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WYBC makes waves, draws serious fans

How WYBC went from being a campus artifact to being relevant and on top.

In a single year, WYBC, Yale’s college radio station, has gone from an active but insular community to a booming student organization. The group boasts almost triple the number of active members it had last year, and 30 times as many active members as it had three years ago. It has also launched some major additions to its original radio base: WYBCx, the online-only station; the WYBC zine, the station’s music magazine; and WYBC Records, which has been hosting live shows for Yale and local bands almost every week this semester.

And the campus has been receptive to WYBC’s burgeoning empire. The number of student bands has greatly increased this semester, as have the venues open to their performances. There used to be basically two places where student groups could play: Bar (if you were lucky), and Battle of the Bands (if you were luckier). Now that WYBC is offering a frequent and well-publicized space for student bands to perform, a music community is growing around Yale’s radio station.

Just last year, WYBC was an organization struggling to find a place on Yale’s campus. It’s not a surprise that college students aren’t listening to the radio—it hardly seems worthwhile to even mention that college students have turned to other media. Yale students don’t drive to school or work, so they aren’t listening in the car. They listen to iPods and laptops; most likely don’t even own radios. Radio stations around the country, especially smaller stations, are being replaced by XM radios, podcasts, and mp3s. But this is common knowledge—it has been happening for a while, and though there are some extraordinary cases of certain small stations saved by the communities that love them, most local stations are facing an uneasy future.

WYBC has changed a lot since its start in the ‘40s. In the ‘90s, Yale forced the station into one of their most successful financial decisions. At that time, many college radio stations had to choose either to commercialize due to escalating costs of radio broadcasting or to go into debt to their parent institutions. At Yale, many students lost interest in doing college radio in the ‘90s and, according to WYBC’s current general manager Sean Owczarek, SM ‘11, “Ours was one of the stations that completely fell to the wayside. We owed things to Yale and they kicked us out of Hendrie Hall.” (The decrepit basement of that building still displays a relic of its bygone days—a painted WYBC sign languishing next to room B00). Since then, WYBC has changed both locations and business models: “Our business plan was not sound, so when we moved to 142 Temple Street, where we are now, we came up with a deal with Cox Communications, which is a big media giant, and we came up with a joint sales agreement with them,” Owczarek says.

Under the agreement, Yale would give Cox, the third largest cable provider in the country, time on its FM station to sell advertising spots and would in turn recieve a cut of the profits. After having been kicked out of Yale facilities because of unpaid rent, WYBC was no longer a University-affiliated student organization. They were no longer eligible for University funding, so this joint agreement funded their entire operation. WYBC had finally found a sound business plan, but there was no real radio to run—a lack of student interest left the station’s airwaves silent.

So in 2009, when WYBC had a lack of shows and listeners, it abandoned radio altogether. Well, not exactly. It jettisoned its AM station, 1340 AM, and instead went twenty-first century with WYBCx, which launched last year. WYBC’s studio space is now home to three stations: 1340 AM, which plays an automated loop; 94.3 FM, New England’s largest adult contemporary station, run by Cox Enterprises; and WYBCx.

Enter WYBC 2009-2010. It seems strange to apply the “Great Man Theory” to a student organization, but it seems all too apt in this situation. Not for one man in particular, but for WYBC’s current board, which is made up of eight members: general manager Owczarek, station manager Sam Huber, MC ‘13, program director Jesse Bradford, TD ‘11, comptroller Alexis del Vecchio, DC ‘11, training director Jarus Singh, SM ‘12, marketing director Chloé Rossetti, JE ‘11, events director Carl Chen, CC ‘13, and digital director Brandon Jackson, CC ‘12. These eight members took what was a station with a lot of room to grow and turned it into a hive of student activity on Yale’s campus.

To put this in context, three years ago, WYBC didn’t even have a website. When Owczarek first came to Yale he tried to find Yale’s radio station at the Bulldog Days activity bazaar and online and couldn’t find anything. When he finally did find the station there were about five members who collectively put on five shows. Now WYBC has about 80 shows and 130 active members. It has a growing ‘zine with student articles about music. It hosts weekly on-campus shows in the basement of 216 Dwight, where both student and non-student groups perform.

WYBC’s success comes at a time when other arts groups, publications, and organizations have been struggling. Crippled by either poor business and fundraising skills or a lack of student interest, many groups are dropping off. This is all natural, of course, in the context of a university setting where people are coming and leaving every year, but perhaps WYBC should be a model to other groups. WYBC’s story seems to suggest that what it takes for an organization not only to survive but to flourish is a group of leaders who devote their lives to the cause.

Being on WYBC’s executive board has not been an easy task this year. The board took on a whole new online station, had to train a crop of fresh DJs for shows on-air (or on-web), created a brand-new publication, and took a much more active stance in the running of 94.3 FM. “We kind of needed to take over the whole thing, to show everyone we were responsible for it,” explains Owczarek, “and this year, I think the reason why you’re seeing such an explosion now is that other students were interested as well. You can’t do much when you don’t have a posse. We have a posse now.”

Building that posse didn’t happen overnight. It’s hard to create a lively organization without an executive board, as Yale students are not inclined to sink their teeth into an activity without a clearly defined group of leaders or an open, inviting community. That’s what WYBC has done so well. At the beginning of the year the group created myriad Facebook events advertising training sessions to get people to start new shows. Though there were deadlines to sign up for slots, interested students have been able to start new shows all year. WYBC ran more training sessions again after break and launched WYBC Records—the live music portion of the organization—with a massive Facebook campaign.

Crowds haven’t been consistently huge at WYBC’s live shows, although some bands have been more popular than others—the Yale-by-way-of-Boston band Magic Man brought a lot of the band’s friends. But record-breaking crowds haven’t been the goal, and neither has getting a lot of listeners. WYBCx allows DJs and listeners to see, for better or for worse, how many people are tuned in. The average is about 10 per show, which Owczarek says is pretty average for internet-only radio.

For WYBC board members, the idea is to build a strong, active community around music—a community that other organizations have attempted to create in the past but, for whatever reason, have failed to replicate. It’s not that WYBC doesn’t care if people are listening or if what they’re putting on air is good; it’s just that they care more about creating a community centered around music.

And putting out good shows is important too. According to Owczarek, who has been with WYBC for its move from AM to X, “The thing about AM is that it has this aura to it. You have to go in, you have to make certain logs with the FCC, call the transmitter, you can’t curse over the air, you have to have a certain strict code of conduct. That’s not to say we don’t have that with the X, because we’re trying to make it better and more listenable, but it’s a lot more free flowing, it’s a lot more… hip.”

This hip product helped WYBC get fresh faces (or voices, as it may be) to do shows and join the station as members: “There was just a general hype that started: rebirth, re-starting. And that can only last for so long, but that’s what comes with a hip product, that’s what happens to new media. Everyone flocks to it.”

The executive board will change next year—it would seem impossible to have the energy to devote to this project for two years in a row, but if WYBC keeps up its model of strong, active, dedicated leadership, it seems only natural that students will keep signing up. Students will always be interested in a music community, and the allure and mysticism of having a college radio station will always be there. Students will always be interested in other arts groups as well—it’s just a matter of keeping leadership strong and dedicated—and keeping up the hype.