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Monday, May 16, 2022

91.1: 24 HOURS A DAY middlebury’s own radio station, wrmc, is broadcasting live. here’s the station’s story; the view from behind the microphone.

It’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon and Tim Spears leans toward the hanging silver microphone as he pushes up a couple of sliders on the mixing board in the WRMC studio. Behind Spears hovers Matt Jennings, Spears’ co-DJ. For most of the week, Spears, vice president for administration and professor of American studies, and Jennings, editor of Middlebury Magazine, have very different jobs. But late on Friday afternoons, they meet in a small room on the second floor of Proctor Hall to share a common passion: music. As hosts of the radio program "68 Degrees and Holding," they have spent the past several years playing a mix of indie tracks and classic rock hits.

Spears had already started with the program when he ran into Jennings at the Grille about four years go.

“Spears said ‘Why don’t you come on up; and after we did the show he said ‘That’s fun. We should do it again,’” remembered Jennings. For both men, music has been a part of their lives since their youth. As a teenager, Spears used almost all of his paper delivery route income to buy $3.99 vinyl albums: the Beatles, Traffic and Black Sabbath. For Jennings, an introduction to music came in the form of boxes of albums brought home by his father from the local college radio station. Together, they use what they call their “generational perspective” to try and expose the Middlebury community to music they might not otherwise hear.


“It’s fun to break the scope of the college music mold,” said Spears describing how college radio stations have the tendency to play the same repertoire of tracks. “It’s fun to push back the grain.”

But Jennings and Spears are not the only ones in the room above Proctor. The five members of Split Tongue Crow, a folk/Americana band from Rutland, are crowded around a second microphone. They were playing at 51 Main that evening and the hosts brought them in to talk about their music. Jennings interviews the musicians as Spears loads their latest album into one of three CD players; they are not afraid to play new music.

They spin a few more tracks, then collect their things and flip the switch that starts the Democracy Now! stream. For the next hour, the nationally broadcast independent news show plays on WRMC’s frequency: 91.1 FM. These days, it is one of the few times in the week when the station plays something other than music or banter. But it was not always like that.

WRMC’s origins are not especially glamorous. Founded in 1949, the station first broadcast from a chicken coop behind what is now Proctor Hall. Its programming was transmitted through a system of class bells, which ran alongside high-voltage power lines on College Street. Things went smoothly until one day the office received a call from Maine. Someone was listening to WRMC two states away. It soon became apparent that the signal was getting extremely amplified, and when the FCC started asking questions, WRMC decided it was time to get a real transmitter.

The station moved into Proctor Hall and a cord ran up to the top of Gifford where a new system allowed WRMC to become the first station in the Champlain Valley with 24 hours of live programming.

During this time, WRMC had a strong focus on news reporting and broadcasting. Jim Douglas ’72, the former Governor of Vermont, was the news director at WRMC for two years. During his tenure at the station, he described a serious rivalry between The Campus and the radio station.

“We used to regard ourselves as competitors,” Douglas said. During the Vietnam era, the DJs would interrupt their music to report on draft numbers.
“I remember being down there with the teletype and watching the birthdays [being called up] come over, and announcing them live over the radio,” Douglas said.


During the same era, another notable Vermonter made a name for himself at the station. Chris Graff ’75, who worked for 28 years in the Montpelier bureau of the Associated Press, described in an e-mail how he used to practically live at the station.

“In the 1970s WRMC produced lots of broadcast journalists … of national stature,” he wrote. “For a number of years having WRMC on your resume was as golden as going to graduate school in journalism.”

Though journalism was a backbone of WRMC for many years, it started to disappear about 15 years ago according to Taylor Smith ’11, WRMC’s general manager.

“Everyone gets their news from the internet,” Smith said on a recent tour of the WRMC facilities. He also attributed the decline in reporting to a lack of interest on the part of students involved.

“Nobody really wants to do a news show,” he said.

But there is at least one bastion of current events coverage at the station: live sports broadcasting.

Turn your radio dial to 91.1 on the fall afternoon of a football game or a winter evening during a Panthers basketball game and you are likely the hear the voice of Andy Singer ’11, WRMC’s sports director.

Since the early days of the station, an effort has been made to broadcast live, play-by-play programming from selected athletic events.

An hour before each game, Singer sets ups his equipment. As the action begins, he gets into the match keeping fans not only across the Champlain Valley but also across the world (thanks to the station’s internet streaming) informed about every play.

A few years ago, an interest in radio and a love of sports brought him to WRMC.

“I don’t think you can do a live broadcast well unless you’re an avid sports fan,” Singer said.

But loving the sport and knowing how to talk about it instantly and constantly are very different things. Unfortunately, Singer was never taught the latter.

“I asked him [the then sports director] for some tips and he said ‘just try to sound intelligent.’ Ten seconds later, I was on,” Singer said. Now he listens to recordings of his own broadcasts to critique himself.

The shift away from news and towards a full schedule of talk and music is not the only major change that WRMC is dealing with.

In warmer months, it is easy to ignore the smokestack rising from the College’s biomass gasification plant, but in winter the steam rising from the giant chimney attracts a second glance. What most people do not realize, however, is that they are also looking at the transmission tower for WRMC. Follow an imaginary path up the big hill, into the north side of Proctor Hall, up a little-used staircase, and you’ll find yourself in front of a door plastered with stickers. Welcome to WRMC.


Behind the colorful door and down a hallway, completely covered on one side with shelving filled with CDs, there is a single room that is at the heart of the radio station and the focus of its next big project: digitization. The walls are shelves and more shelving fills the middle of the space. Crammed into every crevice are CDs and vinyl albums.

“By my count we have 21,000 CDs,” said Sam Safran ’12, “we’ve digitized about 200 of them.” Safran is the man in charge of turning the station’s physical music into digital music, a sisyphean task given the daily influx of new albums.

“We get 200 CDs a month, and much more digital music,” said Smith. “Most of it gets thrown out though because they’re terrible.”

Interestingly, the station buys only a handful of albums each year; the rest come courtesy of promoters.

But there is still much work to be done. WRMC has a machine that can digitize 100 CDs at a rate of about one disc every two or three minutes. Vinyl is another story; it cannot be digitized faster than it can be played, which means the process can take up to 45 minutes per etched side.

“We haven’t started working on [vinyl] at all,” Safran said. But for an audiophile like Safran (“I spend way too much time on music,” he said) it is not always a simple task.

“It’s hard to work because I just read every single label,” he said.

Every CD the station plays has a handwritten label on it with especially good tracks highlighted and some DJ comments. Safran is trying to figure out a way to keep some of the original markups with the new digital information, but the transfer can still be bittersweet.

“Part of me is sad we’re digitizing because I like the physical aspect,” he said.

The truth is, the station does not really have a choice. A new regulation is coming into effect that requires radio stations to submit 13 pieces of data about each song played, up from the current three requirements: song name, group name, album name. Fortunately for Safran and others for whom jewel cases and slipcovers have sentimental value, the law also requires stations to keep all the material they’ve turned digital.

“Eventually we’ll probably just put it all in a storage unit,” Smith said.

As Democracy Now! starts to wind down, Moss Turpan ’14 sets his Macbook on the table in the studio. He plugs a cord into the headphone jack and settles in for his weekly broadcast.

“I’ve always loved music and I thought that having a radio show would be kind of interesting,” Turpan says looking through songs on his computer.

This evening the theme of the creatively titled “Moss Show” is the “Best of something.” He pushes up the volume on his first track, Louis Armstrong’s “All That Meat And No Potatoes,” the best song about meat and potatoes. As the music plays across the speakers in the room and out across the county Turpan talks about the importance of music.

“I definitely think that music has the ability to change the way you’re feeling,” Turpan says. “I feel like I have that experience all the time. Not in a way that I am completely changed, but I can be in a certain mood or situation and it can completely change my mood.”

As he transitions into the best song about being a unicorn (“I was Born (A Unicorn)” by the Unicorns) he talks about what WRMC has to offer.

“It’s a totally unique opportunity to be able to come on air and express yourself to a group of people,” Turpan says.


While clearly a very public enterprise, many DJs spoke about the personal side of their broadcast. For Tim Spears, the radio offers a captive audience.

“I’ve always had this kind of obnoxious desire to say ‘listen to this,’” said Spears, mentioning that at home his wife does not always approve.

Safran, who has had a show since fall of his freshman year enjoys the two hours each week he gets to just relax and listen to some music.

“To me, what’s nice is just the personal time I get …” Safran said. “You’re broadcasting out but I just don’t really think about that. It’s almost for yourself.”

But some students have taken up the challenge of getting non-DJs on air.

Fall 2010, Chris de la Cruz ’13, Carly Shumaker ’13 and Martin Sweeney ’13, came up with a show called ‘All My Friends.’ Each week they would pick a theme (Proctor Crush, Dad, Ex-Girlfriend) and have several students tell a narrative. They would create playlists based on that theme and mix the music with the stories.

“I feel like [WRMC] sometimes has the reputation of being a little goofy. But what I liked about our show was that we weren’t that goofy. We kind of had a great goal which was the narratives,” Sweeney said. “People like to hear the stories. Some of them were heartwarming and some of them were sad.”

By broadcasting the sometimes highly personal stories to unseen strangers, de la Cruz hoped to build community on campus.

“Some random person can hear a story on the air about a moment someone else shared with their father that they find they relate to,” wrote de la Cruz in an e-mail, “and maybe then they see that person walking to class and they say ‘Hey, I heard your story last night and it reminded me so much of a moment I once had.’ At that point I think people are connecting who wouldn’t normally connect.”

There is another show, however, that brings people together on the air.

Just before 6 p.m. on Saturday, a group of 10 to 20 students gather in the WRMC offices. The first group of four or five, sets up shop around a long conference table. Each person has a microphone sitting in front of him or her and an open laptop with some text on the screen. Middlebury Radio Theater is about to go live. As they get into their script, their faces become animated but their bodies stay still. From behind a large window, Noah Mease ’11 directs the show. He has been involved with radio theater since his freshman year.

“There’s something really quirky about radio theater,” Mease said. “You get to tell stories in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise. We can do these epic, crazy high-budget things.” As he spoke, he cued some sounds effects from a laptop. British and not-quite-British accents burbled from the speakers above his head; they were performing a skit about stamp collectors. The scripts the group reads come from a combination of sources: vintage scripts, screenplays adapted by students and frequently, original writing.

“As a playwriting major it’s great because it’s a group of people that will produce whatever I write,” Mease said.

Indeed the appeal of WRMC is its versatility — its ability to be many different things for many different people. For some, like Smith and Safran, it offers an alternative to commercial radio.

“It’s something completely different from regular radio,” Smith said. “It’s very eclectic.”

“I can hardly listen to regular radio anymore,” Safran said referring to one of WRMC’s biggest boons: no commercials.

For others, it is about the Middlebury community and the music it listens to.

“I think it’s an awesome way for people to see and share new music,” Turpan said.

“It’s important for WRMC to exist because it is a form of free expression … WRMC gives people a voice….who may not be that outspoken otherwise,” wrote de la Cruz in an e-mail, “I think the music they choose is definitely a form of expression that can at times be even more powerful than words.”
Additional reporting by Leah Pickett, Features Editor

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