Tag Archives: wprb

End of the Broadcast Day

During three months of Sunday mornings, I was the first DJ on the air on WPRB-FM. I popped in the “sign on cart” that opened with a bit of patriotic music and then segued right into a Dixieland-style vamp that invited listeners to stay with us through the broadcast day. That was always one of my favorite parts of being on the air; the mix of charged-but-serious (who can’t be serious when you are firing up 17,000 watts of power through a lot of analog electronics?) and seriously fun struck the right balance for college radio. Bill Rosenblatt used to say that good DJs made you feel like you were sitting in the living room with them, listening to records. For me, the sign-on cart was turning on the lights to invite people in.

My Reunions jacket "patch" in memory of Jim Robinson.  I left it tacked on the wall at WPRB.

My Reunions jacket “patch” in memory of Jim Robinson. I left it tacked on the wall at WPRB.

Over the course of three years and two summers, I learned a number of valuable lessons at WPRB, ranging from how to sell to how to present to people much more senior than me to how to deal with seemingly large (but ultimately small and short-lived) crises. The very tenor of the place, the mix of fun and function, of embracing a freedom to explore musically, technically and organizationally, stemmed from Jim Robinson (Princeton ’43), co-founder of the station. He was, in the words of John Shyer, immediately comfortable with everyone he met, no matter how many decades removed from his own experiences and musical tastes. His living room was always open for advice or insight. As an engineer, in sidebar discussions with him, he impressed me as someone who believed in solving problems the right way, even if it was less celebrated or less visible, because design was important.

My Princeton experience was centered on WPRB, and for that I owe a huge debt to Jim Robinson, not only for having the courage and initiative to get it on the air, but for continuing to imbue it with love, a sense of community and continuity for the next four decades. obituaryJim passed away last week, just prior to his 70th Princeton Reunion. An impressive group of alumnni from six different decades congregated in the station to pay tribute to him, as we were all influenced directly or indirectly by his gentle nature.

Long Tale of Non-Commercial College Radio

Commercial college radio provided me with my first experiences in sales. As an advertising sales “rep” for WPRB-FM, Princeton’s student-run radio station, I had to pitch ideas, produce ads, write copy, frequently voice the ads myself, manage our cash stream and do demand generation. It was a great way to finance my growing record collection. There are only a handful of commercial college stations; most are either financed by the affiliated institution or through listeners, much like the Public Broadcasting System (“supported by viewers like you”).

But WPRB-FM has a long and technologically illustrative Tiger tale. As the first FM college station, it received a broadcast frequency of 103.5 FM, later swapped for cash and the equally useful 103.3 FM. Most student-run stations are banished to the lower end of the frequency spectrum, where they’re less likely to be found by “dial twiddling”, something that worked in favor of listeners in the Trenton-Princeton-New Brunswick Route 1 corridor who let go of the tuning knob when something on the radio make them tune in a bit more closely. A broadcast format that included classical and jazz provided an advertising platform for local businesses: jewelers, travel companies, the University Store, and some higher end eateries. The station was, and is, self-supporting without any assistance from Princeton University aside from the use of space in a dormitory basement, and (at the time) a spot for the broadcast antenna on top of the same building.

Afternoons and evenings featured WPRB’s “progressive” format, today probably known as alternative, eclectic, or just fun. It included everything from truly obscure local bands (like Regressive Aid and their conjoined one-show band with The Groceries, the aptly named Lunchmeat 2000) to bands that nobody had heard of (at the time) like REM. Our listeners were as varied as our on-air programming; I’m sure that most of my classmates who frequently voiced “WPRB plays crap” as we spun U2’s Boy now own copies of Bono vox and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. We had shows that featured reggae, art rock (think Yes, Genesis and King Crimson), metal and alternative, and during one weekend when we were moving a wall, all 20-minute plus tracks so that we could swing hammers and not just bass lines. Our varied programming after lunchtime let us pick up “punk clubs” (King Tut City Gardens) and various other counter-cultural havens as advertisers who had no other routes to listeners.

College radio, powered by a desire to disrupt convention, and expose listeners to something new, is the epitome of a long tail. Only through college radio could my friend P hear Alaskan punk band (don’t ask) “The Anemic Boyfriends” on WFMU-FM and declare them high art. The essence of Chris Anderson’s long tail economics is to drive more overall volume by first expanding the “tail” of a distribution curve, and then moving demand from the head of the curve (smash hits) to the tail (future micro-smashes). The problem in the 80s was distribution — as desperate as P was to find the 45 RPM single of The Anemic Boyfriends, it took nearly a year and a trip to the ferro-ciously good used record store in Ithaca, New York, to find the vinyl.

No matter how long the tail, at the end of the distribution curve, there’s another distribution curve of even more refined, more obscure listeners. It’s what led Dave, one of my managers who knows I have a penchant for being a Yes-man, to point me at Porcupine Tree as the Yes of this generation. He’s right, and I spent $45 on content I would have never found through any other channel. And at the transitive closure of those distribution and demand curves, you’ll find Indie Rock Pete from Diesel Sweeties, afraid to like anything with a positive listener count.

In the mid-80s, WPRB went through a financial change brought about by the confluence of an expanding New York radio market making our 103.3 FM frequency more of an impediment to our neighbors on the dial who wanted to go bigger. Through several years of negotiations, FCC filings and long meetings, WPRB was able to expand its broadcast area and received a cash infusion at the same time. Numerous exhaustive and exhausting discussions ensured about the financial models that would govern how and where the money would be spent in future years. We debated the risks of investment strategies, regulatory issues and continuity of student leadership, and yet it was forces exogenous to the broadcast industry that reshaped WPRB 20 years later.

When you mix podcasting, blogging, and social networks as ways for students to share their musical likes and dislikes, the on-air pulpit is less appealing. Running a commercial station with a unique value proposition is much harder when that same value-through-unique programming can be obtained with a combination of Google and iTunes. WPRB has switched from a commercial format to a listener supported financial model, still maintaining the quasi-independence of Princeton’s direct sponsorship and the fiercely independent creativity in its programming. College radio is far from dead. It does, however, rely on direct support of listeners who delight in hearing something new, finding a reference to it on a web site, and monetizing that interest almost immediately, without intervening ads for unrelated products.

Private Tag, Public Confessional

I was tagged yesterday so I get to present five fun-filled formerly faintly fanned-out facts about myself, excluding my love of alliteration or anything I’ve blogged or podcasted about previously, greatly limiting the source material.

Warning: this post contains references to nudity, lingerie, and anatomic correctness, and it got really, really long. And in case anyone is four or five standard deviations off the mean and wants to know how I chose to relay these tidbits, they’re in chronological order.

I know what the GECOS field is. My first job was at Six Flags Great Adventure. And yes, I was in the IT department, which was located in an inflatable “bubble” temporary building located on an unused part of the parking lot just behind the main entrance. The benefits were plentiful but of marginal value: an employee store that sold some of the choitchkes you could get in the park, the ability to zip in and out of the park on your break time, and employee parties that usually involved having us test out some new ride. The IT part was humorous in retrospect. First system we had was a Northern Telecom (before they were Nortel) Sycor 445, running some mutant variant of CP/M and six random pages torn from a Multics manual. Our second system was an actual Honeywell GECOS Unix-like system, which felt familiar after having used BSD Unix for the previous academic year. So munging the GECOS field in a password file isn’t entirely foreign to me. Coolest thing about the job: For about two months, I worked for a guy named Rex. Funniest thing about the job: we shared the bubble building with the body puppets, those larger-than-life characters who walk around and accidentally terrorize little kids. It’s hard to be serious about writing COBOL programs when a guy with a 3-foot wide head walks into your inflatable office looking for the bathroom. Best deal of the job: I once wrote some simple shell scripts for the Sycor system so that we could transmit our payroll records to Six Flags HQ in Dallas, have them processed via RJE, and receive the formatted check images, payroll register and general ledger all during the graveyard shift, when we didn’t have to warn people keypunching card images that typing too fast would cause our 300 baud modem to drop the BSC connection. Those scripts saved us an average of $300 in phone bills a week. I got a $50 bonus (not in employee store credit) at the end of the summer. And it was a big deal.

I sold radio advertising. It was my first sales job, and it paid commissions. WPRB-FM is not only one of the first college FM stations, it is one of a few commercial college stations, supporting itself through advertising sold to local and national businesses. I learned about prospecting, building a pipeline, collections, cold calling (lots of cold calling), and proof of concept work (when we’d produce an ad and play it for the prospective client). Of course, part of being at the bottom of the sales pile was that you had to produce some of your own commercials after selling them, which made me (for a very short while) the radio voice of Edith’s Lingerie. I still love good radio commercials, especially the Bud Light “Real Men of Genius” series.

I took aerobics classes. It was the healthiest time of my life, the last time the most significant digit in my weight was a one, and while I wasn’t really flexible I at least knew where my toes were. Blame Pat Parseghian, who was my co-worker at Princeton, across the street neighbor and connoisseur of post-class take-out Chinese food.

I have no uvula. That’s the anatomic correct reference, or more correctly, the anatomically incorrect reference. More precisely, I had UPPP surgery in 1989, and it’s quite possible that my uvula is enjoying a nice vacation on an eastern seaboard beach with other medical waste of the era. As an aside, it’s a really cool way to freak out a new physician.

I was hired by Sun as a sysadm. I started at Sun in 1989, three weeks from the end of the fiscal year when the previous systems administrator in the Lexington, Massachusetts sales office literally up and quit one day. I combined what I knew of device drivers from Princeton days with what I learned from the rest of the pre-Professional Services “Consulting Gang” and got into performance, fixing kernel bugs and networking code. Six months before starting at Sun, I had interviewed at Thinking Machines Corporation, and was offered a job that I turned down, but which would have landed me at Sun in server engineering rather than systems engineering.

With a tip of the hat to ESPN: The Magazine, here’s what didn’t make the list: I once made Rob Pike laugh at a USENIX conference, I believe there is a highly airbrushed but plausibly denied picture of my backside on the Internet, and I am one of only a literal handful of people who know the only building that is not named Daniel P. Arovas Hall. More on that one another day, I think.

Postscript: Turns out that Rex actually went on to the big time after Great Adventure, as he was (until his retirement) the CFO of Isle of Capri Casinos. The things you find out using Google when you’re researching a blog entry at 1:00 AM. Here’s the downside: if Rex had not retired, and if the Isle of Capri bought the Pittsburgh Penguins, then I could have asked him for a job, again: driving the Zamboni.