by Anna Holshouser-Belden
[originally published June 3, 2022]
Wilder Hall’s rich history reveals itself in every unexplainable stain, funky smell, hole in the wall, and name scrawled on a bathroom stall. The building was once a men’s dormitory, and if you look hard enough, you can still find a residual bathtub or vanity mirror that survived the building’s reincarnation. But there’s much more to Wilder than fossils and hieroglyphs from decades of Oberlin past. The third floor houses one of the oldest student-run organizations on our campus: WOBC, Oberlin’s beloved college and community radio station. On April 28thth, the WOBC Board received an email alerting the staff of impending renovations to Wilder that require a relocation of the radio station.
The station, which has been active in its current location in Wilder since 1964, is packed to the brim with photos, posters, stickers, mementos, and memorabilia collected over the years. The space exists as a physical archive of the station, and the impending renovation plans mean for a complete upheaval of the space that has been practically untouched for sixty years. Some minor sleuthing on WOBC’s website reveals that this isn’t the first time that the station has been forced to relocate because of the College’s construction plans: “The first broadcast originated from a building located at 32 East College Street that was later demolished to allow the construction of the Oberlin Inn. When construction of the Inn began in the mid-1950s, the radio station moved to the garage behind Grey Gables, a building on West College Street that was later demolished to construct the Mudd Center.” While WOBC has survived relocation before, this move will uproot an organization already left in flux by the pandemic. With the institutional memory of the station already threatened by the disruption of normal operations during Covid, many students worry that the upcoming renovations will be the final blow to an organization already struggling to stay afloat.
I had the opportunity to meet with a few of WOBC’s board members to discuss the renovations and what they mean for the future of the station. During our conversation, Treasurer Alex Adelman described the impending renovations as “the start of another 50 years [of WOBC],” a new era of the organization that future students will “make their own.” Alex, along with the other board members, remain optimistic about the changes thanks to the continued support of both college and community DJs, especially through the ups and downs of these past two years. “Bottom line is, [DJs] love the radio station,” she says, “I think they’ll be patient with us because they really care [about WOBC].” Station Engineer Katie Frevert and Music Director Emma DeRogatis-Frilingos share Alex’s sentiments, alluding to the return of station workgroups and WOBC-sponsored events as a force that will keep enthusiasm going, even when their physical space is in limbo. Frevert says that the relationship between students, community members, and the station are been stronger than ever, attributing the stations recent success to the return of regular programming and outreach: “I think a lot of it is that now that we’ve actually been able to get our events back that we haven’t done [during the pandemic], doing things like Coverband or even just not doing what we had to do last year with alternating in-person shows remote shows.” Frevert continues by acknowledging that this isn’t “more important than the space, but just having people together in [any] space is really important.”
The college’s upper-administration had been planning a major renovation of Wilder’s interior since the appointment of Vice President and Dean of Students Karen C. Goff this past fall. Alex pointed out, however, that WOBC Faculty Advisor Tom Lopez and Associate Director or the Student Union Tina Zwegat were not made aware of the construction plans until the beginning of the spring semester: “They just dropped this in [Tina’s] lap,” says Alex, who works for the student union as well as WOBC, “if you want something quotable, Tina keeps telling me she has nightmares about [the renovations].” Frevert claims that the WOBC board was told about the renovation plans a few weeks after Tina and Tom did. A few weeks after that, word got out to the entire student body, stirring up a plethora of rumors regarding the future of WOBC. Katie and Alex, along with representatives of other student organizations, were invited to meet with the architects and the administration. The degree to which the WOBC board was consulted in the planning has assuaged some anxiety surrounding the deconstruction of the station: Fervent said she “can’t think of a single other student organization that has had this much input with the administration'' on the renovations. She added that the administration has been extremely “open to student and faculty input,” allowing room for a new radio transmitter, audio processor, and surge protector for WOBC in budgeting expenses. Despite these assurances, an air of uncertainty still permeates the student body.
The actual construction of Wilder’s interior is set to take place mostly over the summer. Renovations are to be carried out in three-phases beginning on the building’s West side, where WOBC is currently located. The architects plan to leave the building’s exterior as is. The first phase of construction entails re-locating the stairwell spanning all three floors to the space now occupied by the radio station. Frevert stated that “it’s not like they’re just doing this renovation just for fun, they’re putting in the new staircase because just having the big grand staircase as the only all-floor stair is not up to code, and things like that. There are changes that they need to make. It’s not just like ‘What if we made it hard for WOBC?’ The WOBC board was unclear on the subsequent two phases of renovations as they do not directly involve the station. Frevert, by way of the architects, outlined plans for an expansion of student offices like the Multicultural Resource Center and the Office of Student Accessibility Services in order to make room for additional student workers; a remodel of the mailroom, the Rat, and the ‘Sco; and lastly a large open seating area for students to congregate. If all goes to plan, everything is to be completed by the time students return from Fall Break in October of 2022. Frevert added that “if things go according to schedule, we could have a short broadcast season” in the Fall, and that “that would be the ideal” outcome of construction, a hopeful note for those of us hoping to remain involved in the fall.
There is some skepticism in whether or not the timeline outlined by the project managers will be met; according to Emma, the Music Director, mix-ups with the new floor plans for Wilder’s interior left WOBC with less space than is necessary for the entirety of their needs—though she attributes this more to the architects’ lack of familiarity with the stations day-to-day operations than a purposeful neglect by the adminstration. According to both Katie and Emma, WOBC’s faculty advisor Tom Lopez has been working with planners to make sure that the station gets enough space for its expansive, genre-spanning vinyl and CD vaults. The process seems to be moving slowly, and Alex expressed doubts for the timeliness of the project’s completion with the architects “still moving shit around and adjusting their plan at this point, with less than a month to when it would supposedly start. This is only the first phase in three phases of renovation and they don’t even know what they’re doing yet.”
Many newer DJs would consider the station’s signature blue, scrawled-over walls to be a hallmark of WOBC’s distinctiveness. I myself find it hard to picture the station with blank walls, an image that runs through my mind when I picture the new and improved WOBC. Graffiti lovers don’t have to lose any sleep, however; the lewd drawings and indecipherable jokes so cherished are certain to make a comeback. members of the Board informed me that the walls were painted over more recently than many would assume, with Sharpied comments only dating back as far as 2018. “In the end, there’s history in the graffiti but there’s no way that’s a new thing,” says operations manager Eamon McKeon. It’s the seemingly-endless stacks of records, pictures of staff members and DJs long past, old posters advertising events, programs highlighting shows for pre-streaming listening, even stickers clouding over the window glass, that the board is worried about preserving. “I think something that we’re really trying to do – mostly something that Tom is trying to do with the rebuild coordinator this summer – is that all of these pictures and records and artifacts are really carefully packed away and organized, because those I think speak a lot more to the visual institutional memory of the station than walking in and seeing a really gross couch,” McKeon tells me, “we are hoping to try to preserve some pieces of the wall [and] the stickered over glass [also].” McKeon is hopeful that next year’s board, along with these special souvenirs from the soon-to-be packed away station, will get WOBC back where it is today, “as far as bringing that [atmosphere] back to the station, I don’t think there will be much to keep that from happening,” he says.
Final opinions from the Board came through with mixed emotions, with each taking a stance of careful optimism shrouded by nostalgia. Alex says that she is excited to “see what they do with the new thing. Cause it’s gonna be all new stuff, all new tech, all new hardware“ and adds that “it’s also kinda cool to be the last board in there,” giving the current station a last hurrah of sorts. Emma emphasized continued involvement in events and workgroups, attributing community involvement to being of utmost importance in the moving process. Katie enthuses about new station equipment, assuring that the move’s technical benefits are well worth the wait on construction, though mentions that “it’s sad to see [the space] go no matter how nice all of these new changes are gonna be, it is sad to see that there is no longer gonna be that space that we can go back to.” She brings up a particular anecdote that struck a chord with her, “I remember I was doing my show last year and I saw the doorbell flasher going off, and this guy was coming with his daughter who was a prospie, and he’d been a DJ here in the 80s and he wanted to show [his] kid the station. For generations of people here this has been the space for WOBC.” Eamon expressed his frustration with the renovations coming so soon after station operations finally neared that of a pre-pandemic WOBC: ”a lot of this campus and its organizations were really trying to re-calibrate everything to how it was before Covid. Just as we were getting our feet planted there we get uprooted again, even if it does serve a purpose. I do wish it came a couple years later, just for the sake of the station. It would’ve been nice to have that feeling of being more cemented in the torch-passing from year to year before it's back to square one.”
During my last radio show of the semester, on a Friday morning at 1:00 A.M., I sat in the semi-darkness on one of the main studio’s two dilapidated-yet-charming swivel chairs, letting my eyes wander around the blue, sharpie-covered walls. The late hour allowed me to get up and peruse the vaults unsupervised, with the assistance of the flashlight on my phone. Knowing it would likely be my last time in the station as we know it now, I spent the rest of my time creeping around the collection of rooms, taking pictures of old peeling stickers, posters for block parties and cover band showcase (with hits like The Crashing Blumpkins), and staff polaroids from years past. With its first air date in 1961, the station has been inhabiting the same space for sixty-one years as students and community members filter in and out, graduating and sending their own children off to colleges complete with their own dingy radio stations. With all this history, the station has collected its own memory that goes far beyond the wall graffiti that is painted over again and again. At this point, the semester is coming to a close. Another class of seniors is going to walk at commencement in just a few short days, while others are saying their last goodbyes to campus for the summer. Those like me, who are set to remain for another few years, will watch the beginnings of a new community space forming and will carry on fond memories of the old one.