College radio stations with music to burn

by Amy Kingsley

Inside his office, one of a number of heavily stickered doors in Taylor Theater’s WUAG wing, General Manager Jack Bonney stuffs CDs into padded mailers, readying them to be shipped across the country.

The title, 18 Watts is Better Than None acknowledges the college station’s relatively limited broadcast footprint. But with the release, the third in a series and the first double disc, WUAG is aiming to increase its national profile, despite the diminutive size of its tower.

The first disc of the set features 14 national acts and the second is composed of 16 tracks from North Carolina bands. All were recorded in either the WUAG studios or at station-sponsored events. A grant divided between the broadcasting department and the station provided money for WUAG staffers to purchase new recording equipment.

‘“We ended up coming out with a double CD because we didn’t want to pick and choose between the recordings,’” Bonney says.

Many of the local and regional acts played on the weekly program ‘“Radio Greensboro’” which airs Sundays at 8 p.m. Bonney and Music Director Erik Chaplinsky also lobbied touring bands playing and passing through Greensboro to record at the station. Their efforts paid off in the presence of some big-name acts on the first disc, including indie legend Calvin Johnson, Magnolia Electric Company and the hip-hop group Lifesavas.

Where WUAG compiled tracks from big-name acts both to boost its reputation and promote Greensboro as a viable venue for touring acts, their counterparts across town embarked on a CD project aimed at doing just the opposite. Consensus: Celebrating 36 years of college radio at WQFS Greensboro. The CD compilation of 20 bands with Guilford College connections aims to achieve the promises of its title. Since many of the bands hail from well outside North Carolina borders, the disc is itself a testament to the impact the highly regarded station has had on the nation’s music scene. The disc features locals Health, Adam Thorn and the Top Buttons, the White Octave and Shush (with members of Euphone and Make Believe).

‘“[The CD] has got the diversity of the programming on WQFS,’” said Kelly Davis, a former general manager and founder of Red Strings Records. ‘“Everyone on the CD spent at least four years in Greensboro and some people’s time at the station really influenced them.’”

Davis started planning the project last summer, when WQFS’s 35th anniversary came and went. The idea was to package a product that would engage alumni as well as raise funds for the perpetually cash-strapped station.

‘“I did it as cheaply as possible so I’ll have some money to pay the station,’” Davis said.

After Davis recoups his production money for the compilation of (mostly) unreleased songs, profits from the sale of the $10 disc will all go back to the station. Ditto for the WUAG discs, whose seed money came out of the station’s student fee-supported budget. Once sales make up the deficit, the rest will be channeled back into projects and improvements.

The two main movers behind these CDs attest to the growing visibility of local college radio stations in the Triad and a fundamental shift in the importance of the low-watt broadcast upstarts. The four-year stint behind a control board has long been regarded as a formative experience for musicians, journalists and promoters looking for a broad education in the musical underground. But lately college radio has become an end in itself.

Bonney, for instance, created a new staff position as permanent general manager after administrators inquired into station inconsistency.

‘“They always wanted to know why students weren’t into the station,’” he says. ‘“I told them that it was because the general manager is always a student. Some years there was a really good manager, and other years a really lazy one. I told them if they want it to improve, if they want consistency it helps to have a staff position.’”

He started as a DJ in 1998. Since his hiring in March 2003, the station has released all three CDs and started hosting an increasing number of touring shows.

Davis started as a volunteer DJ at WQFS in 1993, the summer after he decided to attend college there. By 1995, he had risen to the general manager post and he continued to do a show after graduation, up until he moved out of state in 2004.

Since then, he embarked on Permaculture Records, a label that focused on North Carolina bands, releasing albums by Winston-Salem’s the Finks and Autopassion. Consensus is the first release by a rebirth of that defunct record label, an imprint now known as Red Strings Records.

‘“I really want the CD to sound like an average radio show,’” Davis says.

To that end, indie rock shares the stage with thrash, folk and electronic. Students, alumni and music fans gathered to support the release April 22 at the Guilford College Underground. The disc costs $10.

WUAG will be throwing a CD release party Saturday at the Flying Anvil. A $10 cover will get you admission, a copy of the CD and a membership to Greensboro’s newest venue. The flyer promises performances by Blank Blank, Endless Mic, Cities and Megaband, members of Cinemechanica playing the soundtrack to Mega Man 2 as two players beat the game in less than 40 minutes.

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