College radio is one of the last bastions of independence on the American airwaves. This is especially true in the Green Mountains, where both autonomy and community are still highly valued ideals. While much of the dial has been overtaken by corporate behemoths, the University of Vermont's 90.1 WRUV continues to deliver seat-of-the-pants, freeform radio. The station's long-running live music program, "Exposure," is one of its most popular offerings.
Running on duct tape and dedication for almost two decades, the show has a pedigree rivaling that of even the most storied rock clubs. Many local performers consider playing on "Exposure" to be an important rite of passage, a proper introduction to the Burlington scene. The program broadcasts each Wednes-day from 6 to 8 p.m. -- give or take. Remember, this is live, college radio, not some "time-is-money" corporate appendage.
The official history of "Exposure" is somewhat difficult to piece together. Back in the early '80s, local musician Brett Hughes was an WRUV DJ who "broadcast as much live music as possible," he says. Although Hughes' show wasn't called "Exposure," it probably served as a prototype. Local musicians such as The N-Zones' Zoot Wilson and Dan Archer, as well as national acts such as Taj Mahal and Townes Van Zandt, stopped by to chat and jam. "I wasn't very organized, but I managed to get some groups in the studio," recalls Hughes, now 46.
"Exposure" became an official show in the mid-'80s, when then-college-student Eric Bradford was a DJ. "For every show I would try to enlist whatever help I could," he says. "I had to do the sound myself a few times. But I also had friends who would help out. There was Darrell Bussino, who went on to do live sound for the Rollins Band and Lisa Loeb, and Peter Katis, who engineered both Interpol records," adds Bradford, 38.
After he moved to California, his "protégé" Charles Buckley took over. "I did the sound for The Spin Doctors," says the 37-year-old Buckley, who now works as a vice president at the Massachusetts-based State Street Bank. "They played acoustic, with the drummer keeping the beat by banging on some turntables. The singer was the only one that could hear anything through the headphones. I also remember them requesting on-air that someone with 'Vermont homegrown' meet them in front of the station." Buckley debunks one popularly held notion about the program's history. "For the record, Phish never played on 'Exposure,'" he says.
Subsequent hosts included Dennis Wygman, whom many remember as co-owner of the once-popular Burlington venue Club Toast. There may have been others, but since the show didn't keep any official records for most of its existence, it's tough to know for sure.
Since 2003, "Exposure" has been managed by two enterprising and energetic music enthusiasts, Jeremy Ayers, 30, and Dan Cypress, 31. "The partnership is that I book and host the show, and Dan runs the sound," Ayers says. By and large, the program is a labor of love. "We're adults now, we're very busy, and WRUV runs on a shoestring," Ayers explains.
He's an elementary school art teacher in Richmond, as well as a pottery and ceramics instructor. A tall, handsome fellow with a shaved head and quizzical demeanor, Ayers has been fascinated with the idea of live radio since he was a teenager. "I listened to the show in high school, when my friends' bands played on it," he says. "It's still the same placement, same band room -- WRUV's the same exact place."
Cypress does freelance sound work and hopes to open a kosher deli in Burlington in the near future. With his horn-rimmed glasses and prep-school haircut, he could almost be mistaken for a member of pop-rock band Weezer. His introduction to the exhilaration of mixing live radio came about when local band Deep Soda personally requested him to run their sound during a 2003 appearance. "They were pretty nervous, 'cause they're such perfectionists," Cypress says. "So I went in with them, and I just fell in love with the idea from there."
Although Ayers and Cypress are steeped in college-radio culture, neither attended UVM. "I was a DJ and business manager of the University of Delaware's station," Cypress explains. "That's where I first got interested in college radio." While Ayers has never lived on the UVM campus, WRUV has become his second home. "I was a DJ on the station starting in '92, just before my senior year at Colchester High School," he says proudly.
During a recent "Exposure" broadcast, the studio is bristling with manic energy. WRUV is a cramped enclave of rooms, located in the basement of the Billings Student Center. Stickers, posters and announcements cover nearly every inch of wall space, and CDs are everywhere. During live music sets, the band room's large double doors are propped open, "exposing" each group to the collegiate hallway. A couple of couches have been pulled up, tempting passersby to cop a squat. Occasionally they do.
Tonight, local hard-rock trio Lightning Ridge is scheduled to take over the airwaves. The floor of the band room is a serpentine mess of cables and connectors, which Cypress deftly navigates. Lightning Ridge guitarist and vocalist Ethan Ryea seems ready to roll, but since his group has arrived late, the show is running behind schedule.
Now back in the control room, Cypress tweaks the knobs on a prized new piece of equipment, appropriately called the Mix Wizard. "Ethan, give me your full volume," he says, communicating via microphone through a scratched and stickered pane of Plexiglas. "You don't sing that quietly in real life."
While Cypress thoroughly, if frantically, finishes the sound check, Ayers conducts some last-minute Internet research in the DJ booth. As showtime nears, he's happily Googling away. "I like to look around online to see what I can find out about the band before we go on," he says. "It helps me sound like I actually know what I'm talking about."
After locating Lightning Ridge's website, Ayers draws up a short list of questions for the group, mostly focusing on recent and upcoming gigs. He's done this countless times before and seems perfectly relaxed. "I'm pretty comfortable with the interviews," he says. "More so than they are, I think."
After a brief intro from Ayers, Lightning Ridge tear into their balls-out, arena-ready rock. Ryea is in fine form, belting out metal falsettos and blistering leads. The host nods in approval, a huge grin spreading across his face. "I think it sounds pretty good," he says. Cypress, entering the DJ booth, concurs. For these two in this moment, everything is right in the world.
The list of bands that have played on "Exposure" is staggering. More than 90 acts, including Mickey Western, the Ryan Power Trio, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Jugtown Pirates and the Loyalists, performed in the course of last season alone. This year the show will reach similar numbers. "At this point, I'm booked through November," Ayers says. "And most of the groups that play want to come back."
Local indie-pop songsmith Colin Clary is a regular. "I've lost count of how many times I've been on the program," he says. "It's an institution. I remember being aware of it even before I was playing in bands."
Burlington cartoonist and rock superstar James Kochalka is another vet. "All of my earliest performances were on WRUV," he says. "We'd just show up and cajole whatever DJ was on the air into letting us play a few songs. Eventually, we graduated to playing a scheduled slot, which was, of course, the 'Exposure' show."
Kochalka still enjoys rocking the dial. "There's a real feeling of power when you're being broadcast over the airwaves," he explains. "Especially when you're going wild and just making stuff up as you go along."
Despite the freewheeling, anything-goes vibe of "Exposure," the FCC still lays down the law about what is and isn't fit for broadcast. Swearing, of course, is a no-no. Led Loco, a Burlington band known for its ribald musical routine, managed to find a creative way around the rule. "We just thought of new ways to curse," says Eric Olsen, guitarist and vocalist for Loco and Swale. "Things like, 'Fut that bucking fitch.' You know the drill."
The show's mission to showcase upcoming bands seems to work out well for all parties. "As far as a promotional tool, it's surprising," Olsen says. "When Swale played, we actually got put in re-runs. When they re-broadcast it this summer as part of a best-of series, [WRUV] got a veritable avalanche of mail."
A compilation disc of the best performances from the show's recent past will be released later this year. And feedback -- the good kind -- is likely to keep on coming.