One of MIT’s best-kept secrets lives in the Institute’s basement

June 24, 2024

Today, the basement of Walker Memorial is home to what some students consider to be one of the Institute’s best-kept secrets — something that likely never crossed the minds of its original architects: a 24-hour, high-fidelity radio station. In 1956, when the station’s call letters were licensed to a radio station in North Carolina, the Cambridge-based station became WTBS. So it’s no surprise how station members responded to the challenges posed by Covid. “I think a lot of people just don’t quite know that the radio station is something that exists,” explains Lin. “We had someone pass by the door once, and they were like, ‘The radio station?

When MIT's Walker Memorial (Building 50) was constructed in 1916, it was among the first buildings located on the Institute’s then-new Cambridge campus. At the time, national headlines would have heralded Gideon Sundback’s invention of the modern zipper, the first transcontinental phone call by Alexander Graham Bell, and Charles Fahbry’s discovery of the ozone layer. It would be another 12 years before the invention of sliced bread, and, importantly, four years before the first U.S.-licensed commercial radio station would go on the air.    

In true MIT fashion, the past, present, and future of Building 50 seem to coexist within its hallways. Today, the basement of Walker Memorial is home to what some students consider to be one of the Institute’s best-kept secrets — something that likely never crossed the minds of its original architects: a 24-hour, high-fidelity radio station. 

Operating under the call sign WMBR 88.1 FM (for “Walker Memorial Basement Radio”), this all-volunteer troupe has endured many hurdles similar to those faced by others in the field as radio itself has largely changed over the years. But as general managers James Rock and Maggie Lin will tell you, there’s something special about this station’s ability to build deeper connections within the larger community.

“Students have the opportunity to get to know a bunch of our community members,” explains Rock. “Our tech director works closely with every student who wants to contribute, which involves anything from manning a drill to climbing to the roof of Walker and manually bending the antenna back into shape, which I did a couple of weeks ago,” laughs Rock. “Most of our student members are trained by someone who's been around and really knows what they’re doing with radio after decades of experience.”

“It’s really fun,” says Lin. “It’s being able to hang out with people who love music just as much as you do. The older members of the station are such a cool resource for talking about different kinds of music.”

Now sophomores, Rock and Lin first arrived at MIT and WMBR two years ago. At the time, the station was mitigating the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which WMBR went off the air temporarily. “We’ve been general managers since last spring, so the majority of our time at the station has been managing the station,” explains Lin. “We just came at a time when the station didn’t have many student members because of Covid.”

Lin recalls stories from disc jockeys who were at the station the night in 2020 when WMBR went off the air: “I’m told it was extremely sudden. There was someone here who said they finished their show and left a tote bag of records for the next time they were going to come back, and they left … and they still haven’t [returned].” 

However, resilience is a trait that WMBR has displayed in abundance throughout its storied 80-year history. First signing on as WMIT on Nov. 25, 1946, the station’s original equipment was built from the ground up by MIT electrical engineering students. In 1956, when the station’s call letters were licensed to a radio station in North Carolina, the Cambridge-based station became WTBS. And when the station was in dire need of cash for new equipment in the 1970s, its members found a creative solution: an agreement with media mogul Ted Turner to exchange the call letters WTBS for $50,000. This afforded the station the new equipment it dearly needed and allowed Turner to launch the Turner Broadcasting System. The station subsequently became WMBR on Nov. 10, 1979.          

So it’s no surprise how station members responded to the challenges posed by Covid. “The tech team pulled off something kind of crazy when they set that up,” says Lin. “Within weeks, they set up a system where people could upload files of shows they recorded from home, and then it would be broadcast live.”

“Sticking to the hybrid system means that especially new members have the flexibility to start out recording from home,” adds Rock. “That’s what Maggie and I did. It means if you're scared, a little jumpy, or stutter as you speak, you can go back and edit.”

The station also expanded its slate of new content in the years following the pandemic. “I think the most lasting effect of Covid is that we are now 24/7,” says Rock. “Most of the time it’s fresh material now. The spring schedule is guaranteed fresh material from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.”

“It’s a packed schedule,” adds Lin.

Considering the sheer amount of original programming now airing on WMBR, it would be easy to assume the station relies heavily on ad revenue to keep the lights on. But, thanks to one fundraising week held each November, the station keeps pumping out music and spoken-word shows such as “Music for Eels,” “Post-Tentious,” and “Crunchy Plastic Dinosaurs.”

“And operating an FM radio station is not cheap,” says Rock, “maintaining the antennas and buying new tech equipment, getting music, paying licensing fees, and ordering pizza to keep the students on board because the DJs have to be happy, etc. So it’s a real privilege that we are able to operate on that listener funding from that one week each year.”

“It’s kind of crazy, because when you're broadcasting, it’s to Greater Boston, but you really don’t know how many people are listening,” adds Lin. “And I think it's really awesome when you see fundraising week. It’s like, ‘Yeah, people really do listen.’” 

“And if a donor chooses to pledge to a show, generally the DJs will mail a postcard back as thanks for that donation. So, if you want a signature of Maggie’s or mine, support us in November!” laughs Rock. “Limiting [fundraising] to one week means that we never advertise, so as long as we keep that contained to one-52nd of the year, the rest of the time you just get the music and the DJ’s commentary you tuned in for. There’s no solicitation.”

In many ways, this highlights the paradox of WMBR: reconciling its undeniable audience of loyal listeners and passionate community members with the fact that many MIT students and employees have never heard of WMBR.

“I think a lot of people just don’t quite know that the radio station is something that exists,” explains Lin. “I understand it’s because people our age don't really listen to radio much anymore, but I think the space is so amazing. A lot of the new students that we bring in are pretty awed by it, especially the record library; with hundreds of thousands of records and CDs, and the studios,” says Lin, referencing the station’s impressive collection of music, which fills a space so large that it once held a bowling alley. “It’s an opportunity that is kind of easy to miss out on. So I feel like we’re bringing in new members — which I’m really happy about — but I just want people to know that WMBR is here, and it’s really cool.”

“Yes. I second that,” says Rock. “MIT is so full of opportunities and resources that you can’t possibly take advantage of all of them, but we are hidden here in the basement of Walker Memorial where students don’t really make it [to] that often.”

“Listeners don’t even know,” laughs Lin. “We had someone pass by the door once, and they were like, ‘The radio station? It’s here?’”

“I didn’t know there was a campus radio station, and I frankly hadn’t really thought of campus radio until I walked into Activities Midway during my first CPW [Campus Preview Weekend], and maybe orientation,” adds Rock. “One of the great things about it is that you can share your own music tastes with all of greater Boston. You have the aux cord for an hour every week, and it’s such a privilege.”

“It’s kind of scary-sounding to think, ‘You're going to go sit behind a microphone and all of Greater Boston will hear you,’” adds Lin. “But James is always full of confidence, so I just thought, ‘What if we did a show together?’ That’s another thing that we like as we get new students in: people who want to co-host shows together.” 

“We are always looking for new student members,” says Rock. “Whether you want to do a radio show, podcast, help with maintaining and upgrading our broadcast equipment, or gain valuable experience helping to manage and lead a nonprofit organization that is an eclectic mix of MIT students, staff, and members of the local community, let us know!”

Walker Memorial Basement Radio (WMBR) is currently on the air and streaming 24/7. Listen online here, or tune your dial to 88.1 FM. To find out more about joining WMBR, send a message to [email protected].

The source of this news is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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