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WSUM student radio starts new era with move to University Square

MADISON – After years of a pillar-to-post existence and adapting to jerry-rigged spaces that were never intended to house a radio studio, the University of Wisconsin-Madison”s WSUM-FM 91.7 has moved into shiny, new digs designed just for them at University Square, 333 East Campus Mall.

The student-run station moved into what had been standard office space in The Towers, 602 State St., in 1996. From 1993-96, the station existed in the office of a teaching assistant in Vilas Hall while students worked to get the station running after its predecessor went off the air.

In the early 1980s, students broadcast on a low-power FM transmitter without the knowledge of the Federal Communications Commission, which never granted the station a license. In 1993, the FCC asked them to discontinue broadcasting.

Dave Black, WSUM”s general manager, has been part of the station”s past and many locations. “The studio in The Towers had its challenges. You could hear every bus going past,” says Black. “The conversions of space and equipment we”ve gone through were horrendous. It has been a real struggle.”

Student radio on campus has a long history. It began in the 1950s with dorm-based operations with call letters such as WMHA, WLHA and WSRM. WMHA, which was later known as WLHA, was broadcast through the electric current running through the lakeshore residence halls. WSRM broadcast in Ogg and Sellery halls.

Radio on campus is much older. In 1921, the campus launched what would become WHA (the oldest station in the nation). Decades later, however, there was no licensed student station at the university. The irony of the situation was not lost on Black. For a school of this size “it was highly unusual that we did not have a licensed, department-affiliated radio station,” says Black. “What they had was dorm radio run through the housing authority, it was more of an informal, ad hoc arrangement.”

Finally in 2002, after years of negotiation, delays and hard work, WSUM began over-the-airwaves broadcasts from a 5,600-watt tower near Paoli. The signal comes from southwest of Madison and can be heard as far north as the Wisconsin Dells and Baraboo area. Black says WSUM averages 4,800-6,500 on-air listeners per week and 5,000 online listeners each month, which is a growing audience. Black adds that WSUM will have an improved method of sending its signal from the new station in University Square to the tower.

The new space has other significant upgrades from The Towers, the most important being that it was designed as a radio station from the ground up – no more adjusting and making do.

The station”s approximately 3,000 square feet include soundproofed studios, a mixing studio, a news booth, three listening rooms for editing, phone interviews and pre-recording shows, and plenty of room for engineering equipment and storage.

More than 200 volunteers work together to keep the airwaves buzzing. Among the volunteers, the majors represented include the expected journalism and mass communications students, but WSUM draws students from all areas, including entomology, chemistry and the social sciences. “Students sign up because it sounds like fun. But they can”t just tip their toes in the water – they have to take the commitment seriously and take pride in the tradition, just like with joining the Wisconsin Union Directorate or the marching band,” says Black.

And what of those who just want to make a mix tape for the world? “We try to discourage that. After a few shows they don”t have anything left to play or say,” says Black. “We have a training program and try to recruit freshmen so we get them trained and have them for years.”

Black leaves the station”s management and programming to the students. Almost. “I only step in when they do something that could jeopardize our license,” says Black.

Music spans classical, blues metal, experimental, jazz, country, folk, hip hop and techno. WSUM has had shows not heard anywhere else: “Punk and Polk” paired punk and polka music; “Rock and Bach” linked death metal and classical music; and “Hick Hop” explored country and hip hop. Talk shows cover ideas of the day: the environment, film, literature and politics. There”s a separate online stream for sports, giving students the chance to try play-by-play and color commentary.

Participating at WSUM teaches students how to create media and become critical media consumers. “About 98 percent of our students don”t go on to work in media,” says Black. He adds that some students selected UW-Madison because of WSUM and that they would not have enrolled here otherwise.

“Unlike commercial radio, WSUM is not just about the number of listeners. I want to see a team grow and see people doing all the little things right,” says Black. “The purpose of student radio is not to produce radio people for a shrinking job market. It”s to be part of a team and learn to work together. I love working with the students; they are so smart and creative. We have the best in the world.”

The public is invited to celebrate student radio and see WSUM”s new location. Tours, giveaways, special guests and speakers, and light refreshments are planned. Check it out from 4-7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 20, at 333 East Campus Mall.