Some college radio stations broadcast commercial playlists and major record labels, others are known for obscure artists and basement jam sessions, and some air an eclectic mix. Whatever their vibe, college radio stations have become newly popular with music junkies and music makers alike.
Skidmore’s WSPN-FM, might look like any other college radio station on the surface -- but when you dig deeper, you find the creative undercurrent that sets it apart.
WSPN originated as a carrier station of Union College’s WRUC and then became its own operation in 1972. When the station was WRUC-Skidmore prior to 1972, its studio was on the top floor of the Little Theater. "Entering and exiting, and going to the record library, meant going through a classroom space, which annoyed some of the professors. We sometimes used the fire escape instead," recalls Fred Goldstein '75, chief engineer of WSPN during his time on campus and the person resposbile for installing the oringal FM station and new campus studio.
The transmitter has always been located in Jonsson Tower, but the studio was once in Case Center. In 1978, the studio moved to the Jonsson basement, and over the years DJs and music fans have decorated the door with stickers of thousands of musical groups.
WSPN is a 24-hour, 365-day, full-service, noncommercial station. Using a freeform radio format -- where the DJ is given complete control over what music to play regardless of genres or commercial interests -- it’s one of the few college radio stations run entirely by a student board. The station hit its stride under the leadership of Steven Rosenbaum ’83, who enlisted local community members as well as students as program hosts -- a tradition that continues today.
“WSPN just exuded this vibe of independence and creativity, a space for students to express their passions and feel free to experiment with sound.” - Ariel Plotnick ‘15
WSPN reflects the personalities and tastes of its DJs. For Skidmore students, this ranges from music to audio documentaries to live jam sessions.
“When I was new at Skidmore I remember turning on WSPN and being blown away at the variety,” says current general manager Logan Sweezy ‘17. “You could hear everything from a DJ obsessed with the ‘90s Memphis underground tape scene to Appalachian bluegrass to Tame Impala. WSPN was different, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Zac Transport ‘17, majoring in the physics of acoustics, plays the blues -- everything from the 1920s to now. “I love the blues because I was raised on CDs my father played for me, such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and so on,” he says. “I DJ because I love opening up people in my generation to old music they’ve probably never heard before. Playing music that I love makes me happy, and I hope to make others happy with me.”
Behind the DJs, the student board, composed of about 15 members, manages everything from programming to publicity to audio engineering.
Past and present WSPN general managers
Logan Sweezy ‘17
Rebecca Stern ‘16
Ariel Plotnick ‘15
Gretchen Schwab ‘14
Anne Auchincloss ‘13
Paige Reeves ‘12
Jacob Bauer-Anstadt ‘11
Ally-Jane Grossan ‘10
Shannon Hassett ‘09
Alissa de Vogel ‘07
Mike Clifford '08
Clifton Ingram ‘06
Managing the station played a critical role in the life of Ally-Jane Grossan ‘10, and in 2015 she worked with Skidmore’s Alumni Relations Office to coordinate a mini-reunion for alumni who once broadcasted on WSPN. More than 40 alumni from as far as California gathered in New York City to reminisce about their days on the air. Now a senior editor at Bandcamp, Grossan has made music and radio her career.
“Being general manager at WSPN remains one of the hardest jobs I've ever had,” says Grossan. But it was one of the most rewarding. She describes working in college radio as “this cool crucible for kids who love music,” and oftentimes she encounters publicists, label executives, journalists, or artists who also worked in college radio.
Programming on WSPN ranges from reggae to gospel to classic rock and more. During the academic year, about 85 different shows are aired per week -- mostly hosted by Skidmore student DJs.
A longstanding tradition at the station is promoting “hotbox” music, a periodically updated selection of new (perhaps undiscovered) music that’s made available to any DJ. The free-form spirit of the station lends itself to anything from live on-air mixes and live performances to talk radio to vinyl on turntables.
Cara Philbin ‘08
National Public Radio
Alex Mintz ‘15
Elissa Nadworny ‘11
National Public Radio
Lynda Rivers ‘95
American Federation of TV and Radio Artists
Blair Bartlett ‘00
95.1-FM, Manchester, Vt.
Ilene Grossman ‘06
Sirius XM Radio
Louis diLorenzo ‘88
WSB Radio, Atlanta, Ga.
Ariel Plotnick ‘15
Freelance Radio Producer
“One of my favorite WSPN memories was in 2012, when I aired one of my audio documentaries during my show,” recalls Ariel Plotnick ‘15, former general manager of WSPN. “The doc was really in a preliminary stage of completion, but airing my work for others to hear was so exciting!”
WSPN is consistently ranked by the Princeton Review as one of the best college radio stations, coming in at #16 in 2016. The station isn’t the only thing receiving accolades, though. The International Radio Festival named Saratogian Alexander Spinelli the 2014 Best US/Canada College DJ. The IRF had asked entrants to upload one of their radio shows to demonstrate their skill, personality, and musical knowledge, and his show Recess with Spinelli topped more than 100 submissions from across North America.
One of the most popular, longest-running, yet unlikely shows on WSPN is Polka Magic -- hosted by Lil-Jas Lesniewski and Happy Bob Pawlak each and every Saturday morning at 9 a.m. Polka Magic has drawn avid listeners for 31 years, earning a mention in Make No Small Plans, the Skidmore College history.
WSPN has a powerful impact on those who listen to it and those who are a part of its
history. Today, as many college radio stations fight for funding to stay alive, WSPN
has managed to find a niche and thrive. The quirky DJs and diverse programming stand
out in a digital landscape saturated by podcasts and downloads. Not all student-run
stations make a lasting mark in that terrain, but WSPN is here to stay.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the transmitter was located in Case Center and the studio, in Jonsson Tower. The article has been updated with the correct information.