1972—Julio Vazquez and Jacob Sanok emerge bleary-eyed from Manhattan College’s radio station facilities.
For the past 83 hours and 15 minutes, the two student disc jockeys have remained awake playing music, conducting interviews and providing commentary to those tuning in around campus.
The pair abandoned sleep in order to break the school record for most consecutive hours on the air. Their stunt was pulled not only for bragging rights, but also to attract more listeners to station WRCM.
Turn the dial to the year 2014. Studios A and B sit empty on the fifth floor of Thomas Hall. The blue “On-Air” lights above the locked doors to the studios have gone dark. The only record now seemingly being broken by WRCM?
Most consecutive hours of silence.
“The Station That Rocked One Whole Block”
WRCM was arguably at its peak during a period that began in the ’70s and lasted up until the mid ’90s. The 1979 Manhattanite yearbook described WRCM as “a symbol of the competence and creativity of Manhattan students.”
During that time period, the radio operated as a carrier current station. A once popular format for college radio, carrier current stations do not require a formal license from the Federal Communications Commission. Instead, phone and power lines boost the strength of locally transmitted AM radio waves.
Listeners could pick up the often fuzzy signal by tuning to 850 on their own AM dial. Over the years, new transmitters and thorough renovations of the station temporarily improved the range of the broadcast. Yet frequently, it did not reach far beyond the physical limits of the college’s campus and was spotty even in some of the dorms.
Still, the strength or quality of the signal did not hold back the students who wanted to get their voices and choice of music spread throughout campus. Bob Stei, now a professional DJ who has worked at over 20 radio stations throughout his career, got his start at WRCM—or as it was affectionately known in his day, “The Station that Rocked One Whole Block.”
“It didn’t really matter if it was only a few people listening,” Stei said. “It was a group of people that were interested in radio and having fun for a few hours and playing their music.”
A graduate of the class of 1993, Stei would have two notebooks open on his desk as he sat in class. One was for the material being taught by his professor, the other for jotting down ideas and jokes in preparation for his Sunday night shows. “I still have dreams of being there and being on the air,” he said.
Stei, like other students over the years, used his time at WRCM to break into a career in the radio industry. Additional members of the station’s staff spent hours tweaking electrical and audio equipment, hands-on practice for future technical and engineering positions.
Yet for many of the Manhattan College students who worked on the station, it was purely a labor of love. Not practice for a future profession, but simply an opportunity to be heard.
During Stei’s time with WRCM in the early ’90s, a crew of 30 or so students mainly stuck to playing music over the airwaves during their daily broadcast. Back in 1980, a staff 70 members strong distributed news reports and public service announcements, in addition to providing students with a way to hear all of the top hits. Using a state of the art “mobile sports system,” the station was even able to broadcast live the 1982 Battle of the Bronx, the annual Manhattan-Fordham basketball game hosted at Draddy Gymnasium.
Throughout the 1980s, The Quadrangle routinely published a schedule notifying the times that specific DJs would be spinning on the air. Readers of the paper could also find advertisements for song requests in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day. Jaspers looking to dedicate a song to that special someone could cut out the printed request form and drop it off in the station’s mailbox.
Aside from their work up in the studios on the fifth floor of Thomas Hall, WRCM sponsored several events in Plato’s Cave, now Café 1853. Live performances by bands, lip sync competitions and coffeehouses showcasing student musicians all brought the radio station a physical presence to accompany their work over the airwaves. In Plato’s and other school cafeterias, students ate with the sounds and tunes of WRCM flavoring their meals.
How exactly then, did such a vibrant part of the Manhattan College community go silent?
The Day the Music Died?
Legend has it that several intrepid students once found a way to expand the range of the radio station’s signal beyond the boundaries of campus. They were said to be so successful that they somehow were able to bounce WRCM’s broadcast off the George Washington Bridge.
However, their feat caught the attention of the FCC. Not only was the signal outside of the appropriate zone for the station, but it also interfered with the broadcast of a commercial radio station. WRCM was then subsequently banned from having an AM or FM license for an extended period of time, while the college was also allegedly fined $100,000.
Although no precise date comes with the story, many have been told that the incident happened in the 1990s. Stei, however, was WRCM’s program director during his senior year in 1993. According to him, the story of the FCC ban was a tale that even predated his time at the station.
A piece written by a WRCM disc jockey in the April 27, 1999 issue of The Quadrangle claims the 20 year license ban was set to be rescinded in 2001. He urged the college’s administration to begin fundraising efforts in order to expand WRCM to a fully-fledged station once the ban was lifted.
However, another guest piece published in The Quadrangle on Sept. 5, 2000 cites the ban’s expiration in 2002. Conflictingly, that DJ claims the ban only prohibited WRCM from operating on the FM band. Either way, that would place the date of the incident at some point around 1981 or 1982.
A look through the archives of The Quadrangle during the early ’80s yields no mention of a ban or any problem involving the FCC. On the contrary, the station appeared to be at its strongest. An article from 1981 details the completion of a new studio, led by the efforts of then general manager Charles Keene.
Keene could not be reached for comment.
A longtime member of the Manhattan College community, Brother Robert Berger graduated from the college in 1973 and later returned to teach. “That’s the first time I’m hearing that story,” Berger said when asked about the details of the supposed ban.
“We never applied for a license so that we could be heard off-campus,” Berger said.
Another article in The Quadrangle about WRCM’s growth in 1987 supports this fact. Station leaders at the time cited high financial costs as the reason for not switching from carrier current format to a regular AM or FM broadcast, rather than any sort of ban restricting their efforts.
Additionally, the FCC database for active and expired licenses provides only one entry for Manhattan College, a now active Land Mobile Radio License used for internal radio communication.
An interesting story and urban legend, the evidence (or lack thereof) points to it being just that. If it was not a fine or ban that pulled the plug on WRCM, what did kill the Manhattan College radio star?
“A Relic of the Past”
During the late 1990s, WRCM seemingly began its period of decline. A Nov. 10, 1998 front-page headline in The Quadrangle asked “WRCM – Where are you?”
During renovations of the fifth floor of Thomas Hall throughout the summer of ’98, critical wires for the station’s transmission were damaged, silencing the radio in Dante’s Den, Locke’s Loft and Plato’s Cave. While the transmission was still available in the Jasper and Chrysostom residence halls and through MC-TV, Thomas Hall served then as the hub of student life.
Although students successfully worked to restore the transmission lines over winter break of that following academic year, the station could not fully bounce back. A Quadrangle article in the spring of 1999 acknowledged that the station “was in shambles.”
Over the next few years, WRCM saw momentary periods of revival, with intermittent student interest and much-needed equipment updates. At one point in 2002, students at the station even enlisted the help of professional DJ GI, affiliated at the time with Yonkers-based rap group Sporty Thievz.
After years of petitioning the college’s administration, WRCM eventually shifted online during the mid 2000s. At first, the station was available only internally through the college’s intranet, JasperNet, where it remained as recent as 2009. Finally, the station was then allowed to have a stream accessible to anyone on the Internet, a popular option for college radio stations in the 21st century.
A search online for WRCM radio brings up the links to their streaming service and website. Next to the play button now reads the epitaph, “No streams available.”
Current senior physics major Andrew Baumgartner became involved with WRCM his freshman year at the college, hosting a show with his roommates. He then worked his way up the position of business manager and eventually became an engineer for the station, responsible for the physical equipment and hardware.
During the 2012-2013 academic year, the station was having difficulties with its streaming service, crippling the broadcast for an entire semester. The seniors in charge of the station at the time then began the process of transitioning to a new streaming platform. “They graduated and didn’t really finish the job,” Baumgartner said. “Now we really don’t have a complete service.”
Fellow senior Caroline Heimerl tried to get involved with WRCM when she transferred to the college, but it was already too late. Her frequent attempts to join the station and help get it restarted over the course of several semesters proved unsuccessful. “I feel like a lot of people had already given up,” Heimerl said.
Mark Pottinger, chair of the college’s visual and performing arts department, is the current advisor to WRCM. While he has assisted several groups of students over the years with station-related paperwork and problems, he claims the impetus must ultimately come from them.
“The problem with these clubs is that you have a couple students that are just amazingly sacrificing themselves and their time to make it happen,” Pottinger said. “Then they graduate, or they are in an internship, or their life basically happens and it complicates the club and then there is no one to pick up the slack. And that has happened often with the radio station.”
Perhaps an additional problem for the success of the station is the lack of support from an academic program that directly aligns with it. Pottinger, however, doesn’t necessarily see that as a drawback.
“It seems like the students want it to remain outside the academic world, for it to be a place where can they sort of let go of their studies and engage a world where it’s just them and the music, talking to the people listening,” he said.
If the radio station was ever to be absorbed under one of the college’s academic departments, the communication department seems a fitting choice. Chair of the department Thom Gencarelli said he would be open to doing so, but so far hasn’t been approached. “We were never asked to get involved,” he said.
“It is kind of interesting why we have let this thing fall by the wayside,” Gencarelli said. “We had a station, why don’t we have it anymore? I think that is an important question for the college.”
Brother Robert Berger has seen the station periodically rise and fall in his many years at the college. “It alternates between student initiative and student apathy.”
However, this most recent loss of the radio may be something more than a routine lack of student involvement.
The music industry is still trying to find its identity and business model in the ever-changing digital landscape. When customizable music streaming services like Spotify and Pandora have become widespread, it has been challenging for classical format radio stations to compete.
“It’s the year 2014, people have their own taste in music and they plug up their ears, and they’re not interested in someone else choosing what they are going to listen to,” Berger said.
“It’s almost like it’s a relic of the past.”