In some ways, whether or not a college radio station has live, on-air DJs chattering between songs might not seem that important. Especially when the university it’s at is tasked with returning an undergraduate population north of 25,000 students this fall amid a global pandemic.
But WUSC 90.5 FM is more than just a somewhat dated ancillary limb of USC’s student media portfolio — it’s been part and parcel of the cultural milieu of Columbia for decades, providing truly alternative music and community programming with an underground sensibility and an anything-goes ethos that continues to make it exciting, refreshing and unlike anything else on the airwaves.
That identity is driven by the diverse legion of volunteer DJs who bring their own eclectic array of tastes and interests to the station each year. They do this in a small and not-so-well-ventilated room that serves as a studio in the upper of the Russell House student union, a troubling situation amid ongoing coronavirus fears.
The good news is that WUSC is already taking part in the phased reopening of the campus, with a limited schedule of live DJs returning to the airwaves from noon to 4 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, starting this week.
“Obviously it’s a much more limited schedule this summer than we would have had otherwise,” admits Carly Mihovich, the current station manager. “And it’s a bit frustrating to not be able to offer the opportunity to return to more of our DJs who saw their spring shows cut short.”
Still, she’s grateful the station was included in this current phase of reopenings, and says WUSC clearly recognizes the challenge it faces in returning to a normal schedule.
“There are definitely going to be some more conversations taking place with the university before we come back in the fall in order to make sure that we are following health guidelines as much as we can,” she explains, pointing out that the protocol around alumni DJs, after-hours access and even co-hosts and live guests might come under scrutiny. These decisions will ultimately be made by university officials, with input from the station and Director of Student Media Sarah Scarborough.
As for now, live DJs return with a slew of new policies designed to safeguard them against the coronavirus, including daily equipment cleans, wearing masks and social distancing even in the narrow corridors of the station.
“Our returning DJs are also going to have to be proactive,” Mihovich says. “It’s going to be a big culture shift for us, as we’re so used to just hanging out in our tiny space.”
The summer schedule, as paltry as it is compared with the station’s typical programming, does its best to replicate the feel and range of what the station does best, with niche shows dedicated to death metal and shoegaze returning alongside the more standard “free format” blocks that are required to play multiple genres as well as dedicate a portion of their programming to new releases from the station’s rotation. A news-talk show will also air on Fridays at 3 p.m.
“The schedule for this summer is a good mix of specialty and free-format shows hosted by both students that are relatively new to WUSC and others that have been with us for a long time,” says Mihovich, who emphasizes that the live DJ experience is key to the station’s appeal.
“As a listener, there is only so much you can get from the robots before you miss having a real person on the other end,” she insists. “It’s just ultimately so much better to know that someone genuinely cares about the music that is being played for you.”