by Kevin Lozano
In the basement of a freshman dorm at Manhattan’s New York University—down a set of spiral stairs, past the smell of fried food wafting from the dining hall—a small sign cheerfully beckons you to knock on a locked metal door. Beyond it, a collage of voices can be heard, mixing in with the low frequency hum of the building’s machinery to create an appealing chorus of ambient sound. This is the gateway to WNYU, one of the city’s most influential radio stations.
A code is punched in, and the door opens into a room filled with students and ephemera. A wall of polaroid photographs chronicles the station’s denizens and guests going back more than a decade. Pizza boxes are precariously stacked on top of each other, right next to promo CDs and copies of the station’s handbook. A vast library of vinyl records occupies the entire back half of the room. At the moment, a reserved recent graduate named Tyler Maxin is broadcasting his final show.
For the last three years, Maxin has been sending out dispatches from the station’s 8,300-watt tower, a signal that can be felt throughout the tri-state area, from Jersey City, to the the far reaches of Westchester, to the depths of Brooklyn. Along with some requisite ambling song intros, Maxin’s show has offered amazing moments for fans of the fringe, including interviews with cult icons Dot Wiggin of the Shaggs and composer/writer Alan Licht, and an intimate live set with psych-pop weirdos the Happy Jawbone Family Band. Meanwhile, off the mic, just hanging out at the station, the 22-year-old found a community.
When Maxin plays his final selection, the charmingly eccentric British band Shopping Trolley’s 1989 song “Moose,” the jovial atmosphere in the station changes a little. As the piano ballad about suddenly waking up from a pleasant dream rolls forth, a wistful optimism enters the room: One student is moving on, but the radio station will keep going.
This fall night also marks the beginning of the school year at NYU, and all manner of awkward hellos are playing out around campus. As the nearly 6,000 newly minted freshmen figure out their place at the school, some will inevitably be drawn to this underground oasis, chewing on cold pizza while taking shelter amid churning drones, teeming rhythms, and like minds.
In many ways, WNYU is an ideal college radio station. It is run by students, but its staff also includes a host of community members with wide ranging influence. Its budget is continually supported by the university, and the administration exerts minimal oversight. It is located in a major metropolitan area, making it a particularly attractive spot for touring musicians to stop by.
But, like all college stations, WNYU reflects an essential experience, something that replicates itself decade after decade: the autonomy, the freedom of speech, the experimental drive. It is also one of the last bastions within the world of radio that invites the possibility of randomness and risk-taking, even within the noncommercial, left-of-the-dial zone between 88.1 and 91.9 MHz.
Yet, these experiences run the risk of becoming scarce, as more and more college stations go silent or cede their broadcast towers to corporate interests and conglomerates. Adding to the alarm is the recent downfall of CMJ, the institution that for decades tied the nation’s college radio stations together through charts and its annual festival. All this bad news has led some to eulogize the format, but college radio is still alive and, for many, still necessary.