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WGTB: Back on the beat
During New Student Orientation this year, freshmen packed into Yates Field House for a “Party Like It’s 1999!” mixer. Of course, NSO’s inherent awkwardness meant there wasn’t much partying going on. So the event’s DJs took it upon themselves to start off the dancing.
“Not a lot of people danced, because they’re all freshmen and embarrassed of each other,” GT Wrobel (COL ’11) said. “But we danced a lot.”
Most of the freshmen gawking at the seniors grooving to the tunes of the last decade had probably never even heard of WGTB, Georgetown’s student radio station. But they were unwittingly getting their first exposure to one of the major players in Georgetown’s music scene.
Even if they never tune into the station’s online feed, Georgetown’s students hear plenty from WGTB. Freshman got another taste of WGTB again the next weekend, when WGTB handled music for SAC Fair. Anyone who attended last semester’s sold out Hood Internet show in Bulldog Alley has been exposed to their sound, too.
If the leaders of WGTB have their way, Georgetown will be hearing from its radio station a lot more in the near future. The station has big plans for the new school year, beginning with a new website and music blog, The Rotation, which are the first steps in a process designed to make WGTB a leading voice in music at Georgetown and eventually, all of D.C.
The idea is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Although it was decades ago, WGTB was once just that authority. In recent years, however, the station has been stagnant, settled into a niche as a kind of club for passionate fans of predominantly indie rock and not much else.
“I remember sophomore year it just mattered to me—like, ‘So what are we thinking long term?’” Wrobel, WGTB’s general manager, said. “And nobody seemed to think about long term issues.”
When he entered his junior year, Wrobel knew that he would need to start working to make those issues a priority. Fortunately, he was not alone in his sentiments. Many of his fellow WGTB staffers had bigger aspirations for the station as well, among them Igor German (COL ’11), currently the music director and editor of The Rotation.
With German abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, he and Wrobel began to plot the future of WGTB.
“We were on Skype, and we were like, ‘Things have to change!’” Wrobel said.
With less than two years left at Georgetown, they knew that they would have to act quickly if they wanted to make the kind of changes that would leave a long-lasting impact on WGTB. So the two left no stone unturned as they planned their grand changes for the station.
“I still have a giant Google Doc of ‘Big Ideas,’” German said. “It’s a really long document of all the things we wanted to change and ways we wanted to see WGTB improve, and a lot of it was based on my experience in Edinburgh.”
In Scotland, German worked for the radio station at the University of Edinburgh, where he discovered the model for the future WGTB. There was nothing radically different about college radio in Edinburgh—the station was online only, and the staff was all volunteer, just like at Georgetown—but something felt different. Ultimately, it came down to the people who worked at the station, and how they did that work.
“The only word I can use to describe it is professionalism,” German said. “I think at the end of the day it’s just because everybody at the top took themselves really seriously and took the organization very seriously, and that definitely trickled down.”
That kind of top-down dedication had been missing at WGTB for years. Neither German or Wrobel had anything bad to say about the station’s past leadership, but they knew that those who came before them had accepted a stagnant status quo. People joined because they liked music and wanted to DJ, but there wasn’t anyone holding them accountable for their responsibilities with the station.
That wasn’t always the case. The WGTB call sign originated in 1946 with an AM broadcast station specializing in news and public affairs, and has a long and storied tradition at the University. The station switched to FM in 1960, a transition that would bring about what are now remembered as the golden years of WGTB.
Although a relatively new and inaccessible format at the time, FM would soon take over the airwaves. Over the next two decades, WGTB rose to prominence with it, transcending its role as a campus radio station to become a regional powerhouse, attracting the attention of major musical artists and drawing the ire of politicians.
Former WGTB DJs John Zambetti (COL ’70) and Walter Egan (COL ’70) were part of the staff that helped transition the station away from its old-fashioned playlist to alternative music and a more experimental format. When they arrived as freshmen, the station did not even allow DJs to play rock and roll; when they left, artists like Neil Young were coming into the station to do interviews. The station became partially defined by the avant-garde or obscure music it played, from Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa to early Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
It was not just edgy music that gained WGTB its notoriety. As the music format changed, so did the politics—a hard shift to the left. During their time at Georgetown, Zambetti and Egan aired a live, expletive-filled interview with controversial anti-war protestor Abbie Hoffman. After 1970, the station’s political content only became more radical, speaking out against the Vietnam War and provoking Nixon vice president Spiro Agnew to complain specifically about WGTB.
“The voice of a student was being heard by the Vice-President of the United States, and pissing him off,” Zambetti said.
But all that political attention would eventually be the end of WGTB-FM. Georgetown administrators, outraged at the negative attention the station’s incendiary left-wing rhetoric was bringing to the University, made repeated attempts to restrict the broadcasts coming from the basement of Copley. On Jan. 29, 1979, then Georgetown President Timothy Healy gifted the station’s FM license to the new University of District of Columbia for the cost of one dollar, ridding himself and the University of any troublesome broadcasts. UDC would later go on to sell the station to C-SPAN for $25 million in 1997.
Even while its radical politics angered Georgetown administrators, by the mid-70s WGTB had become a giant in the District’s music community. It was often the first to introduce new music to the public and it promoted high-profile concerts. The station’s radical leftism was undeniably at odds with Georgetown’s Catholic identity, but its absence left a big hole in the music scene.
“College radio is the voice of people who are coming of age and are getting a chance to think on their own for the first time,” Egan said. “I think that having a radio station, certainly in our time, was a great outfit for saying what you felt about things.”
WGTB eventually returned in the ‘80s, broadcasting only to on-campus buildings before switching to online streaming in 2001. It seems natural to question what WGTB would be like today had Healy not surrendered that valuable FM license, but the current staffers don’t spend much time wondering what could have been.
“We’re happy with what we’ve got,” Wrobel said. “I just don’t know right now if we could handle an FM station, because it would be a totally different experience. There might have been too much formality for some of the things that we’re trying to do.”
Wrobel and his colleagues are not ignorant of WGTB’s storied past, however. In fact, some members of the current board have connected with their predecessors, meeting Zambetti after last semester’s GEMA Rocks concert.
“[Zambetti] kind of did in a little way I think what we’re trying to do now,” Wrobel said. “He probably did a better job, because it sounds like it was crazy good. But just, you know, [it was] a little bit of a renaissance with what was happening.”
Even though they are separated by 40 years and a completely different musical environment, the current WGTB staff thinks they can lead a radio renaissance of their own.
The core of WGTB will remain what has always been, though: its live broadcasts. As much as the station branches out and attracts attention for its off-air endeavors, the music on its internet stream is still the main reason it exists.
WGTB’s broadcasts are an impressive undertaking. The station airs live shows nearly continuously from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week, with only a few time slots left without hosts and a dedicated show. Generally, the shows skew towards indie music, but WGTB also airs programs featuring a variety of other genres, from blues to hip-hop. Considering all the airtime that needs to be filled, it’s no surprise that WGTB is a large organization, with around 120 students involved in some capacity.
For the passionate music fans at WGTB, having a radio show is an opportunity to consider and share the songs they love. Scott Lensing (COL ’11), co-host of the show “Six Degrees of Jeff Mangum,” discovered the station as a freshman and found a new way to engage with music. He, like many of the stations other DJs, had a passion for music that he was able to channel through WGTB.
Having hosted a number of shows during his time at Georgetown, Lensing also has a veteran’s understanding of what being a WGTB DJ really means. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the alternative-focused, online-only station does not draw a lot of listeners. But he says that’s not the point—people DJ because it has its own intrinsic rewards.
“It’s no secret, and it’s almost in some ways a joke, that there aren’t that many listeners out there at any given time,” he said. “[But] I think there’s value of [hosting] in and of itself. Even if no one’s listening—which can be a bummer—I think that the radio is just a good time for people to think about the music they play more sincerely.”
That’s the role WGTB has come to fill—an organization that facilitates students’ enjoyment of music. For the diehards, that means giving them a forum to play songs and expose their tastes to the public. But WGTB still finds ways to reach even the most casual listener at Georgetown. Some students may never have any interest in tuning into the online stream, but the organization will reach them nonetheless, like when it DJs events such as SAC Fair.
Beyond DJ services, WGTB reaches the greater student body through concerts. The station does not have the budget to book the mainstream acts that can fill McDonough Arena, like the Georgetown Programming Board does, but it uses the space in Bulldog Alley to bring smaller acts that appeal to a sizable group of Georgetown students.
“They’ve brought in artists that I think a lot of people would be interested in seeing or at least very passionate about seeing, as opposed to [GPB] who would bring in T-Pain or Coolio,” Lensing said of the station’s leadership. “People would go and see it kind of because it’s a spectacle, but I’m not sure how many people are excited [about GPB concerts.]”
Excitement is definitely apparent at the concerts that WGTB stages. Last semester, mash-up artists The Hood Internet drew a packed crowd to Bulldog Alley. And even the breezy pop of Real Estate couldn’t prevent the students in attendance from dancing. The caliber of the shows should only continue to improve, as the station doubles its concert budget for the second year in a row.
The members of WGTB saw firsthand the kind of passion Georgetown has for music, and is moving to take full advantage of it this semester. The Rotation represents one of the major ways the station is attempting to expand its role as the source for all things music at Georgetown. A blog filled with album reviews, artist interviews, and general music discussion, it could help set the tone for WGTB as a music authority.
“Last semester, our content was essentially just the radio station,” German said. “Our content has tripled or quadrupled. The scope of our content is no longer just radio program, but we’re a media outlet.”
With an eye on the station’s past as a model, the radio board sees the blog as a potential launchpad for the station’s growth into the larger D.C. music scene. They want to engage local and visiting artists as well as their fans, just like Zambetti and Egan did in their time.
“It was just totally normal that WGTB would show up [to concerts] and there would be a guy with a microphone broadcasting live,” Wrobel said. “We are online now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go to events.”
Thanks to the Internet, the 2010 version of WGTB has a much larger potential audience than its 1970s iteration. With the overwhelming number of music and media sources available today, though, it’s unlikely the station will ever recapture its former status as a District juggernaut. But perhaps the digital frontier will open up a whole new kind of success, just as FM did fifty years ago.
“We had this huge audience available to us and it was up to us to come up with new creative ways of using radio which hadn’t been done before,” Zambetti said. “And I think it’s really relevant today because radio has become so formatted now that it’s just aching for somebody with a little bit of ingenuity to come up and do something new and interesting.”
It is still far too early to say whether the new WGTB will ever be the kind of station Zambetti talked about. But after flying below the radar for so long, the station’s rededication to being at the forefront of the music community is a large step in the right direction.
In the end, the station’s renaissance all comes back to the small group of individuals who believed that radio at Georgetown could be more than just an insular group for the most passionate music fans. Wrobel, German, and their fellow seniors don’t have much time left to realize their vision, but they have already begun to convert others to their cause.
Lensing, who had previously become disillusioned with radio, has seen the contagious effect of their enthusiasm firsthand. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the community sees it too.
“As someone who had a little break in the middle from being a DJ and being involved, coming back last year, I was amazed,” he said of the current board. “As opposed to just being a group of friends who get together and listen to music, they’re really pushing themselves to open Georgetown up to WGTB.”