Catch the Waves

From his small office in the basement of Maxcy Hall at the University of New Haven, Bryan Lane is performing his duties as General Manager of WNHU.

Being in charge of a radio station sounds like a pretty cool gig, especially to those who enjoy discovering the less commercial music often favored by college radio. Among other things, managing the 1,700-watt station (88.7 on the FM dial) means overseeing the on-air talent, which features both students and community volunteers, and the eccentric slate of programs it produces.

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Lane, who has worked in the radio industry for over 30 years and teaches media courses as well, says there’s an element of surprise with WNHU: “You never know what you’re going to hear.” Tune in on a weekday afternoon and you might catch some metal. Check the station over the weekend for one of WNHU’s featured ethnic shows, like Vinny Valentino’s Italian Show (Saturdays 8 to 10 a.m.) or its Slavic Variety Show (Sundays 10 a.m. to noon).

WNHU, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, often features “stuff you won’t hear anywhere else,” says Lane. During the station’s annual phone-a-thon winter fundraiser, says Lane, a large portion of donations come from fans of those ethnic shows, whether they’re into traditional Irish music or never miss The Polish Show.

Gospel, show tunes, jazz, doo-wop and much more rounds out any given week’s musical programming. Then there are the talk shows on subjects like psychology and current events.

No matter a local listener’s favorite program, one thing is clear: the signal. Those 1,700 watts send WNHU’s radio waves out to an impressive 30-mile radius. Lane says that’s a rare reach for a college station; most only have 10- to 100-watt setups. (Anybody anywhere can listen via “Charger Radio,” WNHU’s online streaming channel, by the way.)

There’s no question the station is strong, but Lane and others think it can be stronger. Run by the university’s Communications Department, WNHU has been through a few different “lifetimes,” Lane says. What began 40 years ago as a mostly student-run station was eventually turned over to community volunteers anxious to produce their own shows; soon enough the college station wasn’t so “college” anymore. Part of Lane’s job when he joined the team four years ago was to move the dial some of the way back.

Not all the way; the non-student volunteers are incredibly important. They’re responsible for most of the popular ethnic shows, for instance, and their dedication helps the station run mostly live programming 24/7. But that shot of student participation is crucial to the station’s success and relevancy, says Lane. He wants to bridge what he sees as a disconnect between the radio station and the surrounding campus, and between the students and the medium of radio itself.

“Is anybody really excited about being on the air? I don’t know,” he says. His concern is understandable; with the option to listen to more or less personalized streams of music via Spotify and Pandora, how does traditional radio fit in?

A few moments later, telling tales of his tenure at WNHU, the mood brightens, and it seems that question is answered. Producing original radio invites the audience to communicate back. One listener loved hearing the recordings of classic DJs Lane would play late on Friday nights—too late, as it happened, as that fan could barely stay awake long enough to catch the show. So it was moved up to an earlier slot, Lane says, explaining, “If you see a need, you fill the need. If someone responds to something, you respond to them.”

It speaks to WNHU’s culture of experimentation and freedom, which is something an algorithm on Pandora or Spotify is hard-pressed to imitate. Letting musically curious DJs control the playlist is an opportunity to get outside of pre-existing boundaries. So is tuning into a talk show exploring a dynamic field like psychology.

Even if the medium isn’t new, WNHU keeps proving that radio is a great way to forge ahead.

WNHU (88.7 FM)
300 Boston Post Road, West Haven (map)
(203) 479-8807 (request line)

Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.

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