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The Eclectic and Eccentric WRCT fm

Tune into WRCT 88.3 FM on a Saturday morning this fall and you'll hear Saturday Light Brigade, an acclaimed radio program for families that features acoustic music and interactive puzzles and games for children.  Listen to the same station later that night and you'll hear Too Evil to Have a Human Name, three hours of metal- growling vocalists, squealing guitars, and pounding bass drums in bands with names like Obituary and Cattle Decapitation.  

In between there’s Radio 9, throwback to the radio shows of the 50's and 60's, followed by indie rock on Something Fell.  Oh, and Radio Free Radio, an experimental music program hosted by Steve Boyle, which one caller described this way: "I tune in on a Saturday night as I'm driving down to the bar, and all I hear is noise.  It wasn't a song, there wasn't even a beat, just all kinds of weird feedback and voices clipped out of movies and stuff, and it went on for like 20 minutes.  What the hell is that?"

Clearly, not everyone will be a fan of every show.  If you turn on the radio and you know you want to hear just jazz, or just R&B, or classical there are plenty of other stations.  But, if you want to hear something, well... different?  Turn on WRCT.  

Underground Radio
WRCT, Carnegie Mellon's student radio station (the "RCT" stands for "Radio Carnegie Tech"), began as the project of a group of engineering students in 1949.  At first they used the electrical wiring in a few academic buildings to broadcast a weak AM signal.  They switched to FM at 88.3 in the mid-70's, but it still didn't reach much further than the edge of CMU’s campus.  The station has grown quite a bit since then.  With a new transmitter, the station is as powerful as it's ever been- covering the entire city and well into Allegheny County in most directions.  Or, thanks to the Internet, it's now possible to hear WRCT anywhere in the world via streaming audio on the station's web site.

As the station expanded to serve the larger community, it opened its doors to participation from outside the university.  "Community members are at least as valuable to the station as students," says Sal Farina, the current General Manager and a PhD student at CMU.  Every position is volunteer ("Even at the top," he laments) and he estimates that about half of the station's DJ's, producers, engineers, and staff are not connected to the school.  To get involved, simply call the station or e-mail the training director (Alex Smith at training@wrct.org).

Which means that in addition to awkward freshmen DJ's who are just learning the ropes, WRCT's programming includes veteran DJ's with years of experience on the air.   Like Kevin Amos, host of African American issues and music shows Ebony Spectrum and One to One, who recently celebrated his 30th year in local radio.  Or Zombo, who, now in his eighth year at the station, hosts his show with a fake Hungarian accent and plenty of energy (picture the Count from Sesame Street after say, nine cups of coffee).  Zombo's Record Party, like many shows on WRCT  doesn't really fit into any one genre- the playlist for a recent show included Groucho Marx, Devo, Johnny Cash, experimental music collective Negativland, a polka, a dozen other songs that have probably never been on the radio before, and an interview with a nervous Pop City writer who had wandered into the studio.

Studios Underground Too
The studios are located in the basement of Carnegie Mellon's University Center, where band stickers, album covers, and posters of concerts sponsored by the station in years past cover nearly every inch of wall.  It's a comfortable space, and at any given time someone is probably sleeping on the couch in the front room.  There are two soundproof recording booths- a smaller one for the DJ's and a larger one for recording live local bands on shows like Advanced Calculus and (the somewhat less creatively named) Live Band Show.  

But the station's real treasure is in a room off to the side- nearly 70,000 records and CD's known as the record library.  Most were donated by individuals or sent by independent record companies, and each one has a card taped to the front with a brief review written by a WRCT DJ and a list of suggested tracks.   

"So many stations have purged their vinyl," says Larry Berger, host of Saturday Light Brigade, who points out that many of the records were never released on CD and aren't available in electronic formats.  "WRCT has been protective, and shown a lot of foresight."  Berger knows about longevity and foresight in radio.  Saturday Light Brigade, which he has hosted since 1978, is one of the longest running public radio programs in the United States.  In 2003, the show, which is broadcast from a studio in the Children's Museum to somewhere between 40 and 60 thousand local families, switched stations from to WRCT after nearly 25 years on WYEP.

"The station is really delighting people, and taking risks, which I believe are appropriate," says Berger.  "Sometimes listeners will tune in and be delighted in a way they didn't even know radio could delight them."  

Hidden Jewel
WRCT broadcasts not just music, but also ideas that might not get on the radio anywhere else.  For example, every weekday morning at 8 a.m., WRCT broadcasts Democracy Now, a nationally syndicated news program hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales.  The station is also home to Rustbelt Radio, a weekly show produced by grassroots collective of volunteers who report on issues overlooked by the local mainstream media.

"As far as I know, we're the only major station in Pittsburgh to broadcast shows not in English," says Alex Smith, a former GM and current training director at WRCT.  Wednesday evenings the station features Barrio Latino, which covers topics of interest to Pittsburgh's growing Latin American community in Spanish, and Thursdays there's the Brazil Hour, which alternates between English and Portuguese.  

"WRCT has really emerged as a champion of diverse and eclectic local radio," says Berger.  He says there are only a handful of stations around the country that are "so eclectic and broadly serving the wider community...  I think that WRCT is a hidden jewel in Pittsburgh.  I really do."  

To receive Pop City every week, click here.
Rob Cullen is a freelance writer living in Bloomfield.
Captions: DJs Zombo (left) and Ken Joseph; Sal Farina; Zombo; CD; vinyl

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen


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