Freeform Radio

There’s just something great about radio. You’re in the car and you hear that song you loved listening to in high school, stoned in your best friend’s basement. You’re cooking dinner and you hear a story that is so bizarre, you stop and listen and let the pasta water boil over and scald your hands. The jokes are funny or corny. Static fades in and out. The music is loud and drives your parents insane. Whatever it is you love about radio, it’s always there. Live, broadcasting. On air.

At Tufts, our broadcasting signal has been going (sort of) strong for a hundred years. That’s right: with its beginnings in the Tufts Wireless Society, the Tufts radio station has been pumping some sort of sound onto our campus for a full century. With Genius creating playlists on our iTunes and the Internet providing us with more music and content than anyone can imagine, we have to ask ourselves, how has one station managed to have such a strong voice on campus for so long?

Andy Sayler is the general manager of WMFO. For Andy, radio is real. “There is still an inherently human appeal in knowing that there is a real individual at the other end of your music stream,” he said. This is why he keeps working in broadcasting–this captivating connection between the DJ and the listenership.

What’s tricky about radio is keeping that connection fresh. Tufts radio has been broadcasting for almost as long as the school has been around. Starting with just intermittent sounds and beeps, the Tufts station became the first commercial radio station in greater Boston after it started broadcasting daily in 1921.

After a twenty-seven year hiatus, a brief time as talk radio, and a brush with radiation leaks, Tufts radio moved to FM frequency broadcasting at 88.3 as WTUR. The FCC revoked WTUR’s license, however, after the station illegally but badassly used the railroad tracks behind Curtis Hall to stretch their signal. As WMFO Archivist Gavin Matthews explained, “After obtaining a new FCC license in 1967, WTUR devised a plan to increase broadcast range using the adjacent train tracks. By wiring the tracks as an antenna, the station was able to broadcast into New Hampshire and South Massachusetts (not Canada as often cited!). This quickly led to the shutdown of WTUR and the birth of WMFO.” On February 6, 1971, WMFO started broadcasting on AM frequency and later that year it was reborn as our beloved 91.5 FM.

WMFO is a freeform station, which means that the DJ’s are given total control over what content they put on the air and what music they play. They don’t have to submit to corporate interest or public demand. As Matthews put it, “Each weekly meeting, each show, each new DJ is a chance for something radically new to take root. Unlike commercial radio, WMFO does not limit or steer these ideas, but supports and nurtures them into reality.” This philosophy is apparent in WMFO’s incredibly diverse content. On campus, you might only tune in to 91.5 when your friend’s show is on at 4am or when a DJ you’ve heard of is playing music you like. What you may not know, however, is that WMFO broadcasts music shows, sports shows, talk shows, comedy shows, freestyle rap shows, and even a Haitian issues talk show that broadcasts in Creole. Podcasts of every shape and color are available at the click of a button.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this diverse content, we must ask the question; how can this eclectic radio station meet the listening needs of the whole Tufts’ population? Top 40 radio stations spend millions of dollars on field research and audience profiling. Pandora customizes personal playlists tailored to your music tastes. How can WMFO compete?

Well, WMFO is constantly redefining itself, changing, and thinking of new ways to involve the student body in its broadcasts. The content is all available for download and live streaming. The station blogs and archives. It has a Wiki detailing everything from its history to technical equipment. WMFO started a record label (‘On the Side Records’) a little over a year ago. This way, according to Sayler, the station can “put more emphasis on live on-air performances. [It] has the facilities, equipment, and personnel to pull off really high quality live performances.” Also, Tufts student bands that otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to record their music have a cheap and accessible resource on campus to perfect their sound. This fall, you probably were among the ocean of Tufts kids partying on the roof, jumping like a goon, dancing your heart out to WMFO at its Raze the Roof event. This spring, the station will host another outdoor dance party, and will be broadcasting the insanity live from NQR. By working closely with Concert Board and Midnight Café, the station hopes to play an active part in setting up concerts and bringing bands to perform on campus. Because, if anything, WMFO wants to keep the music playing.

WMFO celebrated its 40th Anniversary last Friday, highlighting its history of significance in Tufts culture. The event in the Curtis Hall studios showed off the renovated studios, new digital infrastructure, and live band performance space. As Assistant General Manager Alex Michaelson put it, “Our 40th Anniversary really couldn’t have come at a better time, and there has never been a better time for Tufts Radio.” With a steady stream of innovative ideas and a real human connection to the music, it’s easy to see why WMFO has made such a mark. The voices are right there in your dial, speaking to you. Broadcasting live from Curtis Hall. Fresh twenty-four hours a day.