Oberlin Alumni Magazine Spring 2001 vol.96 no.4
Feature Stories
Planet Earth
High Atop Wilder
[cover story] Creating a Scene
You've Got Mail: Now What?
Experience, Exposure & Enlightenment
Body Art
Message from the Board of Trustees
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership sharpens Economic Development
Composing a Career
President Dye's Sabbatical
Closing Institutional Devides
In Brief
Alumni Notes: Profile
Alumni Notes: Losses
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing
High Atop Wilder Hall
  by Michael K. McIntyre
  For 50 years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, loyal listeners have heard brilliant alternative radio emanating from Oberlin College's own FM radio station.

It is almost midnight as a laid-back senior with a bushy beard enters the casual coolness of WOBC, Oberlin College's student-run radio station, to kick off another semester of non-stop sound.


Music of every possible genre, political talk, advocacy, news, meaningless babble, grade-school guests, late-night cursing, radio theater--all of it will originate here, spreading across campus and beyond on a radio wave 900 watts strong, tuned to FM 91.5.

Cool is the vibe here, but, technically, the place is Dante-hot, thanks to hissing radiators on the third floor of Wilder Hall that never know when enough is enough. The place feels more like a fixed-up attic--do-it-yourself, of course--where the parents won't bother you. (But just in case, there's a brand new magnetic card reader at the door.) Fresh paint coats the walls, and broken-in couches that could easily be sitting on a front porch on Professor Street serve as office furniture. Somehow, they don't seem incongruous next to the fancy iMac computers.

Music vaults--take a deep breath--for folk, Motown, jazz, world, RPM (electronic), classical, punk, metal, and pop are actually overstuffed closets. The studio at once shows age and infancy: Turntables for vinyl records--which children identify only as giant, black CDs--and cart machines that play old-fashioned sound cartridges share space with CD and mini-disc players. And, of course, there are the necessities of broadcast: microphones and headphones and, to interact with the listening public, a telephone.

The station never sleeps. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, there's something--if not the eclectic music, then wide-ranging talk. Seventh graders talk about cool-colored hairstyles one day on the i'm on the stereo program while, after the midnight hour, DJs enjoy gratuitous (they'd argue "educational") sex talk on a weekly show called "60 Minutes of Smut," which, apparently, is a big hit with the prisoners in nearby Grafton.

  Local middle-school students Ashley Hand, Gail Cole, and Melissa Varner gab about sports, clothes, and parents.

The spring semester ushered in a new broadcast season for WOBC, in the midst of celebrating its 50th anniversary year. The staff estimates that some 5,000 people have come through the station over the years, and the group has been planning a reunion bash for Commencement weekend.

"I'm most gratified to see that 'our' enterprise has lasted and flourished these many years,'' says Bob Chamberlain '51. "For me, the station was an introduction to ham radio, an interest that sparked my transfer as a military draftee from the infantry into the signal corps." That, he said, led to a 34-year career as a signal corps reservist and 50-plus years in ham radio public service and emergency communications.

College broadcasts actually began in 1949, airing three evenings per week on WEOL-AM in Elyria. According to a 1949 Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Oberlin's Forensic Union developed a schedule of "news on Tuesdays, interpretation of domestic and international affairs on Wednesdays, and music on Thursdays." By 1950 students were in the midst of creating a College station, then known as KOCN-AM, which broadcast for five days in May as a trial run. In the 1950-51 academic year, KOCN signed on for good, soon changing its call letters to WOBC.

"It was all spit and bailing wire. I should say spit and telephone wire,'' says Bill Hayward '51, a KOCN pioneer as a graduate student. The telephone wire reference is a nod to the jury-rigged early broadcasts, which went over the police call telephone lines strung up across town, and then into each dorm on separate 110-volt circuits through connections developed by student engineers.

A Conservatory graduate and pianist, Hayward was the station's earliest music man. He loved to borrow records from dorm mates for his Dinner Time Concert, spinning popular stuff like George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Students also came in to play on the $500 Baldwin baby grand piano the station had purchased--its first live performances.

KOCN pioneer Bill Hayward '51 talks about the early days of Oberlin radio with current staffers Ben Calhoun, Neil Freeman, and Joe Kremer.


Some of today's music might blister the ears of folks conditioned to Gershwin and Porter, which is fine with Hayward, who, with his wife Shirley '51, lives in Kendal at Oberlin after retiring from a career in radio and television. "I'm very happy that these young people are getting to do their thing, just as we did our thing," he says.

Their "thing" is to work for a non-commercial station where DJs can play and say anything (between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., anyway, unless they want to risk FCC action). The spit and bailing wire of a half century ago has been replaced with a transmitter that sends a strong signal throughout the county and beyond, up-to-date broadcasting equipment (the station's first portable tape recorder, Hayward recalls, weighed 64 pounds, while today's mini-disk recorders are virtually weightless) and, better yet, the ability to be heard just about anywhere in the world through webcasts over the Internet by logging onto www.wobc.org.

WOBC's program director is Joe Kremer, a junior physics and Russian major from Connecticut who works so hard searching for the right combination of shows that it wears on him like caring for a child. He appears uncharacteristically relaxed as Jake Abrams--the bushy bearded man--enters the studio late on February 13 for WOBC's new season.

"This is the first day that I haven't been consumed by radio," Kremer explains. He's one of only six paid staffers, though their $40-per-week salary translates to pennies per hour. The 100 or so other students and nine community DJs make nothing, though they clamor for a job.

"It's really competitive to get a show, and people who are selected are selected for a reason. They have something to offer, something different,'' says Nick Stillman, a senior history major from Maine and editor-in-chief of The Oberlin Review.

The lineup, indeed, is filled with dedicated students who appear to take their jobs seriously. Those who don't get time slots--even deadly ones--are chosen as emergency backups. Equipment is in good shape: new microphones and headphones have DJs smiling. Music is appropriately catalogued because volunteers have separated the wheat from the chaff and labeled like librarians this year.

"Right now, I feel enormous pride about being part of this,'' Kremer says.

The pride is about to show in the form of Abrams. The senior religion major from Massachusetts comes to the station equipped with reggae-filled CD cases that could double as luggage. He bends at the waist and flips through page after plastic-pocket page of CDs, his reggae music show being created on the fly. He "ooh, oohs" the good ones. "Ooh, ooh" apparently means this one has got to go on the air tonight.

Abrams loads a CD and flips the switch on the old console. The static is silenced. "Greetings, greetings,'' says Abrams, who sounds positively Jamaican when the mike is open, and then it's right to the semester's first song. It has a lovely message, one that WOBC's current student leaders have worked hard to cultivate in their own little corner of the broadcast world. "Peace, love, and harmony."

Four o'clock in the afternoon, a few days later, three seventh-grade girls ask Josh Rosen to list George Carlin's "seven dirty words" you can't say on the radio. Matter-of-factly (and without blushing) he tells them.

An originator of the i'm on the stereo program, Josh Rosen '01 takes a phone call for for one of his young DJs.


He's preparing the trio for their guest DJ spot on the weekday, hour-long i'm on the stereo program. Local school kids play instruments on the air, share their favorite music, interview town leaders, and gab about school uniforms, Napster, the need for local skate parks--whatever. A week in March featured an eighth-grade rap singer named Luigi and a student interview with the president of the Oberlin School Board.

A senior politics major from Florida, Rosen launched the show last fall with Jeff Price, a senior neuroscience major from California. "The Oberlin community can't be at its best unless we work harder to get to know one another better. Radio is an excellent medium to assist in the understanding of one another's life experiences, joys and suffering, and predicaments,'' says Rosen, who also created a website, www.imonthestereo.com, in support of the show. "We're open to anything and everything."

With a definite air of admiration, the seventh graders use their air time for a quick observation of Oberlin College students: "They break all boundaries, and everyone has vibrant hair and wears Drew Carey glasses," says Ashley Hand, before passing Rosen a Doors CD for the next segment. "I heard them in a Steven King movie, and I just had to buy the CD," she explains to Rosen, who asked how a 13-year-old got into the Doors.

"The life of an Oberlin kid and an Oberlin College kid are more intertwined then one might first think,'' he says later. "We've all gone through similar experiences, from difficulties with friends, lost loves, getting along with parents...In so many ways, the kids we pass every day downtown are partial reflections of our own lives."

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