Better Know A College Radio Station: Vassar’s WVKR


The staff at Vassar’s WVKR 91.3 FM.

For many obsessive fans who grew up in the pre-Internet era, a passion for music was sparked in the dingy basements and dark booths of college radio stations. Despite sound boards that are decades out of date and rapidly-changing tastes, that tradition has endured. The best college stations remain dedicated to delivering music that falls outside the purview of Billboard-charting mainstream radio.

If anything, the shifting climate has caused student station managers and music directors to work harder at keeping their stations relevant. And with good reason: at the radio station, they found comrades with whom they could trade mixtapes and stay up late into the night raving about life-changing B-sides.

Bandcamp speaks from personal experience: even if our first shows were at 4am on Tuesday nights, they were the best two hours of our entire week. In this feature called Better Know a College Radio Station, we spotlight the programmers, music directors and general managers who make sure the “On-Air” light never burns out.

Last month, we chatted with Marta Ligocki, program director at CJSW 90.9 FM in Calgary and now we catch up with Delphine Douglas, James Fast, and Ivy Green of Vassar’s WVKR 91.3 FM.

Tell us about the history of your station. When did you start broadcasting?

Green: WVKR sent out its first broadcast in the 1930s, became an AM station in the early 1970s, has been an FM station since 1976, and has been broadcasting at 3400 watts since 1994.

Douglas: This is our 40th year as an FM station!

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Mark Rae’s Laser Focus on the Present and the Future Keeps Him From Dwelling on the Past

Mark Rae

For a man in his 50s, who’s just written his autobiography, Mark Rae is surprisingly unwilling to dwell in the past.

He’s certainly entitled to hark back to past glories: as a DJ, half of the production duo Rae & Christian, and a major force between the Fat City record store and Grand Central label, he made huge waves through UK and international music through the 1990s and into the 2000s. In his new book Northern Sulphuric Soulboy – a short volume released independently through Bandcamp with an accompanying 6-track 10” vinyl record—he looks back to his youth and his professional achievements, sharing hair-raising tales and harsh lessons learned about the realities of the music business.

But unlike many such memoirs, it doesn’t feel like a rounding-off of a career, a settling of scores or a wistful yearning for better times. Rather, its swift tumble through decades of vivid anecdotes, combined with the crisp and funky soundtrack, feels like someone flexing their creative muscles, enjoying the act of expression as much as the trip down memory lane. And when we meet him in a North London cafe, the impression is the same: this is a man with unfinished business, who is as interested in what’s next as he’s ever been. Rae is smartly dressed—ever the soulboy—and possessed of the brisk wit of his native north of England (he was raised in Newcastle and came of musical age in Manchester): altogether, he comes off as focused and on the case. And regardless of how much we ask about the past, his train of thought returns constantly to the present day.

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Aaron Lee Tasjan, Glam Rock Folk Singer

Aaron Lee Tasjan

Aaron Lee Tasjan. Photo by Curtis Wayne Millard.

It’s tough to take Aaron Lee Tasjan seriously when he calls himself a folk singer. Though the shaggy-haired, 30-year-old Nashville transplant is perfectly capable of quieting a room with storytelling songs and acoustic fingerpicking, there’s a whole lot of other music in his repertoire—not to mention on his resume. His incisive electric guitar playing landed him prime glam rock gigs, first with Semi Precious Weapons, then a latter-day lineup of the proto-punk New York Dolls—both far better known for the flaunting of fabulous rock ‘n’ roll androgyny than for anything remotely folk-leaning. He also secured a spot in the hard-edged roots rock outfit Drivin’ N Cryin’. The solo work that Tasjan’s committed himself to since—including his magnetic New West Records debut Silver Tears—makes use of his slouching self-awareness, bohemian intellect and wicked wit, as well as his fondness for psychedelic eruptions, sophisticated studio pop flourishes and easy twang. He’s wagering that the Americana scene, no matter its traditionalist rep, has room for such motley impulses. The week after he spoke with us, he brought a pair of drag queens on stage during his showcase at the Americana Music Festival.

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Perry Shall’s Sincere Analog Aesthetic

Hound. Photo by Dawn Riddle.

“Visually, VHS looks better to me than HD or digital,” says Perry Shall, Philadelphia-based artist and musician. “I tried rewatching E.T. recently on an HD super fancy TV, and you can tell it’s a movie set. Not that I didn’t know that before, but it took away the illusion.” Shall is explaining the aesthetic root of his attraction to analog culture, which he’s so embedded in that its techniques have become part of his creative toolbox. Make no mistake, though: Shall’s love for the things we made before personal computers (and digital connectivity) became such an integral part of our lives is no retrogressive kitsch, no attempt to ride novelty or trend into some sort of viral fame. He truly loves the actual look and feel of pre-digital ephemera.

Through the music of his band Hound, the visuals he’s created for Waxahatchee, Jeff the Brotherhood, Obits, Kurt Vile, Diarrhea Planet, and his new clothing line, Cherry Cola, Shall has crafted his own aesthetic language that pops, cracks, and often requires tracking adjustment. There’s just enough fuzz, hiss, and distortion in his work—both aural and visual—to be charming and familiar without being nakedly nostalgic. Shall goes big in everything he does, whether it’s collecting vintage toys, t-shirts and other ephemera in bulk, or the 5’ 7”, 30-pound foam ice cream cone named Terry that he built, “just because.” Even when he’s assuming the role of frontman for Hound—backbeat booming, down-stroked riffs that channel the big rock of Danzig, Thin Lizzy, ZZ Top, Motörhead, and early Rush—there’s an innocence and humor to the work that gives the glow of authenticity, rather than retro irony.

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Unpacking Beats In Space, Record by Record with Tim Sweeney

Tim Sweeney

Tim Sweeney is the nicest and most self-deprecating hustler in dance music that you’re likely to meet. His grueling schedule includes hosting WNYU’s Beats In Space, travelling to DJ club gigs most weekends, and running his own Beats In Space label, which releases “underground dance music inspired by the radio show.”

But he does all of this with a sense of duty; he can’t not play, archive and remix records. Even though he’s not the same baby-faced 18-year-old kid who started the show almost two decades ago, he still exudes a childlike pleasure at the discovery of new music.

At 19, Sweeney started an apprenticeship with Steve “Steinski” Stein (of Double Dee and Steinski). At the time, Sweeney’s tastes leaned toward hip-hop, turntablism, and IDM. During his internship at the studio run by DFA founders Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy, the focus of his shows shifted to the triumvirate of house-techno-disco, with heavy balearic and cosmic influences. Murphy and other DFA affiliates often appeared as guests on the show in its early days.

Over the years, Beats in Space has hosted everyone from elder statesmen like DJ Harvey, Andrew Weatherall and Daniele Baldelli, to DFA and its adjacent crew of jocks—like Murphy, Dr. Dunks, The Juan Maclean, and Justin V. He even had a pre-Blackberry Diplo on in 2003. By the end of the ‘00s, Sweeney was no longer just part of the DFA gang. He’d gone on to become one of the most influential American broadcasters of electronic music and an in-demand DJ on the underground circuit. He might even have the longest-running college radio show in the country, but he’s too modest to acknowledge his own legacy.

We spoke with Sweeney about his on-air style, playing bad parties, and the entire Beats in Space catalogue.

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