From the Arts and Living Section
By RICK KOSTER
Day Arts Writer
Sunday, January 31, 1999
Is that a mouse roaring on your radio? Or the sound of little David
pumping out Eddie Cochran, the Pilgrim Travelers, Robert Johnson,
and phranc ó even as corporate Goliaths spin the same old Garth
Brooks and Puff Daddy and Led Zeppelin?
If your FM radio dial is at 91.1, and if youíre within a 500-watt
range of Connecticut College, youíre listening to the tiny but
aesthetically powerful WCNI, one of the freest and most musically
adventurous radio stations imaginable.
Housed in relatively tiny quarters in a corner of the student union
building, WCNI is proud of its no-format format. Any of the
stationís 56 disc jockeys have almost total freedom to play whatever
they want within, of course, the boundaries of Federal
Communications Commission regulations.
The aforementioned, relatively obscure artists are all likely to
receive airplay in any given week on WCNI. Blues, folk, techno and
rave, Latin, reggae, jazz, hardcore, R&B, African, ambient,
Christian rock, show tunes, honky-tonk, all forms of rock from Buddy
Holly to indie, world music and even polka share airtime on WCNI.
Theoretically, if one listens long enough, itís even possible to
hear something popular in the shopping malls. But donít count on it.
At 6 a.m. on a frosty Wednesday morning, Chucky Daddy, the stationís
40-something president, sponsorship manager and veteran disc jockey,
is bouncing around the WCNI studio to the strident and archival rock
sounds of Screaminí Jay Hawkins.
A short, fit man with a klieg light smile, a ponytail, and Ray
Manzarek sideburns who refuses to use his real-life name in station
environs, Daddyís radio activities are clearly a labor of love. If
radio stations had cheerleaders, Daddy would clearly be waving
pom-poms while he cued up Chris Isaac or Barence Whitfield and the
"A lot of studios have these big, comfortable chairs for the DJs to
sit in," Daddy says. He gestures through the door into the station
library. "I just throw it in the back when I get here. Itís
attitude: Iím dancing around playing rock Ďní roll. Which is, of
course, just a tiny element of what weíre about."
WCNI is home to 56 three-hour programs a week, each with a different
disc jockey. The station is on the air 24 hours a day except during
school vacations, when it normally shuts down from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m.
Over the years, there have been a few news-talk and community
awareness shows, but Daddy says that, for now, the best fit is as a
The on-air line-up ó by design a roughly 50-50 split between student
and "community" hosts with no college affiliation ó changes
quarterly, dictated by turnovers in the student population and
semester breaks and vacations. Some of the community disc jockeys
and shows date back more than a decade and are firmly entrenched in
the ears of more than one generation.
"Growing up, I always listened to CNI. I really idolized some of the
DJs on the air," says Dawn Estabrooks, a former rock band
keyboardist on staff at the Lyman-Allyn art museum.
In her fourth year as a community DJ, she hosts a show of ambient
and electronic music and says the influence of WCNI DJs before her
shaped her own on-air personality. She started out playing
alternative music, then developed a concept after walking down a
dorm hallway at Boston College.
"Going past the open doorways," she says, "I heard all this
different music fading in and out, and it was like flipping a radio
dial. So when I mix now, itís kind of like a soundscape, like
flipping a radio dial. And CNI gives me the freedom to do that."
The studio itself is, in a word, vintage. Or, to use Daddyís
description, "primitive." Concert posters and album jackets adorn
the walls, and a leaning tower of soon-to-be-played albums, singles
and CDs is stacked near the mixing board. While most radio stations
have their entire music catalog, station IDs, and commercials on
"carts" ó tape cartridges that can be cued with easy precision ó
WCNI still has that pawn-shoppy, whatever-it-takes look: two
turntables, two cassette players, and a CD unit.
Through a doorway in one wall, jocks have full access to the
extensive album, tape and disc library. At most formatted commercial
stations, where playlists are tightly regimented, jocks pull the
carts theyíll need segment-by-segment. At WCNI, an on-air
personality freely roams the stacks while a songís on the air,
pulling anything he or she feels like playing, and dragging it into
the control room.
The whole scene has a comfortable, slightly amateurish feel to it,
and if the old-timer community jocks sound slightly more polished
than their student compatriots, all agree itís more about the vast
wealth of music than slick, on-air patter by the disc jockeys.
"Last year was a rough year because every student DJ except one was
a senior," Daddy says. "That meant several new DJs had to be
recruited from the student body, trained, and integrated into the
system. Student jocks are a priority, though, and hopefully these
will be around for three or four years, since weíre actively
recruiting freshmen now. I just tell them to have fun and not worry
about whether they have a deep, baritone voice or not."
Though the students donít receive academic credits for their work,
Daddy says, they do get an FCC license. Would-be DJs serve a
five-week apprenticeship with a veteran jock, learning the ropes and
FCC regulations, and eventually do a training show under the
watchful eye of the licensed jock. If they pass a written test, they
get their FCC license ó and all the creative possibilities of the
Over the years, problems have crept up with music disappearing from
the studio, or with disc jockeys getting into trouble for on-air
obscenity or playing tunes with the F-word. For that reason, a lot
death metal and gangsta rap isnít played at the station. But
generally, Daddy says, community and student disc jockeys alike
accept the responsibilities that come with the job. If there is
occasional friction between the two groups, itís generally nothing
"If anything I notice a community-versus-student situation,"
Estabrooks says. "But it goes vice-versa, too. Students will come in
and say we need some new programming, so when an old-line community
person doesnít get a show, there are some hard feelings. Whatís
important, though, is that the board does well at bringing the two
together when there are issues."
Brian Aeaoh, a sophomore at Conn College who co-hosts a contemporary
reggae show at the station, points out that all student DJs have to
train with community jocks, a situation which lays a foundation of
"When I started," he says, "there was a combination of [student and
community disc jockeys], but I didnít know precisely how it was set
up. I think people get along pretty much. There are a couple of
shows where student and community DJs actually work together. In
particular, I work with [reggae host] Brother John a lot, and I was
trained by community DJ Skeleton Woman."
WCNI began sending out it signal in 1979. At first, the stationís
official capacity in the context of the college fluctuated and was
poorly defined. It is now owned and operated by the Connecticut
College Broadcasting Association ó which is not part of Conn
College. The station receives no funding from the college and, the
only college connection, other than its on-campus digs, is that at
any given time about half its on-air roster is students.
The station is operated by an 18-member board of directors, all
students except for Daddy and the stationís community director.
There is a board of trustees and an annual budget of about $22,000,
but no salaried or paid positions. Daddy, whose presence at the
station falls into the "omni" category, pays his bills as the owner
of the Conn College on-campus convenient store conveniently located
next door to the station.
As a community station, there is no on-air advertising. Funding
comes from two sources: spring and winter pledge drives and program
"We rely on the community to get us just enough to keep us afloat,"
says Daddy. "We have sponsorships rather than ads, which bring in
money apart from the pledge drives and helps us keep things going.
But [the sponsors] donít run ads where they say their products or
services are the best or whatever."
If all goes according to Daddyís plan, itíll get a lot easier to
hear WCNI. The station recently purchased a new transmitter and is
hoping to push out a 5,000-watt signal by 2001. That requires some
bureaucratic maneuvering; at that power figure, the station would
need to move to a new frequency. Ideally, that would be 89.9, but
Daddy says the station has been in a seven-and-a-half year stalemate
with the Boston University radio station WBUR over the frequency.
Listeners near campus who turn to 89.9 also can pick up WSUF, the
Greenport, Long Island, repeater for the Sacred Heart University
station out of Fairfield, another NPR outlet.
"There are so many stations out there, and only so many
frequencies," Daddy says. "When you apply for a frequency, the FCC
does a survey to see whoís bleeding over into who. For those
reasons, we want to move to 89.9 ó BUís frequency ó and they put a
block on us. We have an annual budget of $22,000, and theyíve got an
annual budget of $9,000,000, and theyíre worried about us."
Daddy laughs in "whaddya gonna do?" amazement. "WBUR is a National
Public Radio affiliate ó New England is saturated with NPR stations
ó and I just feel like we have something unique to offer."
The conflict remains at an impasse and, though the FCC originally
told the two stations to work it out between themselves, itís
probable that the FCC will eventually have to make a ruling. "BU
makes us financial offers," Daddy says, "but weíre not interested in
money, and they donít understand that. Weíre happy just surviving.
We have lawyers working on it, and ultimately [the FCC] will
evaluate the situation and make a judgement. We feel pretty
If WCNI does bump up in power, the listening area will expand to an
area described by Providence, Hartford, Worcester ó substantially
greater than the current range. The station is also online these
days, though, enabling listeners across the globe to hear WCNI on
Real Audio at www.conncoll.edu.
For all of the stationís appeal, itís probably true that there are
not a lot of "I like every show" WCNI fans; the programming is just
too diverse. Rather, there are a lot of listeners devoted to
particular shows. "Polka Motion," devoted to international polka
music, is an astonishingly popular program. There are strong
followings for such fare as the pure "Jazz & Cocktails," two blues
sets ó "Sunday Morniní Blues" and "Nothiní but the Blues" ó the
hardcore country "Not Exactly Nashville," and Brother Johnís reggae
(Since the spring schedule that starts Monday had yet to be
finalized, time-slots for many of these shows may change. Listeners
can find out the new programming schedule by calling 439-2853 Ext.
4, or by checking the Web site, where it will posted Monday morning.
WCNI schedule brochures are also available at several area
"In a strict sense, Iím not sure how much CNI means to the
community," says John Lamar, whose on-air persona is Rodeo Joe, host
for the past 12 years of the "Rock Ďní Roll Roundup." "But, all
told, weíve got about 100,000 listeners, and thatís not bad. It
means the world to us here, though, and we have our devoted
followers. Try not doing the polka show one week, and itíll be
Estabrooks agrees: "I donít know that thereís a huge awareness in
the area. Itís community programming, after all, and as the student
[disc jockeys] recycle every four years itís hard to form our own
identity. We donít do any marketing campaigns, and the wattage is
low, but there are a lot of really cool DJs and good shows."
Trying to sort the demographics of just who is listening to what is
a tenuous science at best. The big clues come in the form of program
sponsorships or contributions during pledge drives. The stationís
not a big campus favorite.
"I did a survey in my store," Daddy says," and we figure about 10
percent of the students [at Conn College] listen to the station.
Theyíd rather hear Q105 or something, because, to be honest, hip-hop
is the contemporary thing now. We have hip- hop shows, of course,
but our diversity is whatís important.í
The student disc jockeys, who are typically more likely to have
alternative rock or contemporary music shows, learn to appreciate
the cultural and musical opportunities presented by the station.
"Unfortunately, not too many students listen to CNI," Aoaeh says.
"What exactly the reason is Iím not prepared to say, though
[listening to the station] would broaden horizons. When I listen to
other stations itís the same thing over and over. At CNI, it changes
every three hours. You hear new types of music, and itís an
important learning experience."