Pandemic Radio

By Aaron Avidon

In the year 2020, with people being locked down in their homes with nowhere to go and nothing to do, music is an undeniable resource for maintaining sanity. With technology being the way it is, there’s endless avenues we can take to get our fix. However, this rapid desire for instant gratification doesn’t hold back one such avenue: terrestrial radio. Manned by actual people in actual studios, terrestrial radio stations have been the link between music and their local communities for years. But with digital streaming taking over, and in the midst of a pandemic in which person-to-person interaction is limited, what are terrestrial radio stations to do in order to survive?

Chantal Bailliet has been involved in college radio for over thirty years. Chantal, or Tel for short, is the badass mother of two teenage boys and is a lover of all things coffee and creativity. However, she was once the General Manager of WTUL New Orleans 91.5, Tulane University’s own student-run radio station. Serving as a major link between Tulane’s student body and the New Orleans community, WTUL has acted as an allotted airspace for the Crescent City’s misfits to indulge in all their musical pleasures for the better part of sixty years. WTUL even operated remotely out of Rue de la Course post-Hurricane Katrina! 15 years later, the station remains tried and true, a staple of New Orleans, but faces a new challenge: how to maintain interest in college radio amid a global pandemic in the digital age. 

Going into my meeting with Tel, I asked myself what exactly makes college radio relevant today. As far as I know, people don’t have radios in their homes the way they used to, and if the average person is listening to music in their car, they’re most likely listening to a Sirius XM station, or to whatever’s on their phone. The concept of a rag-tag group of college students ruling the radio waves out of someone’s garage may seem tantalizing and acutely vintage, but times have changed. 

“One of the differences between the late ’80s/early ’90s experience and now is the internet,” says Tel. “We were terrestrial only, and finding information, getting music, tracking charts, etc. was all done by mail, by phone and all the other non-internet methods. I definitely prefer having the internet!”

Though it is a college radio station, WTUL’s air staff doesn’t just consist of Tulane students. Locals, including some Tulane staff and alumni, fill up a decent amount of the 24/7-broadcasting, with some DJs maintaining consistent radio shows for over a decade. In the face of COVID, however, with limited access to Tulane’s campus, many of these non-Tulane affiliated DJs are left without access to the station they’ve given years of their life. 

Like anything destined to succeed during times of crises, WTUL had to adapt. With the assistance of long-time DJ Hunter King, the station’s Chief Engineer and longtime host of the surf rock show Storm Surge of Reverb, WTUL began using an automated system capable of cueing up shows canned (recorded digitally) by DJs from the comfort of their homes. Affectionately named TULBot, this automated system, combined with the in-person shows of students, has allowed WTUL to maintain it’s seemingly endless broadcasting cycle. When asked if the pandemic will have long-term effects on college radio, Tel had this to say:

“For WTUL it certainly will, because there’s no putting TULbot back in the box after this. And all the stations that learned they can produce shows remotely aren’t going to be able to totally back away from that either.” 

Another local radio heavyweight, WWOZ 90.7,  has maintained regular airtime, much to the fanfare of the community. They’ve gone so far as to create an online calendar for virtual events within the local music scene. However, given the news of well-known WWOZ air staff passing away due to COVID-19, I saught some answers as to how a professional community radio station could maintain operations in a safe, yet fulfilling capacity.

Enter Melissa Weber, AKA DJ Soul Sister. The self-proclaimed “Queen of Rare Groove”, Weber is a lifelong resident of New Orleans and has been a DJ for WWOZ since 1994. When asked to remember a time in her long DJing career quite like the present, she laughed.

“If I could compare it to Katrina,” says Weber, “that’s the only other time we were in a situation where we had to do things very differently from the normal way. That was a time where we weren’t even on the air.”

Much like WTUL, WWOZ has also incorporated digitized automation into their rotation. Now, DJs at ‘OZ can report in-person to the studio, opt to have old archived shows play, or create shows digitally without even leaving the house. However, all of OZ’s air staff consists of volunteers who lack familiarity with the go-to software, making the canning process significantly difficult.

“It was a learning curve,” says Weber. “It taught me how to record a show and how to digitize vinyl records. For the older DJs not used to the digital way, it’s harder. It typically takes me 3-4 hours, it’s time-consuming. I’d rather do it live.”

For Weber, the ability to tune into New Orleans radio stations was a formative experience, and was significant in shaping her view of music and its shareability. She doesn’t distance herself from streaming, but rather understands and accepts the new role technology can play.

“Terrestrial radio was a part of my life growing up,” she says. “If it’s not a part of someone’s life, if they’re born where everything is online or streaming, then it doesn’t mean as much to them. I will say, what I do know is that most of our listenership comes from online; a significant portion of it is from away (not within New Orleans). People are utilizing ‘OZ but mostly in digital ways. Even I don’t listen to the station using my radio anymore. Gone are the days where you have to be right there live to catch it.”

For DJs at WTUL and WWOZ alike, being on air staff serves as an enriching passtime, a link between them, their city, and the music they discover and cherish. Weber, who by day works toward her Masters in Musicology, was officially named curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive, the leading research center for the study of New Orleans jazz and related musical genres. Her dedication to education is inspiring, and shows how many DJs have their own professional lives to keep them afloat. This doesn’t cushion the blow for Weber as an entertainer, who typically DJs live events and parties regularly in the city, most notably her weekly event Soulful Takeover, held Friday nights at One Eyed Jack’s.

“DJing live was always a part of my fun after work passion life, it was never a full time career,” she says. “I’m lucky I’ve always had a daytime career that has sustained me. DJing and throwing parties, I do miss it; I miss all of the things that involved gatherings and people. I tried the online DJ set, but I didn’t love it. You can’t do it on Instagram live or Facebook live without getting shut down from copyright restrictions. I won’t be DJing anywhere until it is safe to do so and unless there are people involved. I just like to see people have a good time. You can’t do that through a computer.”

Whether volunteer-oriented or student-run, terrestrial radio will always fulfill a niche within communities. “Our role is to reflect the community, and also to serve the community with music they can’t get anywhere else,” says Weber. “To be a community resource, share other forms of music that can’t get heard on commercial radio. I go so hard for “Rare Groove” because when I started, commercial radio was playing a lot of popular R&B hits. I love this type of music, but I don’t wanna play the same stuff on my show.” 

Of course, WTUL and WWOZ being two progressive radio giants in a music-oriented city doesn’t prevent inter-station interaction. “One of the first Funkadelic songs I ever heard was on WTUL, and it changed my whole life,” Weber says with a laugh. A funny notion, considering that she personally DJ’d Funkadelic founder George Clinton’s 71st birthday.

For WTUL, as well as many other college radio stations across the country, the pandemic seems like just another hurdle to traverse. What’s one more roadblock, after dealing with budget cuts and looming FCC shutdowns, in the face of veterans with years of experience and legacies of progression to uphold? Well, in 2020, as technology continues to evolve, streaming remains dominant as the go-to way for people to discover, share, and listen to new music. What is terrestrial radio to do when the digitization of music crosses paths with hundreds of thousands of people stuck at home during a quarantine? The answer lies, simply enough, within local communities.

“I think the outreach and reassurance college radio provides to people who aren’t quite like everyone else means that college radio will always have a place in communities,” says Tel. “The kids who are hating high school, like I did, get the message that there’s something better waiting for them as soon as they can get there. And the businesses that don’t want to toe the corporate line have something that works for them when they underwrite non-commercial programming. And since we’re not in the cycle of having to play popular music to get ears to listen to our advertising, we can be creative and support musicians and artists that are in it for the love of creating.”

For many boot-strapping radio stations, the connection between them and their communities is stronger than any bandwidth, containing more memory than any harddrive. In the eyes of people like Tel and Weber, radio stations will always have their spot in the hearts and souls of their hometown. No matter how much time passes, or how radio changes and in what capacity, there will always be bright-eyed individuals looking to explore, make new friends, and become part of something bigger than their personal bubble. For those with the right determination, no hurricane, technological advancement, or pandemic is enough to stop the analog love.

“Terrestrial radio’s where I found my people, my place and discovered that there’s a world of joyful music out there waiting to be discovered.” Tel stops and smiles, adrift in memories of years gone by, full of songs played and friends made. “It’s a wonderful community of civic-minded people who love sharing what makes them happy.”

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