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Old School Radio For Modern Airwaves

Arts & Culture | November 27, 2012

Passing the intersection of Boston and College Ave into the unassuming brown brick of Curtis Hall, through the empty lobby, past the key-card enabled door, and up three flights of narrow stairs, you start to hear the faint sound of music. Perhaps it’s the latest pop jingle, a golden oldie rock classic, or a smooth and synthesized vocal dance track. Whichever the case, you are standing on a small landing with a colorful, sticker plastered door in front of you, muffled tunes escaping from within. You’ve arrived at the WMFO station.

But wait, what does that mean? That’s one weird acronym. Is that the Winter Melon Fantasy Orchestra? Sounds pretty sweet. Besides being a wicked new band name, WMFO is actually the name of Tufts’ very own 24-hour live radio station, operating on the 91.5 FM frequency. This is a station featuring students and locals alike on a freeform format, broadcasting and recording their voices, thoughts, and passions all from within the space of a station full of narrow corridors and vivid wall decorations. “WMFO being ‘freeform’ radio provides a great place for self-expression by the members of the Tufts community,” says DJ Amy Kim. “It’s a celebration of diversity and individuality from students as well as DJs from different backgrounds and occupations.”

Freeform radio is a vague name for a medium, but its central idea is simple. There need not be a concept to any show; DJs are free to explore any topic or genre they feel is appropriate on a weekly basis. Anything goes, except for the Three Golden Rules of Radio: Don’t be drunk on the radio, really don’t be drunk on the radio, and don’t pretend to be drunk on the radio. Also, for legal reasons, never swear. Besides those restrictions, WMFO is a laid back atmosphere where participants talk, play music, and generally just have fun.

“I do a show with two other people, so we usually split it into three sets,” explains another WMFO DJ, Deena Alexander. “This works out since we all have similar, albeit not the same, musical tastes and can have jam parties in the studio.” Although no concept is required to host a show, this certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t any themed shows. Themes range from “Music You Might Otherwise Miss” to “Strictly 80s,” or “Art Haus Show,” “Celtic Dawn/Between the Worlds,” and “Ludwig van BEAThoven.” Although many DJs play music from their personal collection, WMFO keeps a huge musical library spanning a range of eras. The student-run music department receives and screens all music from the latest big name albums to modest demos from local artists, ensuring the diversity of tunes in the station. WMFO doesn’t limit itself strictly to radio productions, however. The station also hosts a student-run record label named “On the Side Records” which provides recording opportunities for local artists and bands. On occasion, these bands have even played live on-air sets from the studio.

Stepping into the station is itself an experience. Situated in what is essentially one decked-out hallway, the third floor studio branches off into small rooms and studios from its main vein. Every inch of the studio is covered with photographs, paint, drawing, and graffiti. The entire floor is a canvas for the DJ community’s creativity, cataloging moments in time through the years. Sagging couches and mismatched chairs are dotted throughout the studio, and wooden shelves housing decades worth of cassettes, CDs, and vinyls line the walls. The station has character and is maintained by a lot of heart.

Scrappy but resilient, WMFO has survived the very worst throughout its lifetime. Its first incarnation was a small group of students in 1956 who used old military equipment, but it was swiftly shut down. In 1967, the station resurfaced—only to be closed a couple of years later when students hooked up equipment to MBTA commuter rail connections in order to widen their broadcast scope, turning the rail into a massive underground antenna. It was again re-opened in 1971 under the contemporary name WMFO, now using the freeform format. The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” was the first song played. In 1977, a fire consumed all of the building and destroyed the majority of the station’s vinyl. However, true to its 24-hours-a-day spirit, the station was back on the air within six hours.

What does the future hold for this station? With online and digital media platforms consuming everything we consider traditional, some think radio as a medium is in trouble. Yet, with the creation of social media and online streaming capabilities, radio has never been so widespread. DJs often use Facebook and blogs to promote their shows, and listeners can easily tune in via a traditional radio or connect through the WMFO website at any time of day, all day long. As a DJ, I can attest that my own high school friends listen to my show from all over the country. And Kim says that her parents support her all the way from her home of South Korea, where her show airs at 3:00 a.m. “I think that the Internet is doing to TV what TV did to the radio, but radio survived that, so I don’t see why it wouldn’t survive the Internet,” Alexander remarked. “More people can listen now, as streaming isn’t hindered by geography. However, I also think new things being done with radio are brilliant, like what NPR has done with RadioLab.”

Most importantly, WMFO is always looking for more people to join its ranks. The station is an ever-changing animal, where new ideas and programs are constantly encouraged and made into reality. Becoming a DJ is an incredibly simple process: just two training sessions and a quiz can grant you one whole hour to broadcast yourself to the planet. Besides being a DJ, students and community members can easily get involved in administrative departments like Music or Operations. But any student involvement helps contribute to the cultural identity of Tufts and the Medford-Somerville area in general. All you need is something to say and something to play. “Freeform radio is an avenue of communication open to basically anyone, which I think is massively important. Everyone should get a chance to be heard.” Alexander declared.

So no matter who you are—student or local resident—whenever you tune into 91.5 FM, remember that your listening pleasure comes from a group of amazing and different people broadcasting from a cramped, splashy, special studio on the third floor of Curtis Hall, perched at the corner of Boston and College Ave.