI executive board, also has a Texas music show (on air, he’s “W. Lee”). “But the station seems to thrive nonetheless. This is directly attributable to the dedication of the students and community members who want the station to succeed. WCNI brings a fresh sound and perspective to a broadcast medium that is increasingly homogenized.”

Dean of Student Life David Milstone serves as the chair of the executive board, which oversees the station’s legal logistics and license. Milstone says that maintaining the current programming of the station is important to the College.

“The students are passionate, the community members are passionate, and we see WCNI as a wonderful educational organization for the community and the students. It’s one of the rare structures on campus that has a culture at its basis that automatically joins community members and students. I can’t think of another vehicle at Connecticut College that does that more perfectly.”

Rick Wrigley ’94, former station manager who now DJs a weekly show of early rock and roll, has a favorite spot in the station. It’s a dedication to another community member who has passed away, written on a plaque above the crammed record library. The plaque reads “Dedicated to the memory of Michael Magoo Mugavero: DJ, Musician, Friend.”

“We don’t get paid for this,” says Wrigley. “We all do it because we love music, and we want to play it so that other people might love it, too. It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on — I kid you not.”

Johnson ’04, a former DJ at WCNI, is an arts writer for the The Day and guitarist in the New London-based, indie-rock band, Ringers.

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