November 17, 2004: On the Campus
Off the charts
By Sara Mayeux ’05
Marisa Reisel ’07 keeps getting pre-empted by football.
The sophomore art major from Los Angeles is one of about 60 current DJs at WPRB 103.3 FM, Princeton’s student-run radio station. Time slots are assigned each semester based on seniority, and Reisel, who began spinning discs last year and is also one of the station’s promotions and publicity directors, expected to have a prime spot on Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m.
But in addition to classical, jazz, and rock programming, WPRB broadcasts Princeton football games, complete with student play-by-play and commentary. So, on yet another drizzly afternoon this fall, Reisel had to wait until the Tigers were done with their opponents before she could sign on the air for a truncated, hour-long show. Cueing up her first tracks, she explained her on-air routine. “It’s pretty boring actually,” she said with a not-quite-credible air of nonchalance. “I just put in the music, wait until it’s done, and then talk.”
Moving deftly between the array of buttons, machines, and microphones in WPRB’s new studio in the Ellipse dormitory, Reisel managed to fit an eclectic playlist into her 60 minutes of airtime, mixing Velvet Underground and Johnny Cash in with ’60s soul songstress Trixie Smith and indie favorite Mates of State.
The lineup sounded considerably more mainstream than the average WPRB rock program. Early in the show, Reisel even played Frou Frou’s “Let Go,” a song from the soundtrack to the recent film Garden State. The album features several little-known bands, but it has reached No. 20 on the Billboard charts — too trendy, apparently, for WPRB’s library, so Reisel had to bring her personal copy of the CD. She duly apologized to her listeners when she paused for station identification: “I know you’re all thinking: Marisa, Garden State soundtrack? What are you doing? But it’s such a good song, I can’t help it.”
WPRB, and its predecessor, WPRU, have been broadcasting for six decades, and the radio station has a long tradition of stepping outside the musical mainstream. In the 1970s, a rift developed among the student managers, according to Kenneth McCarthy ’81’s official station history: Should the station play Top-40 hits, or provide an alternative to commercial radio? Duplicating pop programming seemed, to some, like “a waste of talent and opportunity for the students of a school like Princeton,” McCarthy wrote, paraphrasing the latter point of view. “They should be taking chances, creating new approaches, bringing something different to the airwaves.”
The alternative camp won the day, and WPRB has since been one of the Mid-Atlantic’s premier independent radio stations. John Weingart *75 — a local resident who has been a DJ at the station since he was a graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson School – even calls his show “Music You Can’t Hear on the Radio.”
Eschewing the mainstream is WPRB gospel. DJs are free to play whatever they like, though each show must include a certain number of tracks from new CDs that have been vetted by the station’s music directors and DJs. But one suspects that any DJ who attempted to cue up the Backstreet Boys would not last long.
And so, on a campus populated mostly by students with middle-of-the-road tastes, WPRB remains a militant promoter of non-mainstream music. The student contingent is not enough to fill the yawning hours of weekly airtime: While the station’s officers are all Princeton students, at least a third of its DJs are not. The station’s signal reaches from New York to Philadelphia, drawing an eclectic group of listeners. Reisel has tried to add more students to the audience, hanging flyers around campus that ask, “Are you listening to WPRB 103.3?” But short of switching to an all-pop format, there might not be much that WPRB can do to increase its on-campus presence.
Still, Reisel is hopeful that WPRB can both heighten its student profile and maintain its independent streak. The latest crop of about 25 DJs-in-training, mostly from the Class of 2008, is a start. She can’t quite explain the unusually large training group, or any connection with the rumors about recent admission-office efforts to recruit more “artsy” students.
“I don’t think that they’re ‘artsy,’ I think they’re weird,” Reisel said with a laugh as she played a CD by the Fiery Furnaces. “But it’s OK because they all want to be DJs, and their weirdness will pay off. We’re all about weird.”
Sara Mayeux ’05 is a history major from Atlanta.
ON THE CAMPUS ONLINE: Click here to read “Table Manners and Career Planners,” by Jordan Paul Amadio ’05.