WUNH, "The Freewaves"
The radio in my childhood home was always on. Almost like a centerpiece of my upbringing, the absence of music in my house was unusual. My family was accustomed to comforting background noise that consisted of rockin’ tunes and talk radio banter. I can recall the voices of DJ personalities and the connections I made with them. To this day, I still connect with songs I heard regularly in my living room radio as a child. I attribute my vast knowledge of music to radio’s presence in my life, and I attribute radio’s presence in my life to my dad.
My dad has been a radio professional for more than 30 years, first starting out at his local community college radio station in New Jersey, Brookdale Public Radio WBJB. Although his dream was to be a career DJ, his path brought him to New York City traffic reporting, which he has mastered and has become a well-known name among NYC commuters over the past 25 years.
When I started school at UNH, I was captivated by 91.3 WUNH “The Freewaves.” That skinny hallway on the first floor of the MUB echoed with the rhythmic waves of college radio. The glowing neon sign outside the studio illuminates a mysterious ray of curiosity for those passing by on their daily commutes through campus. For the past three years I always walked by the WUNH studio, curious and enticed by the radio magic going on inside, but I never entered until now. I think I harbored a fear of accidentally interrupting an on-air session by opening the door. I imagined my dad shushing me when I would visit the station as a kid with the ON-AIR light on. When I did walk in, it was like a dream. Poster of bands and music events are plastered on the walls. Towering shelves of CDs and vinyl records of practically every genre line the room adjacent to the studio. The place just captures the alternative, underground aesthetic that a music lover like myself can appreciate.
Recently, I walked past the studio and overheard one girl turn to her friend and say, “What’s that music playing?” The other friend responded with, “I think it’s the radio station maybe, I’m not sure.” The uncertainty and genuine lack of knowledge about an organization that has been a cornerstone of the Seacoast and UNH culture really struck my attention. I started to ask myself, what happened to college students loyally listening to their campus station?
The reasoning for this is probably quite obvious. Our content is primarily streamed and downloaded to our desire, eliminating the need for a radio in our apartments and dorm rooms. How many students do you know that still play the radio in their home? I would imagine not a lot. On-demand streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music account for 51% of young Millennials/Gen Z’s (15-20 year olds) daily listening. Although traditional AM/FM radio still rakes in 35% of the general population’s listening, younger Millennials reportedly only spend about 12% of their time tuning into the radio (Forbes 2016).
However, WUNH, like most radio stations today, have a live stream player on their website. At the beginning of the year I dedicated an hour to test out WUNH online. The Wednesday evening program was a two-hour block called “Rock is Dead,” which consisted of a solid mix of oldies, classic rock, swing, and punk. “New Jersey” by England Dan and John Ford Coley and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” by Melanie (a song that frequented my dad’s household playlist) were two notable tracks from the Rock is Dead program. I wasn’t surprised by such a great queue of tunes because WUNH always plays a killer lineup of music. Similar to most college radio stations, WUNH’s format consists of a variety of specialty programs that cover an array of genres. Programs include titles such as Rock is Dead, Pop Punk Peach, Exploring Jazz, Mad Lion Reggae, and an all-time college radio favorite: Polka Party. In addition to the specialty programs, WUNH operates on General Programming, which allows the DJs to create their own uniquely crafted shows every day. General Programming consists of two key guidelines:
DJs have to play 60% new music and then the remaining 40% can be whatever music they desire. The new music comes from an impressively large and diverse binder kept in the studio. The binder is super informative and neatly organized with songs listed in alphabetical order then labeled with their genres and related artists.
Absolutely no songs from the Top 40 or songs with curse words.
That’s the beauty of a radio station like WUNH. The freedom to be creative and provide fresh, unique music to the listener is all up to the DJs. In the current state of commercial radio, DJs have little to no control over what they broadcast, which eliminates that magic radio brings to the local music scene. WUNH however, has remained loyal to the art of radio and the value of DJs in the community.
“I have such a passion for music,” says Abby Lehner, or known on-air as DJ Hotwheelz, her stage name that perfectly captivates her vibrant personality and celebrates her wheelchair. Like all of the DJs at WUNH, Abby enjoys bringing her own personal flare to the show by providing a wide range of genres.
“I play a little bit of everything because I listen to so many different genres. My favorite ones are a lot of instrumental hip-hop so I really like artists like Grammatic. I also love a lot of instrumental chill wave or upbeat. Then sometimes I go into hard rock or punk. I have a lot of freedom.”
The general programming format of WUNH operates like a beautifully orchestrated storm of chaos. The DJs are the conductors, seamlessly intertwining a hodgepodge of genres, new underground music, and old cuts that have never been heard before. The 60/40 layout of the program gives DJs the power to give up and coming artists a widely accessible platform while also providing their listeners with totally new content.
“It’s true college radio. We’re spitting out a lot of good stuff,” says Karena Pezzullo, General Manager of WUNH and UNH Senior. “We got Lorde first, Hozier, Adele, and then they exploded later.”
Local radio stations, and college radio especially, have historically acted as musical influencers in their communities. Radio DJs were the ones who could give new artists presence in the community if they felt there was talent or their style challenged the status quo. Which is why Karena came to WUNH her freshman year to DJ, working her way up the executive board and now standing as the General Manager. She loved the philosophy of the station, one that fosters new music and avoids the Top 40 playlists.
“All of the bands I love now—all discovered here. And they end up being someone, which is what this station is all about, getting those bands the exposure they needed.” says Pezzullo.
I became curious about what WUNH was like during its heyday. At its start as a FM station in 1972, radio was still a token medium for music and news. I thought back to my dad who started his radio career in the early eighties and how disc jockeys held such star power because of the freedom to create connections with the listeners and the ability to bring new bands into the limelight. Local stations were mom and pop businesses, owned and operated by people who were passionate about both the radio and music industry. Today, two major corporations own the majority of American radio stations: Cumulus Media and iHeartMedia (previously known as Clear Channel). What happens when one company controls most of the radio stations across the country? What happens to the DJs and the local music scene?
"At WUNH there's freedom, there's no structure.
You're not told what to play and
you're not told what to say..."
“The values and foundations of WUNH haven’t changed,” says Russ Dumont, seasoned radio DJ who got his start in radio at WUNH from 1978-83, then moved on to program director for a station in Maine until 1998. He recently returned to WUNH in 2013 doing fill-ins when needed to satisfy what he calls his “radio ya-ya’s.” As a radio fanatic who has witnessed local radio become absorbed by the corporate media machine, Russ treasures the independence WUNH has maintained since the start.
"At WUNH there's freedom, there’s no structure. You’re not told what to play and you’re not told what to say. In commercial radio, that’s what has changed. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, FM radio was freeform. DJs had a platform to play what they wanted and it was incredible music being released at that time. Then in 1996 during the Clinton Administration, they signed the Telecommunications Act that deregulated radio and allowed ownership to acquire more than one station in a market. That led to homogenous programming, which is what you still get today on commercial radio, it never really takes the chance of taking new music or alternative music. They have to play the tested songs they know people will like when they turn on the radio station because it’s all become an extreme business.”
Jill Arabus, a veteran disc jockey at WUNH, has also witnessed a change in radio throughout the years. Jill got her start at the station in 1980, then after graduation she went on to work at the Associate Press for 15 years. In 2012, she came back to WUNH, and just like Russ, was delighted to return to the independent station she grew to love during her college years.
“It was really the Telecommunications Act of 1996, companies went from being able to own something 40 radio stations to as many as they wanted. WUNH has been a real resource, a gem, because we’re not told what to play, we are not commercial so we don’t have to pay attention to advertisers.” says Arabus.
Not only did the commercialization of radio lead to strict guidelines for the disc jockeys, but it also wiped out hundreds of DJs across the country by replacing them with automated voice tracks. DJs who invested their livelihoods into the radio business were quickly replaced by a cost-efficient technology.
“You know the really sad thing about radio today is that when I started out we were live 24 hours a day and we had a full staff, you know 10-12 people. Now you’re lucky to walk into a studio and see two full-time people. The actual buildings have become cells, and that’s due to the technology and business models, but to me it’s just sad,” says Russ.
Over the years, WUNH has been pressured by community leaders to become commercial and transition to a Top 40 format to satisfy the mainstream desire and promote a profitable business model. Luckily, the station has continued to push back against these efforts in support of the station’s moral foundation, it’s influence in the local music scene, and its commitment to the community members who look to WUNH for an authentic radio experience. Russ has faith in in WUNH to stick to its core values and keep great radio alive.
“I hope it stays like that forever because it fills a void because there isn’t a lot of radio stations like it. College radio is kind of holding the line for good radio and if that were to go it would be a horrible.”
We know that WUNH has stayed true to their ethics despite the mass commercialization of radio stations across the country, but it’s worth noting WUNH’s presence, or lack thereof, on campus. The station still struggles to grab the attention of the common student, one who isn’t deeply involved in the local music scene. I asked Abby about this and she agrees with a chuckle and a touch of disappointment in her voice.
“I don’t think a lot of people are aware of the station. It’s hard because radio is a dying breed, which sucks because it’s so cool, but I think it might not completely die. It might transition to something more like podcasts.” says Abby.
Jill also recognizes the decrease in WUNH’s popularity on campus, but she remembers a time when WUNH was more than just an overlooked organization situated in the MUB.
“There were so many times we would walk through the dorms at UNH and WUNH would be blasting through the hallways,” Jill recalls. The format also differed slightly, with the ability to incorporate some mainstream artists like Bruce Springsteen and Aerosmith into the playlists, but focusing more on the deeper cuts rather than hits like “Born to Run.”
With the popularity of podcasts, incorporation into WUNH’s format might not be a bad idea. Podcasts would be great on live radio, but online access has been quintessential for podcasts in today’s binge culture. However, WUNH’s website is definitely in need for an update. The site is a tad bit archaic, with an outdated design and finicky functionality.
Thankfully, the station is expecting a revamp of their website in the near future. With the help of their major fundraising event Marathon Week and a grant from the Parent’s Association, WUNH is expecting to have a new website out by the spring or summer of this year. Karena hopes this will make WUNH a more accessible and attractive platform for students who don’t listen to the radio often.
Not only does listening to WUNH encompass great value, but staff members also encourage students to join the team during their time at UNH. An obvious skill of working at the station is increased knowledge about radio, but students also receive the opportunity to gain cultural capital in the music industry.
“I’ve met a lot of people through music. Just knowing so many artists and music I’ve been able to talk to promoters and other people in the industry, and that’s because of the station,” says Abby.
Becoming a music aficionado is one major positive of working at WUNH, but the experience can also lead to career paths that extend farther than a professional radio disc jockey.
“As a WUNH DJ I couldn’t tell you how many people, famous people, I got to interview because it gave a pass to go ahead and do that,” Jill recalls on her time at WUNH as a student. “It had a huge educational value for us.”
A number of WUNH alumni have pursued successful media careers after graduation such as local radio personality Greg Kretschmar of Greg and the Morning Buzz on WHEB Portsmouth, Boston Bruins Sportscaster Jack Edwards, and Susan Mercandetti producer of ABC “Nightline,” just to name a few.
As someone who has been involved in the WUNH community since 1980, Jill has known most of these people who have gone onto phenomenal careers after acquiring the skills from WUNH. She continues to be adamant about college students trying out WUNH to discover a talent they never knew they even had.
“There’s so many opportunities that kids probably don’t even realize,” Jill says. “The sky is the limit the second you walk through those doors, you can go in so many directions. You can become a sports broadcaster, you can learn how to do production. It could change your life.”
For most who work at the station, it certainly has changed their lives for the best. Despite any lingering worries about the future of radio, the DJs at WUNH have bonded over a shared love for music and the art of radio.
“One thing we all have in common is a love for music,” says Russ. “some of us older DJs like myself, Jill, and Suellen, we not only have a love for music, but a love for radio. We’re just radio dogs. I don’t know what the future of commercial radio holds, but right now, I just am so thrilled, privileged, and grateful to be able to do a show on WUNH. To me it’s my place that I’m supposed to be.”
As technological advances continue to push corporate homogenous control onto independently run mediums, I’m hopeful there will always be an especially motivated group of people who strive to keep these mediums true to their nature. Whether it’s radio or print journalism, we as DJs, writers, and photographers want to keep these treasured creative endeavors alive. We want to feel something, we don’t want the easy, cost-efficient way out. We believe in the people who want to come together and collaborate on something that ignites emotion, fuels creativity, and invites connection. Just how I want to see my journalism printed in a tangible magazine, DJs cherish their time in the studio authentically engaging with listeners. We as creators still envision media as craft and we plan to keep it that way for as long as we can.
I watch Abby push and slide on the various knobs and controls during her Thursday evening radio show. She looks like a pro, mastering the volumes and transitions between each song on her perfectly designed playlist. She’s focused, feeling the pressure to integrate her chosen music into the live queue, yet her face radiates pure passion. Her love and dedication to WUNH is quite apparent. She brings a contagious positivity to the studio during her show. I want to believe that there will be others not only like Abby, but also like Karena, Jill, Russ, and the rest of the WUNH crew by keeping the spirit of college radio fearlessly vibrant.
“I hope the core values of sharing music with people stays eternal, and I think it will.” Abby said.