Saturday, 1 A.M. I arrive at the Record Hospital “orgy” with some trepidation—it’s my first one.
For the last four years, I have known of the shows put on by WHRB’s rock department and its fearsome devotion to the loud, the obscure, the difficult to listen to. Freshman year, some of my classmates talked nervously about the comp process, where intimidating seniors would chastise even the coolest newcomers for their hackneyed taste in music. Sophomore year, friends recounted staying awake into the early hours of the morning once a week so they could play old vinyl on the air. Rock department members’ dedication to pushing each other’s taste was formidable: when someone wanted to play a song by an artist deemed too mainstream, arguments would break out.
At WHRB, an orgy is a radio program devoted to a single work or a single genre (as opposed to the kind of orgy you might think would occur at 1 in the morning on a college campus). These orgies usually last several days, but tonight’s, one of several put on by the department, is only one night long, and when I walk into the studio, it is unexpectedly quiet. “The Hated,” student DJ Nick Rogan ’13 explains, was one of the earliest Emo bands. Their songs alternate between melodic reflections and faster and more aggressive sounds. Rogan explains that he didn’t know anything about post-hardcore before coming to Harvard. Now, he’s been learning the band’s history and figuring out how best to share it on air, a process that goes much deeper than simply selecting a few songs to play.
Record Hospital began in 1984. WHRB’s earlier rock show, Plastic Passions, had played mostly New Wave music from British bands like the Cure. But at that time, “There was something amazing happening in America—a new energy” in punk music, explains former DJ Geoffrey Weiss ’84, currently a senior vice president of A & R at Hollywood Records. Rather than highlight music from England, students decided they would focus on American music, with the lively Boston scene well in view. “Hardcore was happening all around us,” says Weiss. “We were fans of The Misfits and Discord and Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys.” And the new show’s name? “We were knocking around stupid ideas based on soap-opera titles,” Weiss explains. Another contender: “As the Record Turns.”
More than 25 years later, much of the music industry has changed, but Record Hospital preserves a similar intention: “to be on the cutting edge of power violence, indie rock, noise music,” says former rock director (WHRB’s term for the head of Record Hospital) Kelly Jo Popkin ’11, and to stay integrated in the Boston punk scene.
How does one become an expert in music that has yet to gain renown? Many DJs come in with a general appreciation for rock music, but without the encyclopedic knowledge working at the station cultivates. Accordingly, the comp process is “sort of like a class,” one DJ told me. Every week, compers listen to a handful of records belonging to a certain genre—hardcore, noise, indie pop—and write down their thoughts. “You don’t have to like everything, but you have to see where it’s coming from,” explains former comp director Jacob Augenstern ’11, now a counselor at a special-education school in Waltham. Then a current staff member or an alum (“ghost” in Record Hospital parlance) will instruct the compers on the history of what they’ve heard. “I really didn’t know about a lot of seminal indie pop bands,” Record Hospital music director Emily Johnson ’13 says. “The indie pop lecture that [former DJ] Jessica Henderson gave just blew my mind.”
Compers shadow members throughout the semester, and practice choosing tracks by bands they didn’t know about before joining the station. “RH DJs and students who want to be DJs get immersed fairly quickly in a large pool of works, almost all the works short, most of them little-known outside committed subcultures,” explains professor of English Stephen Burt ’93, a former WHRB DJ himself. “To be a good DJ, you have to learn at least some of those works well, including some canonical works….You have to learn how to present what you like so that it fits in with what the people you admire, the people you’re playing for (other DJs, and radio listeners) might already like; you have to learn how to talk about what you like, too.”
The search for the unfamiliar continues even after the comp process. The department’s music directors (three to five a semester), in charge of interfacing with record labels, put out lists of new music worth playing. DJs are encouraged to vary their selections. “We adhered to a rule of not playing a band more than once on a show a semester,” former DJ Evan Hanlon ’08, who now works as a strategist for a digital media agency, says of his time at the station. This helps the department distinguish itself from other college radio stations in the Boston area, which, as current rock director Dan Lahkdir ’13 explains, often play more mainstream rock music.
Punk songs are generally short—“average 2.5 minutes long,” says one DJ—and traditionally, the show has placed a big emphasis on vinyl, discouraging playing music from one’s computer. DJing with vinyl can be a very active, very physical process. “You can get a little surge of energy because you have to be on top on everything,” says former DJ Catherine Humphreville ’10, who has launched a small record label. Where other departments at the station, like classical or jazz, might play longer pieces, switching from one short piece on vinyl to another “really keeps you on your toes,” Humphreville adds. All shows take place between 10 P.M. and 5 A.M., when FCC regulations are a little more relaxed, allowing for more explicit lyrics; being awake at this hour lends a natural intensity to the experience. “Spending time with people at 3 in the morning, you definitely know a lot about them,” Kelly Jo Popkin says.
Dedication to a physical medium may seem outdated when so much is available more cheaply in digital format—and indeed, as music shifts online, many of the show’s practices are changing. “We had this policy that, once things got Pitchfork’d [referring to the popular music-criticism site] or legitimate, we didn’t want to play it anymore,” Popkin says. Now, Record Hospital listeners are likely to encounter obscure music in venues other than the station itself; music blogs often perform the work of drawing attention to underappreciated artists. Small bands may no longer put out all their new work exclusively on vinyl (although some still do)—many set up websites and stream it there instead.
Long gone are the times when students would come back from break with the best new music from their hometowns on mix tapes and records. “Nowadays,” says Popkin, “if you want to make a playlist online or you want to torrent [download] something, you just go ahead and do it.”
Although the department still “gently informs compers of the department’s mission” when they veer too far from it, it has loosened its restrictions on not playing music that has become popular. Records are still held as paramount, but exceptions are made—at the orgy I went to, Rogan played most of the music from his computer.
As it changes, Record Hospital has also been looking back in order to reinforce the sense of its mission. Current members like to point to the station’s history. At this point, it’s an impressive one: Kelefa Sanneh ’97, one of the station’s most legendary DJs, is now a staff writer at The New Yorker. Several former station members launched important bands, Bishop Allen and the Lemonheads among them. Others, like Patrick Amory ’87, director of Matador Records, have started record labels. Timothy Alborn ’86, Ph.D. ’91, now a professor of history at Lehman College, signed the now-famous band The Magnetic Fields to his label, Harriet Records; the band sometimes thanks WHRB in concerts.
This history makes its way into the show’s current offerings: many tracks come from Record Hospital’s extensive library, accumulated across years of collecting. “We have the most ridiculous collection—stuff from the ’70s and ’80s that you can’t find anymore,” Dan Lakhdhir says. Adds Emily Johnson, “We never run out of things to play.”
True to tradition, the department continues to cultivate relationships with the larger Boston scene. On Friday nights, the station invites local bands to perform live on the air. Once a year, station members organize “Record Hospital Fest,” a two-day hardcore concert featuring local bands, held this year at the Democracy Center in Cambridge. Members themselves often play in bands—recently, Jacob Augenstern started a hardcore band called Hedge Fund, with two other DJs—and attend concerts in Boston.
Today’s student DJs are optimistic that the department can keep up its legacy. “Thanks to the Internet, every halfway decent band gets popular overnight (er, more realistically, in a few months),” writes Johnson in an e-mail. But, “for every cool new band we lose to Pitchfork, there are 10 more out there waiting to be played and lauded.”