State of the Union

 

On Jan. 27, 2017, I parked my car in the Student Health Services lot behind LaValle Stadium—usually an area you’d be hard-pressed to find parking in, now nearly completely vacant. I made my way over to the back doors of the Student Union – a stoic grey building that looked more akin to a prison dining hall than a student space. There was a strange presence to it, sternly imposing itself into the landscape of the Stony Brook campus. Locked,  of course it was. Though the building had been officially “closed” for over a month now, WUSB was still broadcasting from the second floor – just as it had been doing for 42 years. As the campus radio station for over five decades, it’s hard to overstate its importance as an integral factor in developing University culture.

Since 1962, WUSB maintained a staff of countless student and community volunteers, provided listeners with relentlessly innovative content all while remaining committed to a very fluid and free style of programming. At a certain point, WUSB was at the forefront of popular music, painstakingly sniffing out some of the most exciting artists of the day. It’s hardly a surprise that it once ranked among the top stations on Long Island, behind only the biggest local commercial stations.

Today was different, however, because at 5:00 p.m., we’d sign off for the last time in that studio. A space that had been a home for so many during its 40 year run, airtime would be handed off to Democracy Now! before we had to be fully functional in the new studio within an hour. I should say mostly functional (radio stations like WUSB take months to settle in). The loading dock around the side of the building had been made available for volunteers and staff so that this transition could be as smooth as possible. So I went around, swiped my keycard and walked in. With no utilities or running water, the overwhelming smell of black mold wafts over you swiftly. The warm, orange glow of the incandescent lighting and the soft buzz that accompanied it was the only other audible sound, apart from the distant scuffle of moving boxes being shoved across the floor above. Everything was in disarray; the snack and soda machines were oddly scattered around the ground floor – like someone had given up on moving them halfway through (pretty likely, to be honest). Many of the rooms and offices were opened with their contents strewn across the floor – like everyone had been suddenly evacuated. The University Cafe – managed by the Graduate Student Organization until recently – was stripped of it’s equipment, seating and decorations. A few lights remained dimly lit but overall it was empty and the last drink had been served a few months prior. The food courts were sectioned off weeks ago, the Union Deli was dark and the auditorium lay vacant. Finally – tucked away in the back of the second floor  remained WUSB. Punching a short numerical code into the busted keypad brought you inside. Moving boxes dotted most of the floor and posters lined the walls of the studio. Those walls were cracked and there were actual holes in the ceiling (maybe that’s where the squirrels kept sneaking in?). The smell of old records replaced the smell of black mold and traditional “On-Air”  indicators hung above several doorways. It felt like what you’d imagine a college radio station to be and both its durability and sustainability over the past 40 years was only a testament to the students who had build it decades prior. 5:00 p.m. came, the switch was made and we had a new home elsewhere just across campus. As hordes of volunteers and myself carried what we could down to the first floor – I noticed something written on the wall. Scrawled into the door frame was “WUSB: Best radio station in the Universe.

Though WUSB hasn’t – and of course couldn’t – exist inside of a vacuum.

Perhaps also partially as a mirror of the culture at large, the radio station was also a reflection of many sentiments on campus including the counterculture movement of the 1960s, the Punk movement of the 1970s (and beyond), as well as fevered political activism. With such a rich culture, it’s interesting to take a closer look into how music has watermarked certain eras of our history on campus and to examine the moments that helped us define ourselves.

 

 

Mudville and the “Spirit of ‘67”

“Time flies here, the spirit of ‘67, zooms out of the skies, looking for a runway.” Those words were printed on one of the inside pages of the 1967 Stony Brook yearbook. That year, the University was still in its infancy. Just ten years prior, New York State had commissioned that a new school was to be built to “stand with the finest in the country.” Initially a whopping 148 student operation out of an old mansion in Oyster Bay, its future was set in stone when 400 acres of land were donated to the state for the construction of a new campus. Moving to its fancy new location in 1962, the university was plagued by years of almost constant construction and mud. As a collection of sparse buildings, pathways and parking lots, the small University was definitely experiencing growing pains (fun fact: the ratio of mud to students was a lot to one). The latter half of the ‘60’s were just as turbulent as the foundation of the campus, as this was an era marked by increased political activism in most social arenas, the experimentation of psychedelics across the country and widespread dissatisfaction with the Vietnam war. Stony Brook certainly wasn’t outside of any of that influence. In 1965, Howie Klein was a freshman amongst the first group of students who would spend a full four years at this current location. “Stony Brook was very small, it was basically a building site,” said Klein. “We used to walk on wooden planks over these rivers of mud.” When Klein began his university education, most of the student population was homogeneous. This meant that student life would have a uniformity to it. Coupled with the fact that the were less than 8,000 students, it was highly likely that you’d run into peers with the same attitudes, beliefs and musical taste as yourself. As Klein and I spoke, he remembered his time pre-college: “Before Stony Brook, popular music was something my sisters listened to. I was a very studious kid, and – to be honest – it was just annoying to me,” he said. This would change during Klein’s freshman orientation, when he would introduce himself to another student by the name of Sandy Pearlman. Pearlman was very involved both politically and musically, managing musicians that would end up forming what we now recognize as Blue Oyster Cult and encouraging Klein to run for freshman class president (which he did). Pearlman introduced Klein to an entirely exciting new world – one that would help him transform the Stony Brook community with his peers. In 1967, Klein was appointed as the chairman of the Student Activities Board. From this position, he was responsible for overseeing and organizing the many events for students on campus and used it as an agent to bring the world to campus. “I felt that I could try to expose students to thoughts and ideologies,” he said. With the help of Klein, Pearlman and others, their campus was quickly molding itself into a hub for music and culture on the island. In the span of a few short years, just some of the musical acts alone that passed through read like an impossible wish list: The Who, Ravi Shankar, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead (in their first paid east coast performance), the Doors, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and even Pink Floyd. Often playing for just a few hundred dollars, many artists performed because the school’s reputation had preceded it.  Additionally, Howie was adamant about nurturing progressive thought through a speaker series.

Following the Civil Rights Act of 1965, Julian Bond (among seven others) was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. Due to his opposition to the war in Vietnam, Georgia’s house voted not to seat him. This erupted into a highly contested supreme court case, with coverage plastered on national headlines. Howie – recognizing a good opportunity – arranged for Bond to speak on campus. Before the event, school officials forced Klein to even the odds and give the other side a platform to speak at the lecture. His choice, reluctantly, was Strom Thurmond – the former presidential candidate who had run on a segregationist platform (i.e. blatant racism). Shortly before the event, Klein moved around the funds for each speaker – offering Bond $2,500 more and Thurmond exactly $2,500 less. Bond was treated to a five star restaurant and a limousine, while Thurmond arrived by the LIRR and was given $10 for a slice of pizza. When the event came, students packed the gym and gave Bond a standing ovation, though the reception for Thurmond would be slightly different. When he took the podium, every student rose in unison and walked out in protest. Klein tells me with an audible smile on his face, “I had absolutely no idea that was going to happen – though had I known I would have supported it 100 percent.”

Thurmond gave his speech to one faculty member.

It was perhaps the most “punk” act on campus at the time – and punk hadn’t even been invented yet.

 

Six Months and $1,000

As the 1970s arrived, Stony Brook grew and continued to develop its reputation as not only a quality state university but also as a hub for some of the most exciting music of the day. While many of the original students that shaped its culture in the mid to late ’60’s had long since graduated – a new generation was emerging. The shows continued with acts like Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa (on numerous occasions), The Beach Boys, The Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, MC5, Bad Brains and Blue Oyster Cult. Students were enjoying one of the best live music series they had likely ever seen – or would see again. “It was extremely robust. The students at the university were so into the music, that there were very rarely tickets available for anyone off-campus,” said Richard Koch, the first program director for WUSB. “There was a concert in the gym at least two times a month, and at least once a week in either the Union Ballroom or Auditorium.” Students were so confident in their peers’ ability to bring cutting edge music to campus that often was the case where they’d buy tickets to shows without any knowledge as to the artist whatsoever. While this scene propagated and developed, WUSB was developing its own voice.

“The joke used to be that you could hear us better on your toaster than on your radio,” Koch said. Between 1965 and 1977 WUSB operated exclusively on AM airwaves and was only available to campus residents. There were small transmitters positioned around campus and at some point a group of students had turned one of the quads into a giant transmitter by running cables around the building (without prior University consent, of course. Though isn’t it better to ask for forgiveness than for permission?) They had been fighting for a slot on the FM dial since the mid ‘60’s and much of the mid ‘70’s were spent building that FM studio while conversely at odds with the FCC. The SUNY system had recently mandated that all University stations make the switch to FM, though a legal battle with Nassau Community College over licensing and an FCC freeze on all new stations slowed any progress. Still, some students and volunteers remained steadfastly committed to building a new studio. One of these students was Norm Prusslin – the station’s first General Manager. Prusslin came to Stony Brook during the 1969 school year and quickly involved himself in campus activities – particularly on the radio. As WUSB fought its uphill battle for FM licensing, Norm was instrumental in building the radio station both literally and figuratively. Shortly before the conversion, Norm and several others worked tirelessly to update the Union studios. “Everything was analog… we figured at some point it must’ve been at least two miles of wiring,” remembered Koch, who was also present during that transformative phase. “It was [definitely] a long, hard slog.” Though on a cool summer night in June of 1977, WUSB christened the frequency “90.1 FM” and has called it home ever since.

Running a radio station out of the Student Union might seem like an ad hoc operation – and for many years it was. Of course not everything would be perfect after that June afternoon – It would take a village to maintain and to correct the quirks and hiccups that new equipment would bring. There were times where circuits had to be changed and other edits had to be made to the building, though it would again be up to the station’s community to make their own changes. “Six months and $1,000” was the recycled estimate given to the students every time facilities planning was forced to investigate any structural or engineering problem encountered in the Union. In turn, adopting a DIY approach to most of these issues only made the most sense  and it’s a characteristic that has been sustained even to this day.

During the latter half of the decade and into the 1980s, WUSB established itself as one of the top radio stations on Long Island and attracted fiercely loyal listeners that persist to this day. At 4000 watts it was the most powerful non-commercial radio station – covering large swaths of the Island, parts of Connecticut and New York City at one point. Their commitment to meticulously curated free form radio not only brought together various people from around New York together, but also strengthened the one closest to home – the Stony Brook community. Maintaining a student and volunteer staff as diverse as the campus itself, WUSB stands as a reminder of both the influence that music has to bind people and the power that like-minded students have to develop their own set of rules.

“One of my favorite parts of WUSB,” Koch said “is when you’d be playing a song, the phone would ring, and on the other end of the line was a person saying ‘Oh my god – what was that? I’ve never heard anything like this on any other radio station!’”

To which he would reply: “Why are you listening to other radio stations?”

 

A riot, more security concerns and the ‘lost decade.’

As time went on and the University expanded, Stony Brook funneled more resources into other aspects like research, academics and sports. In 1980, the University dedicated the University hospital and began to attract a different type of student – one that was more focused in academia than in extracurricular. As the school leaned further and further into the research and medical field, they would set themselves on a path toward becoming the single largest employer on Long Island and one of the top research universities in the country. Respectively, any focus on culture and the arts simply wasn’t very high on their priorities list and students were left with much less of a conducive environment for creative outlets. The 1980s also represented a peak in the music industry – where high profile artists were filling stadiums around the country stringing along higher and higher booking fees. This was the type of talent that Stony Brook was interested in and appealing to the lowest common denominator might have made the most sense to them economically. Notable performances during this period include The Ramones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lou Reed and The Clash.

Feb. 15 1991 began a downward spiral in the University’s trust and confidence in large-scale concerts on the campus. On this particular day, rapper Special Ed was scheduled to perform for students in the Union Ballroom (the concert was in celebration of Black History month, organized by the Minority Board). The concert was set to begin at midnight, though was delayed because the artist was late. Nearly two hours later (in a room filled with 700 sweaty, angry college students) a riot broke out – sending hundreds of students scrambling for safety. The Suffolk County Police Department quickly responded to reports of gunfire and when it was all said and done several students and security personnel were being treated for non-life threatening – but serious – injuries. Later accounts suggested that the instigators of the outbreak had not been students – thought it made no difference. The incident left an indelible mark in the minds of school officials.

In the years following the riot, any enthusiasm that school officials had for live music withered away. Shortly after the the start of the 21st century, there began a time – widely referred to now as “The Lost Decade” – wherein any defined campus live music community wasn’t available or sustained. While some of this can be blamed on increased security concerns in recent years, a great deal can be attributed to the dissolution of the Student Polity Association in 2002 –  a student run organization responsible for managing the student activities budget and funding many of the clubs on campus – including the semi-independent Student Activities Board that controlled events planning. This decision had been made by then president Shirley Strum-Kenny on grounds grounds that the organization had been far too corrupt to be turned around and was decertified on Oct. 11, 2002.  It was essentially a reset button. In it’s place were two new governments, the Undergraduate and Graduate Student Organizations. Both were responsible for managing the student activity budget for their respective constituents, as well as funding different clubs, organizations and their own events. When dealing with such a drastic change in the school’s governance structure, importance was placed on constructing and establishing new forms of student government – and certain aspects like concerts fell by the wayside. It remained this way for years.

In 2009, Bill Wenzel, a graduate student working for the GSO, was exploring the Union. He stumbled across what would become the University Cafe. “Inside there was maybe one amp – but that’s about it.” Equipped with a fully functional bar, Wenzel saw a missed opportunity. “I was confused… I didn’t understand why there were no shows happening here.” Wenzel would lay the framework for what would become Stony Brooklyn – a student run offshoot of GSO that would re-ignite a community of students to develop, book and carry out their own shows. On a much smaller level than the events of the past, Stony Brooklyn was focused on exposing the student body to up-and-coming artists from New York City and beyond – often bringing in music that would develop larger reputation off-campus such as Parquet Courts, Beach Fossils and The Front Bottoms. Additionally, in forming a symbiotic relationship with WUSB, Stony Brooklyn nurtured a community that was as passionate about discovering and supporting new music as they were about maintaining that environment.

Unfortunately, time would again prove the difficulty of maintaining a scene like this on campus. This was a new Stony Brook, one with far greater red tape and regulations binding most events and clubs on campus. While before sheer willpower might have been enough – now the path to anything resembling a live music series was dotted with obstacles. As original members like Wenzel graduated, interest slowly waned and – as of 2017 – there were no independent concerts happening on campus.

To the University’s credit, 2009 did mark their renewed interest in a larger concert series – one that would even adopt and resurrect the old “Stony Brook Concerts” moniker. Some of the first large-scale artists to return to Stony Brook were Childish Gambino, Best Coast and Bruno Mars – though these are some of the better examples, and are nonetheless very monolithic in nature.

They represent only a fraction of student interest, and given recent ticket sales for the past few concerts I’d even say that’s a stretch. Why should a handful of students on the Student Activities board be responsible for the tastes and attitudes of 25,000 students (and how could they?). Our campus is far from homogeneous (it hasn’t been for a while) so why are we employing a one-size-fits-all model for our concert events (and why are they so expensive for us)? Why aren’t more tastes represented in smaller, more intimate settings? Where’s the independant hip hop, Jazz,  R&B, Folk, dance music even punk! Sure the decision to close the Student Union was driven by structural concerns – but it also represents a diminishment in a large swath of campus culture. Why are there no alternatives to the University Cafe where students can feel welcome and a sense of community? It’s up to us students to take the initiative – though it’s increasingly evident that avenues to support and develop those initiatives keep getting narrower with more obstacles. I hardly believe that it’s a lack of interest on the students’ end, but I do believe that Stony Brook has become slightly tone deaf. While other colleges in the SUNY system like Oneonta and Purchase have cared enough to foster the arts in a legitimate way, President Stanley only likes to to talk about it. In his recently published Diversity Plan, one of the goals is to “Promote SBU arts and humanities majors as well as sciences.” Sounds cool – but how is there any merit to these words when departments like Theatre Arts are being gutted. Maybe it’s time that we start taking steps towards achieving things that we mean? Credit to USG and GSO where credit is due, but we can do much better.

 

Let’s fix this, yeah?