Wakeup Call, WCUW-style

17 Dec


One morning years ago, I drowsed in bed long after the radio alarm went off, listening to a lively Texas swing number. To excuse my laziness I told myself I would listen to the end of the song, hoping to catch the name of the band – maybe someday I could catch them at Nick’s, or Gilrein’s, or Club Passim.

Then came the bad news.

“That was a 1946 recording of …”

Such is the charm of waking up each morning to WCUW, 91.3 FM, right here in Worcester. I would never get an annoying song stuck in my head, if only because, almost every time, it was a song I’d never heard.

This year, however, WCUW gave me a different kind of wakeup call – a call to a different kind of community service.

Like most people, I frequently think of service in the form of helping people obtain life’s basic necessities of food and shelter, or the things that directly impact their ability to obtain them, such as education and employment. That’s especially true during the holiday season, when most of us are drawn to providing others the kinds of domestic comfort we associate with this time of year.

Less tangible, but just as important, are the needs that public radio stations such as WCUW – or Worcester’s beloved jazz and NPR station, WICN 90.5 – provide their listeners: Cultural enrichment that goes beyond just a rich range of music and news, to our sense of individual and community identity. The things, in other words, that makes these properly fed and sheltered lives meaningful.

A quick visit to WCUW.org proves the point. First, consider the mission statement: “Community stations” offer a “third model of radio broadcasting beyond commercial and public service. Community stations can serve geographic communities and communities of interest.” They provide “a mechanism for facilitating individuals, groups, and communities to tell their own diverse stories, to share experiences, and in a media rich world to become active creators and contributors of media.”

Including, as it turns out, my students at Assumption College. Thanks to station director Troy Tyree, my writing and mass communication seniors were given a weekly half-hour radio show, College Connection; each student team provided three shows, developing the ideas, finding the sources and conducting the interviews even as they were also learning how to edit audio and, of course, the many nuances of a quality radio broadcast that the listener never thinks of.

Despite all those challenges, and the inevitable narrowing of focus of a college theme, the students surprised in their range of topics. Programs ranged from what it takes to make it as a local musician and Halloween stories/events to visits to Occupy protests in Boston and Worcester. Thanks to WCUW, students went out to experience the diverse voices of Worcester, then added those voices to their own in pre-edited programs, finally sending them out into the world. The knowledge that it was going out into the air, into the public forum, served as a tremendous motivator for most of those involved. And while many were attending class as the show aired, others enjoyed the thrill – and the terror – of turning the radio dial to 91.3 and hearing their own voice.

Plus, in visiting the station at 910 Main St., students learned from tireless and patient station director Troy Tyree – the only full-time employee – about the diversity of offerings, the challenges of technology, and the passion of a virtually all-volunteer operation. They even learned how, in serving the local cultures that are outside the homogenized mainstream, WCUW reaches out to the world – the station has listeners as far away as Albania and Italy.

While WCUW’s programming is a powerful metaphor for community, so was this course. It was created by former Assumption professor Jody Santos, and could not have been brought back this year without the on-campus technological assistance of Tom Burke, Laurie Palumbo and Ted Haley – as well as generosity and patience of Troy and his staff. Like all volunteer efforts, the programs often had their jagged edges, but WCUW understands that inclusiveness matters more than technological polish.

So when we think of community service, please consider ways to support these on-air places where our community meets. Buy ads to support your own businesses or causes – they are priced very reasonably – or, like my students, join the rich variety of voices on the air.

And, above all, listen.

You never know whose song, or story, you’re going to hear.

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