"We're Rutabaga, kings of the produce aisle!" When the band takes the stage, the sun has barely set outside the wall of windows in Altschul Atrium, otherwise known as the Hive. Twinkling strings of light spell out W-B-A-R, and those outside in the cold spring night see the letters in reverse. Inside, the Hive is warm and buzzing with people wearing eclectic outfits that would suit a variety of seasons—layers of cardigans over flannel over knee socks, floor-length skirts and short sundresses, cutoffs and tights, floppy hats and scarves, boots and sandals. They have come to listen to student music, but also to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first broadcast of WBAR, Barnard's student-run radio station. The crowd is interested, but not overzealous, about Rutabaga's set. It stirs with wakefulness at the finale, however, when one of the musicians starts shredding whole vegetables against his guitar. He wipes down the zucchini-spattered floor with napkins before the next act, Drug Pizza, takes the stage. Fun, surprising, and experimental acts are characteristic not only of student performances, but also of the programming and professional artists that WBAR (usually pronounced with a womping baseline: WUH-BAR) brings to campus. Each year innovators and newcomers, artists on the cusp of success, and those already established in certain sub-genres play at shows such as the annual WBAR-B-Q and this year's Columbia Music Festival. These events, usually small, are nonetheless touted by those in the know. The enthusiasm for WBAR's contribution to CMF can be found in Bwog's notorious comments section. The announcement of the Bacchanal spring concert, "Yup, It's Macklemore," contains predictably colorful commentary, filled with grumbles about the artists and jabs at the student group that plans the annual event. Amidst the dissatisfaction is this small note, with 22 up-votes and zero down-votes (at press time), by username "Oh well": "at least WBAR is bringing Le1f." "They get to be a little bit more edgy," Bacchanal Co-President Geneva Miller, a Columbia College senior, says of WBAR—a comment appropriate to the station's hosting of Le1f (pronounced "leaf"). The New York rapper has been accruing Internet buzz with the single "Wut," off his 2012 mixtape, Dark York. From the first honking, clapping bars, the song is insanely catchy. Pitchfork describes the single as "skronky," a jazz term that refers to a sound that is discordant and raw. Le1f is "well known for very high energy beats, very clever, fast lyrics, and really awesome videos," says Grace McCreight, a Barnard College junior and the general manager of WBAR. Le1f spends major portions of the "Wut" video twerking and dancing in the lap of a glistening, shirtless man sporting a Pikachu mask. During our interview in the WBAR studio, McCreight tells me she has seen him in concert four times. "He gets categorized as 'gay rap' a lot, but like, what is that? That's not a thing. Le1f is much more like, dance-art rap. Here, I'll play him next." She leans over her computer and then turns up "Wut" as the first hour of her radio show, Intro to Women's Lazers, comes to a close. "I've always been a little bit jealous of their events because no one gives them complete shit, Miller says, "It seems like they don't have as much pressure to have to do what campus wants them to do. They have more freedom." If there is one day that defines "spring" for many Columbia students, it's Bacchanal. It's a day when Columbians embrace their friends, the beauty of Low Plaza, and the spirit of youth with uncharacteristic abandon. The concert has an immediately nostalgic effect on our shared memory, like a warm Instagram filter gilding our campus in sunlight, Holi's rainbow paint, verdant grass, and spilled beer. But often, the music itself is lost on the revelers. "It doesn't just mean getting drunk with your friends and being on the steps, you know?" Miller says. The WBAR audience knows. WBAR events bring together a self-selecting group of contemporary music buffs who come for the music and stay for the fun, rather than the other way around. A music-first attitude is almost a guarantee when it comes to college radio. WBAR's studio is located in the basement of Reid Hall and, like at any other dorm, visitors to the station must be signed in at the front desk. McCreight is quite familiar with the security guards because of the constant traffic in and out of the studio: As a Barnard student, she is always signing people in and out of the building. Downstairs, the station's walls are covered, floor to ceiling, with CDs. That's not even counting the metal and punk albums and the vinyl collection, which must be stored in the room next door, a space WBAR recently acquired and eventually plans to use as a practice room for student bands. It will take a while to match the volume of artwork in the old room, where doodles cover the doors and remaining spare inches of wall. The drawings range from a demonized Prince poster to a friendly whale that McCreight herself drew a few days before. She swivels her chair away from the soundboard, and proudly points out an image on the door to the studio. It depicts Sigmund Freud seated atop a unicorn that has the face of Nigel Thornberry. This drawing was a collaboration between DJs over the course of three years, McCreight explains. First came the mythical beast, then the psychoanalyst, and then, finally, the big-nosed Nickelodeon cartoon. WBAR is full of lore and traditions—including hosting now-famous bands in familiar Columbia locations. Legendary riot grrrl groups Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill both played 1020. Mos Def played the McIntosh, the predecessor to the Diana Center. Animal Collective played at WBAR-B-Q in 2005, right before the release of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Vampire Weekend members participated as DJs when they were undergraduates in Columbia College, and they played at WBAR-B-Q two years before they played at Bacchanal. Joseph Gordon-Levitt hosted a WBAR show when he was a student in the School of General Studies. He still hasn't paid his $5 DJ fee. In 1996, '97, and '98, WBAR hosted raves in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Current DJs have played with their bands in the Columbia tunnels. WBAR is built on a do-it-yourself, unrefined, cut-and-paste aesthetic that is reflected in its zine, which the station has produced on and off since its inception. The zine is filled with inside jokes, collages, haiku, trivia, and, of course, plenty of doodles. The heartfelt notes in the zine show that certain members feel that WBAR is the one solid thing they've clung to in their college lives. "I hope we always have something we care about as much as this, and that we continue to have the privilege of contributing," one note reads. WBAR members know that, once they graduate, their relationship with the station will shift into a backseat phase, and they must pass the torch on to younger generations. WBAR has always a student project, and it always will be. "Since there's so much turnover, it's hard," Nathan Albert, a Columbia College senior, WBAR director of promotions, and host of a show called Peak Oil, says in the studio before the station's 20th birthday party. "Infrastructure was failing," when he started working at the station, he says, citing "low DJ-ship" and "low morale" as both causes and results. There was, he says, "a brief discussion of stripping the radio and becoming an alternative events planning group." Instead, Cody De La Vara, a Columbia College senior and WBAR's webmaster, built a new server from scratch. Older members recruited younger students. Now, the majority of current DJs and members of the club (about 130 people) are first-years and sophomores. The station has gone through several rebirths since its first FM broadcast on April 1, 1993, though technically the organization was around at least four years previously. The current members of the club have made "93 'til infinity," a lyric from '90s rap group Souls of Mischief, their unofficial motto. This year, they celebrated their birthday with the concert and a cake, as well as the opportunity to broadcast their programming every day in the Diana Center from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The lunchtime broadcasts give WBAR more exposure than it's been able to get in the years since losing its FM signal in 2007. Fighting for survival through reinvention is as much a part of the station's history as the charismatic artists it brings to its concerts. Susan Gladstone, a Barnard alumna from the class of 1999 and current urban studies professor at Barnard, says that the station once operated from a prominent location in the McIntosh, and the entire Barnard campus was wired to receive WBAR's FM signal. Now, WBAR is only broadcast via its online MP3 stream. Gladstone expressed her disappointment with these circumstances via email, writing, "There is an entire university infrastructure that could easily support the station as it has in the past and hopefully will again. There is plenty of opportunity for the station now. I hope they find a more prominent space in the new student center, stable broadcasting systems maintained by the university, an increase in budget which has not changed in 15 years, and anything else they may desire." Indeed, during the new lunchtime broadcast, WBAR members have to go into the Diana with a computer and switch the stream on and off manually. WBAR is steadily beginning to adapt to the social media age. "We don't have a LinkedIn. But we have a Twitter, Facebook, Last.fm, Flickr. We have a Tumblr, but we haven't really figured it out yet," Albert says. While self-promotion clashes with WBAR's music-first attitude a strong desire to keep the club relevant have led to more accounts, "likes," and "follows." When it comes to promoting shows, McCreight says, "It's really up to the DJs getting the word out about your own show." McCreight started out at WBAR as a first-year with a show from 2-4 a.m. on Fridays. So she started a Facebook page where she could make announcements, post playlists, and take goofy Photo Booth pictures from the studio—which is similar to WBAR's overall publicity strategy. The station's social media presence has a small but not insignificant effect. When it announced the 2013 lineup for WBAR-B-Q, the station's Twitter account got 20 new followers. Students at the station are used to working hard, and with little outside support. "We don't know how to fix a soundboard with a soldering iron, but we try to do everything else," Albert says. When Yanyi Luo, vice president of campus life for Columbia College Student Council, stops by the studio to drop off posters for the Music Festival, she and McCreight discuss how they will arrange for the posters to be distributed throughout campus. "At the heart of it, WBAR is a business," McCreight jokes to Luo from behind the glass. Luo challenges her nonchalance: "But you guys are on top of your shit." At that, McCreight pauses a moment and then concedes that she's quite organized with email. "There's this idea, and it's generally false, that people who are involved in music or culture or 'hipsters' are lazy people," Albert says, "But there have to be very diligent people to make music happen and make culture happen. In the context of this campus, people have to do that. We have deadlines, a set of goals, and a budget. Sometimes it seems like a miracle, but we get it done." Hold on a second. Did someone say "hipster"? "I personally really don't like the implication of ironicism that comes with the term 'hipster' because I don't do anything I like ironically," McCreight says, while French disco hero Claude François plays in the background. "Everything people do here is genuine. People don't join WBAR because they want to surreptitiously make fun of whatever they're playing." It's clear that the nebulous notion of hipsterdom—does it refer to clothing, music, or a whole generation?—strikes a chord with the members of WBAR. "We try to have our shows be accessible as possible to the whole campus. We want to see everybody at our WBAR-B-Q, but this sort of outside labeling of hipster' does alienate some people," McCreight says. "As a broader concern, I've definitely heard people say, Oh you're on WBAR, you must be a hipster.' I know that people aren't leveling it at me as like a derogatory thing. I know some of the music I listen to is a little weird, but that's cool, everyone has something weird they like." A look at the WBAR programming schedule upholds this claim to diversity. While there is a predilection for indie pop/rock, it is complemented by plenty of hip-hop and electronica, as well as funk and disco shows, a Korean music show, a Minnesotan music show, and a show simply described on the WBAR website as "intergalactic cat radio." At WBAR, anything goes. It is a forum for students to explore music that they like, without having to adhere to any genre categories or regulations set by the Federal Communications Commission or the University. If that doesn't appeal to a prospective DJ, then he or she can try going to WCKR, Columbia University's radio station, which is also run by students. "WKCR is less about people coming in and doing their own thing," Ethan Edwards, a Columbia College sophomore and the program director for WKCR, says. "In our constitution, we have a commitment to maintaining jazz music." WKCR was founded in 1941 and is steeped in its own set of traditions. It is the only jazz radio station on the island of Manhattan, and though it has nine departments ranging from hip-hop to classical to "new" or experimental music, 60 percent of its programming is jazz. Unlike at WBAR, WKCR DJs do not necessarily have to be current students or faculty; some of its best-known and best-loved programmers are alumni long-graduated. WKCR's offices and studio are located in Lerner Hall, with its own entrance on Broadway. There is no graffiti on the walls, and the studio itself has a table where multiple guests and hosts can sit comfortably. The WBAR studio, by comparison, can fit at most two or three chairs. WKCR's philosophy is not to cater to college tastes, but rather to focus outward on the greater community, which it reaches through its FM signal, 89.9, as well as its MP3 stream. As a result, the station has a broader and, generally, older audience. WKCR is also more formal in its training process, requiring students to intern for a semester with a seasoned DJ at the station and to take a licensing exam before getting their own shows. WKCR prefers to train a small group of student programmers who have proven their dedication to the music the station already offers, rather than to take in everybody, from experts to the vaguely curious. Both WBAR and WKCR have hierarchical systems that give first-time DJs broadcast slots at uncomfortably early hours. At KCR (they prefer to drop the "W" rather than to emphasize it), if a student wants to introduce a new kind of show or genre, he or she has to demonstrate an immediate demand for it and a plan for the future. "It has to be a show that, when you graduate, there will be a population that will continue it," Sophie Rubashkin, a Barnard College sophomore and WKCR publicity director, says. She cites an example of a student who wanted to broadcast a Cantonese pop show. For shows that don't quite fit the WKCR mold, she says, "We're happy to refer them to WBAR." Rubashkin and Edwards both came to WKCR with set ideas about the kind of music they were looking to play, and within its structure, they have found the station to be a place where shifting sensibilities are welcome. Rubashkin listened to classical music from a young age, and Edwards was determined to play old-school hip-hop upon arriving at college. WKCR exposed them both to Indian classical music, which they love. Broadcasting some obscure content is possible because the station is run as a nonprofit out of the University and is not funded by advertisers. "Since there are no commercial interests, I've never thought of this as restricting," Rubashkin says. Since it is broadcast to the public, WKCR is subject to FCC regulations. The most significant standards forbid certain obscene or inappropriate content from being broadcast before 10 p.m., and require that there be programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When asked about WKCR's social media pres- ence, Rubashkin says, "It's complicated. It would be cool to have a really active Twitter and reach the age bracket that's not calling in to the station," that age bracket being young people who might only have access to the site. "Sometimes old listeners don't have computers," Edwards explains. Rubashkin says that she's comfortable with the station's low profile on social media, for now. She paraphrases a quote she read about Justin Bieber: "Nobody his age should have access to that many people at the click of a button." Edwards adds, "We are dedicated to making sure the stuff gets heard. We're ready to adapt as that becomes necessary." WKCR and WBAR maintain amiable ties. They plan to play each other in a softball game later in the spring. Both WKCR and Bacchanal members are enthusiastic about the upcoming spring WBAR concerts. Even the artists themselves look forward to WBAR events and ask how to get involved. "We invite a lot of bands to come through," McCreight says, "but a lot of them come to us." Part of the appeal is WBAR's ability uphold a local, independent sensibility within New York City. Bands want to come to New York, but new bands want to come to WBAR. And while WBAR welcomes diverse talent and styles, its members do not forget the intimate women's college that bred it. "We would never bring in anyone who would make Barnard an unsafe space," McCreight says. College radio stations, like many other subcultures within a university, offer a place for students with a particular passion to push their own boundaries and make friends. However, radio continues to have potential benefits not just for students, but for anyone who chooses to listen in, whether on the Internet, in a car, or on the nearly-obsolete item known as the clock radio. WBAR, like WKCR and Bacchanal, has recognized music's ability to reach beyond the individuals directly involved in an organization. However, the power of music to move people has not shielded WBAR from the prospect of col- lapse several times. The station continues to rescue itself from the precipice by calling on the small pool of listeners and DJs who have sought out WBAR programming since the 1980s, no matter the format it appears in. And they will continue to attend con- certs, tapping their multicolored socks to the Next Big Thing, or Almost Big Thing, while those behind the scenes balance zines in one hand and MacBooks in the other. They're finessing their business sense behind a veneer of skronk. And in the business of skronk, they just might have a chance. Lead Story Editor Zoe Camp recused herself from the editing of this story because of her role as punk/loud music director at WBAR.
by Diana Wong, CC '10