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WOBC Moves Upstairs
Written April 1, 2023

She was conceived in 1949 and born in 1950.  She got her license in 1961.  She moved into a new home in 1964, which is where I met her in 1965.  But now she's old enough for Social Security and has had to retire to smaller quarters in the attic.

I speak of WOBC, the student-run radio station at my alma mater, Oberlin College.

Some of her history is depicted in a 2019 video.  I've written elsewhere about the early days in two locations on College Street.  At first the station could be heard only in dormitories, but after FCC approval in 1961, it broadcast with 10 watts on the FM band.

Three years later the station relocated to the college's Wilder Hall, the former Men's Building shown in the above 1911 drawing from the office of Chicago architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee.  Shaded in gold is WOBC's spacious home on the west end of the third floor.

There were libraries for storing LPs and 45s plus areas for newsgathering and repairing electronic equipment.

And there was a large studio including a piano, ideal for group discussions and musical performances.

I was among a hundred students who hung out there from time to time.  In 1968 I became the Station Director, eventually overseeing 168 hours a week of varied programs from classical music and news to popular music and sports.

During a return visit in 2001, I took some pictures of the old place.

Twenty years before, WOBC had increased its power to 440 watts, enabling it to serve not just Oberlin but all of Lorain County.  Therefore, non-student volunteers known as “community DJs” were welcomed to the staff.

My 50th reunion in May of 2019 was my most recent visit.  It also marked the final time that graduating senior Jules Greene hosted her show on WOBC.  She blogged that her program Sounds of the Silver Screen had been “a one-hour period each week where I provided my thoughts on the things I love most besides friends and family, to an audience I could never see.

“When I started the show in the fall of my freshman year, I was at 9 am on Saturdays.  I couldn’t believe my luck in getting such a great slot.  I was nervous my first semester on the show; my voice would sometimes shake when I spoke into the microphone every 15 minutes to announce station IDs.  Gradually, the show expanded such that I spent about forty percent of the time offering my thoughts on each of the films represented that week, and sixty percent on playing the music.

“My radio show gave me the space to connect to others around the very human activity of storytelling, as well as the enjoyment of listening to music.  College can sometimes feel a bit isolating, but getting a phone call from an excited listener on the other end would always break that feeling down.  The fact that I'm getting choked up while writing this says a lot about what that's meant for me all these years.”

Later in 2019, from the perspective of the control-room window, the station tweeted various DJ photos.  Below is a composite of two of them.

See the person waving from the couch in the background?  In my day, she would have been hidden by a rack of reel-to-reel tape recorders.  Beyond the shelf on the far right was the door to the smaller DJ booth, long since disused.

Here are two more 2019 photos.  On the left: the CD decks, flanked by other essentials.  On the right: the turntables, which like ancient vampires apparently emerged from their hinged shelf only at night.

The following year, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.

These masked staffers aren't playing Twister.  They're assigning DJ shows (represented by the colored cards) to time slots for the fall 2020 semester:  seven daily columns of 24 hours each.

Pandemic-related social isolation eliminated casual “hanging out,” which is a big part of being in college.  Students are there not merely for the instruction but also for the experience — including moving away from home for the first time, having parties, and getting to know friends and possible future life partners.  “Americans perceive college as a shared cultural experience because it is one.  You might graduate after four years, but in a way you never leave.”  (Ian Bogost in The Atlantic, October 2020)

To find out what the station has been like since 2020, I went online and found some stories from current students.  I've excerpted them below.

Kathleen Kelleher of the Oberlin Review explained in April 2002:

WOBC 91.5 FM runs, in part, by delegating station tasks to workgroup leaders who coordinate groups of DJs.

These groups accomplish tasks like listening to new music sent to the station by indie artists hoping to receive radio play, brainstorming station-wide merch, or recording PSAs.  Other workgroups, like outreach and promotion, focus on management of and publicity for the station.  Now these workgroups have fallen by the wayside, facing issues with attendance and lack of engagement with the campus as a whole.

"It's no fault to the staff, no fault to the station — that's just COVID," said WOBC Music Director and College fourth-year Emma DeRogatis-Frilingos.  "There's been a campus-wide forgetfulness; clubs and traditions have been disappearing.  There's been a complete and utter disruption, and it's hard to focus on little things like tradition and consistency."

Photo: Abe Frato

College second-year Imogen Pranger said, "It can feel very isolating to just go do your show, and only ever speak to the people before and after you on the show schedule.  You never get a sense of how amazing all the other DJs are."

In the face of the pitfalls of institutional forgetfulness, younger WOBC staff members like Pranger have little knowledge of what the station was like before COVID-19.

Pandemic restrictions were just beginning to be eased when a new disruption was announced:  a major renovation of Wilder Hall.  On April 28, 2022, WOBC announced that the station was going to be disassembled and moved to a different part of the building.  Two weeks later, Juliana Gaspar wrote in the Review:

This summer, the College will start renovating the west side of Wilder Hall to upgrade the building's furniture, functionality, and infrastructure.  While the renovations bring exciting new opportunities for students, some worry that they will harm the building's institutional memory.

"I think out of all the student organizations, we are probably the one that's most tied to the physical space of Wilder," College fourth-year and WOBC Station Engineer Katie Frevert said.

"We have our space.  It's very established.  We've been in the same location since the '60s."

WOBC's history exhibits itself in the office's walls and windows, which are covered in historical stickers and graffiti.


Anna Holshouser-Belden wrote for oberlingrape.com:

The college's upper administration had been planning a major renovation of Wilder's interior since the appointment of Vice President and Dean of Students Karen C. Goff in the fall of 2021.  However, WOBC Faculty Advisor Tom Lopez and Associate Director or the Student Union Tina Zwegat were not made aware of the construction plans until the beginning of the spring semester.

The degree to which the WOBC board was consulted in the planning has assuaged some anxiety surrounding the deconstruction of the station.  Station Engineer Katie Frevert said the administration has been extremely "open to student and faculty input," allowing room for a new radio transmitter, audio processor, and surge protector for WOBC in budgeting expenses.

According to Music Director Emma DeRogatis-Frilingos, mix-ups with the new floor plans for Wilder's interior left WOBC with less space than is necessary for the entirety of their needs — though she attributes this more to the architects' lack of familiarity with the station's day-to-day operations than a purposeful neglect by the adminstration.  WOBC's faculty advisor Tom Lopez has been working with planners to make sure that the station gets enough space for its expansive, genre-spanning vinyl and CD vaults.

Renovations are to be carried out in three phases beginning on the building's West side, where WOBC is currently located.  The architects plan to leave the building's exterior as is.  The first phase of construction entails re-locating the stairwell spanning all three floors to the space now occupied by the radio station.  Frevert stated that "it's not like they're just doing this renovation just for fun.  They're putting in the new staircase because just having the big grand staircase as the only all-floor stair is not up to code."

If all goes to plan, everything is to be completed by the time students return from Fall Break in October of 2022.  Treasurer Alex Adelman expressed doubts: "This is only the first phase in three phases of renovation, and they don't even know what they're doing yet."  But Alex, along with the other board members, remains optimistic.  "Bottom line is, DJs love the radio station," she says.  "I think they'll be patient with us because they really care."

Frevert recalls, "I remember I was doing my show last year and I saw the doorbell flasher going off, and this guy was coming with his daughter who was a prospie.  He'd been a DJ here in the 80s and he wanted to show his kid the station.  For generations of people here, this has been the space for WOBC."

During my last radio show of the semester, on a Friday morning at 1:00 A.M., I sat in the semi-darkness on one of the main studio's two dilapidated-yet-charming swivel chairs, letting my eyes wander around the blue, sharpie-covered walls.

The station has been inhabiting the same space for sixty-one years as students and community members filter in and out, graduating and sending their own children off to colleges complete with their own dingy radio stations.  With all this history, the station has collected its own memory that goes far beyond the wall graffiti that is painted over again and again.  Those like me, who are set to remain for another few years, will watch the beginnings of a new community space forming and will carry on fond memories of the old one.

A January 2023 update from the college's Office of Communications explained:

The east fourth floor of Wilder will be the new home for WOBC, and will feature upgraded soundproofing and broadcasting technology.  The fourth floor will also feature additional storage for student organizations and the Gear Co-op (band practice room).

The first phase, beginning now and focused on the west side of the building's basement through the fourth floor, is anticipated to be completed in the Fall of 2023.  Subsequent phases that include renovations to remainder of the building will be planned and scheduled over the next several years.

Above is a view of Wilder Hall from the “bowl” on the south side.  Below is a view from Lorain Street on the north side; the crimson rectangle on the right marks the former west-end location of WOBC, in particular the back wall of the former Conference Room later known as Studio B.  The new location is on the fourth floor.

On the first of February 2023, the station tweeted, “The time has come! In-person live broadcasting is back!   We cannot thank you all enough for sticking with us through this transitional period.  We are excited to make this new space a home for love, joy, and of course great music. This season will function like any other normal season and will run until May.”

Later that month, an editorial in the Review explained where the broadcasts had been.

WOBC never managed to get on air last semester because they were on alert to be asked to move out of their old office in Wilder Hall at a moment's notice.  With some essential broadcast equipment already moved to a different location and the rest prepared to be relocated within 24 hours, the station existed in limbo for several months.  The official notice didn't actually come until finals week last semester.

There is a sense of displacement throughout Wilder Hall:  parts are sectioned off with plywood, making entire wings of the building inaccessible.

Finally, in a Review article in March 2023, Tate van der Poel described WOBC's current operations.

This is its first season in a new studio space due to the ongoing renovations in Wilder Hall forcing the station to relocate to a smaller, single-room space on Wilder's fourth floor.

The technical capabilities of the station are not yet what they were in the old space.  "The new studio is different because there's no separate rooms, so you can't hang out in the studio," College third-year Hazel Feldstein said.

"It was nice to have that community space, but now it's just like you walk in and you're trying not to make any noise because you know the other people are on air."

There are plans to renovate the new space over the summer.

Abe Frato

The WOBC board is also working to get the station's streaming capabilities back online.  As it stands, listeners must tune in locally on a physical radio; in previous seasons, anyone could access a stream on WOBC's website at any time.  "It's upsetting, because we want to reach as many people as possible," College fourth-year Ryan Taylor said.

But some DJs are less bothered by the lack of a streaming option, choosing to find joy in the process.  "For me, the fun part is being a DJ in the studio — not reaching the largest audience," College second-year Caleigh Lyons wrote in an email to the Review.

Some DJs are embracing the "heartwarming, nostalgic aspect" of listeners being forced to listen on a physical radio, as College second-year Taso Mullen put it.   As a member of the WOBC workgroup staff, she had "been really pushing for WOBC to give out free radios so that people would have a way to listen ... or sell them as cheap as possible."

There's a precedent for that.  When WOBC-FM started broadcasting in the 1960s, the new FM offered much higher quality than the pre-existing AM, but most folks didn't have FM receivers yet.

Therefore, the station bought a number of basic AC-powered FM-only radios and got into the rent-to-own business.  Students were invited to pick up a radio at the station in September and pay a rental fee.  In May, they could keep it if they paid a couple of dollars more.

Tate van der Poel concluded:

Despite the challenges, WOBC DJs are hard at work to preserve the culture and spirit of the station.  "WOBC is a college radio station that's non-commercial and directly run by students and community members," College second-year Raghav Raj, also known as DJ diamond life, said.

Raj is hosting The In Sound From Way Out, an experimental genre show.  "Mostly, the show is for me, but I think by extension, the show is just to get weird stuff on student radio.  That sort of thing has started to become extinct over the past decade, and to be able to participate in keeping it alive by having a show is really gratifying for me, no matter who's listening."

UPDATE:  In September of 2023, a reunion gave me the chance to see the new fourth-floor location for myself.  Click here.



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