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Radio Daze

Non-commercial college stations can rock your world -- even if you're not a student

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You've got your iPod, your acoustic guitar, a box of bootleg cassettes and maybe even a crate of your favorite wax -- you're set up for the school year, right? Well, it's a good start, but what are you gonna do when the craving for new tunes hits? The affliction might even strike when you're at your most vulnerable -- at 1 a.m. in an empty dorm room. A thirst for fresh music cannot be quenched by warm beer, though it's tempting to try. There's always illegal file-sharing programs (unless, like Middle-bury College, your school has a deal with Napster), but who wants the stinging guilt of ripping off record companies? On nights -- and mornings -- like these, you'll need the human touch. Thankfully, there's a trusty friend on your radio dial and browser window. Incoming students, meet college radio.

The Green Mountain State and its institutions of higher learning have long been havens for cutting-edge broadcasts. In many cases, participation in the free-for-all that is campus radio prepares its DJs and staffers for later careers in ways a standard curriculum can't hope to match. Here's a rundown of some of the most respected and listened-to college stations in Vermont. Put down that MP3 player, tune in, and turn on.

Underground music sounds best when it's broadcast from, well, underground. Situated in the basement of UVM's Billings Student Center, 90.1 WRUV makes its mark felt in the community like no other. Founded in the early '50s, WRUV was one of the first AM broadcasters in the area. The shebang went strictly FM in the early '70s, and has been a refuge for music freaks ever since. The station is legend-ary among local townsfolk, and the majority of on-air talent isn't even students.

Neither are the listeners, according to longtime DJ L.J. Palardy, who describes an ancient turf war between the station's college representatives and its working-stiff DJs. "We sent out 9000 fliers through the campus mail and didn't increase our student listenership one iota," bristles Palardy. WRUV's programming is aggressively non-commercial, and its directors mean business. Playlists cover nearly every musical style, but one thing is guaranteed: If it's on MTV, you won't be hearing it on 90.1.

Local artists use the station as a springboard to larger recognition -- getting played on WRUV provides an important rite of passage for area bands. The long-running program "Exposure" is Burlington's own "John Peel Sessions," and features in-studio performances from the community's top musical talent. Even the recently deceased Phish played live on the air back in '85.

Over the years, the 460-watt "Better Alternative" hasn't given up on its core focus: to bring a fresh supply of music that otherwise might never be heard on the dial. You computer addicts can also listen in on streaming audio. The airwaves are open to anyone motivated enough to take a brief, FCC-required training course, but be prepared to accept some crazy shifts -- UVM's broadcast mavericks are on-air year-round, from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. That practically guarantees that if you call 656-4399, somebody will be there to take your request.

Located in a sleepy, quintessential Vermont village, Middlebury College's WRMC 91.1 is a monster of campus radio. With 2900 watts of power, the station dwarfs its peers in broadcast muscle. WRMC is a fine-tuned machine, with a student staff plugged into the heart of the independent music business. Former music directors at the station have gone on to be industry heavy-hitters: Chicago's Dusted Magazine -- considered the resource for indie music charts -- is run by a former WRMC MD.

Broadcasting from the Proctor Building at the center of campus, 91.1 aims to satisfy a wide range of musical tastes. Genres include indie rock, jazz, world, avant-garde, blues and more. Independent labels keep the station well stocked, and WRMC takes this relationship very seriously. Board member Andrew Bishop says that 91.1 is "devoted to giving airtime to artists who normally don't get radio play." This dedication has paid off in the form of one of the region's largest non-commercial music libraries.

Getting a spot at the mike isn't a hassle; the station holds a DJ meeting at the beginning of each semester and, once on board, you'll be spinning tunes to your heart's content. Local fans have to brace themselves for radio withdrawals once a year, however. The station shuts down briefly toward the end of summer.

A lot has changed for Johnson State College's WJSC 90.7 since 1969. Back then, the fledgling enterprise made its 10 watts known to the area from atop a telephone pole. Now, with a respectable permanent address in the Dewey Campus Center and wattage worthy of its "station," WJSC is primed to deliver its eclectic broadcasts to the student community and beyond. Once you leave the immediate vicinity, however, the signal fades like a hashish dream.

DJs at 90.7 are primarily students, but, according to Commun-ity Advisor David Goddette, a few faculty and locals are usually on board as well. "The DJs here love the outdoors and have a different perspective on life," Goddette says, suggesting that being nestled in the mountains affects the station's programming style. This all-natural vibe is reflected in down-to-earth, user-friendly radio. And although WJSC plays everything from classical to heavy metal, music is only one part of the picture. Shows such as "Democracy Now" and "Earth First Radio" reflect a diverse and liberal approach to broadcasting.

WJSC is pretty bare-bones, and the attitude might be a little too laid-back for some. But the station has its noteworthy alums: Back in the late '70s Cyndi Lauper served as MD, before she became so unusual. Now, there's a tough act to follow.

Goddard College's WGDR is

as fascinating as the school that spawned it. A free-form, socially conscious station, 91.1 (yes, the same number as Middlebury; more on that in a minute) has weathered many storms on its way to broadcast glory. News is a huge part of WGDR's programming schedule: The station is part of Pacifica, a coalition of progressive broadcasters that provides syndicated news services. WGDR's three to five hours of news is a lot of talk for a college radio station.

Goddard College is "low-residency" -- which means there aren't many students around to run the station. General Manager Amanda Gustafson says that 99 percent of WGDR's staff are community members. And what a variety -- the oldest DJ is in his mid-eighties, while the youngest licensed DJ is 14. The station "employs" a 7-year-old jockey as well, but he has to come in with his parents.

As corporate-owned, profit-driven media conglomerates gobble up available airspace, more and more people in Washington County and beyond seek out Goddard's mix of music and unfiltered news. This is putting a strain on the little station that would if it could; according to Gustafson, WGDR's biggest challenge is keeping up with the demands of growth.

The Middlebury and Goddard stations share more than a number on the dial, interestingly enough. Aman-da Gustafson's brother Andrew is WRMC's business director -- sibling rivalry, anyone? Middlebury has the strongest college radio signal in the area, making it tough for Goddard to expand any further within the same frequency. Securing operational funding is also unique at the station; WGDR gets money from the college, but rakes in an additional $25,000 from on-air fundraising drives. Now there's a supportive community.

Once upon a time, St. Michael's College radio station WWPV was located at Fort Ethan Allen. While it may have been well-protected against irate students who didn't like the playlists, it was probably a tad inconvenient. These days, 88.7 makes its home right on campus in Colchester. The station is quite popular among the natives, with programming running from the Jimmy Buffet-inspired "Kahunaville North" show to straight-up punk-rock blowouts. Former Music Director Cherise LaPine claims WWPV doesn't "shy away from anything per se," but administrators prefer that the DJ sets don't consist entirely of mainstream music.

WWPV has had its share of claims to fame in recent years: A popular compilation based on a long-running local-music program was released, and some ridiculously popular bands such as Primus have performed in the studio. WWPV is unquestionably user-friendly, though its programming isn't as challenging as it could be. If you want to shake things up a bit yourself, it's not difficult to become a member of this radio family; at the beginning of every semester, WWPV scouts out new talent. Prospective DJs simply have to come up with a proposal for a show -- "the more unique, the better," according to LaPine.

Students get the first pick of available slots, with faculty and staff grabbing the rest. WWPV has a unique partnership with Vermont Public Radio that allows it to broadcast BBC news during hours in which students may be, um, in class or something. The station's online broadcasts have even inspired a global audience from time to time: Listeners in Japan and Australia have been known to call in or write. Down the street or across the world, requests can be phoned in at 654-2887.

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