WCBN: Can't Stop the Signal

WCBN's university funding will run out before the end of this year, but that's not stopping U-M's student-run radio station from pressing on with major new objectives.
Born in 1952 out of the union of several independent campus radio clubs, WCBN has long been an Ann Arbor fixture. The station is particularly unique for its free-form format, which puts no musical genre restrictions upon DJs. An hour's programming alone can incorporate a variety of musical styles, on-air sonic experimentation, live performance, or -as after Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency in 1980- Lesley Gore's "It's My Party (And I'll Cry If I Want To)" on continuous repeat. The station has been a radio training ground for national notables like John Sinclair and Gilda Radner, as well as local names like Michigan Radio host Mike Perini and former WEMU legend DJ Arwulf Arwulf.
U-M has provided funding for WCBN since it made the jump from AM to FM in 1971, and the station receives approximately $30,000 a year from University Housing, funding a part-time engineer's salary and a modest equipment budget. Housing originally began funding the station in the mid-2000s with the intention of moving WCBN into a Housing facility as part of a living-learning communities initiative. That project petered out because, among other reasons, Housing couldn't provide the 24/7 access the radio station needed. So three years ago, WCBN and Housing drew up an agreement under which Housing's funding would gradually taper off, ending completely this fall.
"At some point somebody in Housing goes, ‘What are we doing with the radio station?'" says WCBN board member and DJ Brian Tomsic. "And we at CBN sort of feel the same way: ‘What are we doing in Housing?' It was a slow phase-out of their support for WCBN, with the hopes that WCBN would be able to find funding elsewhere. But unfortunately in the current atmosphere nobody really wants to say, ‘Here's $30,000 a year. Come under our umbrella.'"
Despite the oncoming lapse in funding, WCBN has reserved enough money to make a major improvement in its broadcasting power this December. The station will upgrade its transmitter, boosting its signal from 220 to 3,000 watts and increasing the number of listeners it reaches from 118,000 to 274,000. WCBN program director Kristin Sumrall says the upgrade has taken years of preparation.
"Three years ago or so, when analog TV was taken away and everybody had to switch to digital, it opened up a lot more airspace and radio stations could apply to the FCC to increase their operating power," she says. "That's tremendously expensive, but because we've been so frugal we managed to save enough funds for that."
Meanwhile, the station is in the midst of a search for new funding. Tomsic says the process of finding a new benefactor within the university is going "slowly," but that WCBN has recently made significant process in finding new underwriters in the community. Underwriters make a financial contribution to the station in exchange for a regular on-air thank-you. WCBN development director Cameron Bothner has headed up that effort, bringing in seven new underwriting contracts this fall from businesses including Roos Roast and Comet Coffee. The contracts bring in $250 to $400 apiece per semester.
"[WCBN's on-air fundraiser] each year brings in $40,000 if we're lucky, but our budget this year is $55,000," Bothner says. "So there's a $15,000 to $20,000 deficit that we're hoping to cover with underwriting. It's definitely a stretch, but if we do the math, it's not theoretically a problem to cover that with underwriting."
WCBN board member Tom Bray is unconcerned about the loss of the Housing funds. He notes that U-M continues to support the station in "very generous and significant ways" by providing its physical space, and says the station could continue "to infinity and beyond" with its current resources.
"WCBN will always have an engineer," Bray says. "WCBN will always have a home at the university. Full stop. This is not really a big story."
Bray says he anticipates the station will eventually find funding from another corner of the university. Tomsic agrees, but notes that none has been found yet because there are few "good fits" for the station.
"We have to really be careful to not get under somebody's umbrella that's not going to just cut us or try to control us," he says.
In the meantime, Sumrall says the station will continue to operate "even more on a shoestring than before" until the "inevitable" restoration of university funding.
"I think it'll end up happening at some point," she says. "Just because they're not funding us, it's not the end of the world."
Which means that in a world where corporate franchise radio dominates the airwaves, Ann Arbor can count on the spoken word jams on Story Time, the classical playlists of Dead White Guys, and the lounging grooves of The Leisure Experiment  to offer true alternative local radio.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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