Behind the Microphone
Thirty-six students "packed in like sardines."
They're a mesh of majors, ages and interests, but one thing brings them to the studio of WASU, Appalachian State University's student radio station: The desire to sit behind the microphone.
"All students interested in being DJs have to take the class," Dan Vallie said.
Thirty-six candidates mean a large class, but nothing Vallie can't handle.
With an easy smile behind his straight up demeanor, Vallie, the "adult" of the WASU gang, serves as general manager and practitioner in residence. A retired radio star whose markets have included Pittsburgh and Atlanta, Vallie teaches the DJ class, helping the new flock produce, write and articulate their way to success. While he's charged with introducing to them to the equipment, he credits the students themselves with the station's success.
"It's all student-run," he said. "All the positions are student positions. At a lot of universities, you have theory. Here, you have both theory and the students can walk out of the classroom and... be on air."
And that's exactly what they're doing. Graduates are sitting behind microphones in Asheville, Charlotte and even Boone, using skills they learned every day at 90.5 WASU.
The students aren't the only unique reason to tune in. To senior and station manager Brittney Tensi, it's the content.
"It's really hard to describe," she said. "It's something you wouldn't hear on a typical rock station, but it's basically college music ... we call it intelligent rock."
Think eclectic like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and not pretentious.
"It's indy, and it's alternative," sophomore production director Austin McCollum said. "It's very college kind of rock, but it's good college rock. It's not, you know, some French woman droning for 30 seconds about her poor puppy. It's actually good music."
Whenever possible, WASU stays local, with Boone bands like Naked Gods and Do It to Julia as part of the repertoire. This week, in anticipation of the Thursday show at Legends, expect to hear some Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band. "We always try to promote local shows," Tensi said.
As for pop hits like Nickelback and Miley Cyrus?
"No, we're definitely not a Top 40 station," Tensi laughed. "You can't please everybody. You've got to do the best that you can, and I think we really are. A lot of college students thoroughly enjoy what we play."
And they're not the only ones. A growing number of community members have been tuning in, first to check out the spots ("We produce things in a way to get attention," she said).
"They listen to us to try to branch out to our college students," she said. "And because of it, it's helped a lot of the older crowd get into our station."
If alternative's not your forte, they've got you covered also.
"We have specialty shows that we do after 5 p.m. every day, and some of those specialty shows will play a different format of music," Tensi said.
Country? Mondays at 7 p.m. during King Street Country.
Heavy metal? Fridays at 8 p.m. for Iron Forge.
"We have all kinds of different specialty shows," she said.
"Request Yosef," Tensi said. "It's Fridays at 9 p.m. You can actually call in and request whatever kind of music you want, and they'll play it. In less than 10 minutes, you can go from bluegrass to pop to oldies to rock."
And WASU also delves into the talk radio format with shows like senior Ben O'Hara's The Health Corner, Wednesdays at 7 p.m.
"I was always really into health, and I decided to do a show about that," he said.
O'Hara is one of nearly 60 volunteer DJs that, despite no monetary compensation, man the microphones around the clock.
While Tensi is one of 14 paid employees, being station manager is more than her job. It's a window into a career field she's diving head first into after graduation. The passion has been a long time coming.
"In seventh grade, I did a program with my afterschool program, and it aired on WECR, Sundays from 3 to 5, and we had to create our show with music and interviews and little news segments," she said. "I was so excited."
And that was just the beginning for Tensi, who also works as a board operator at High Country Radio Group.
"I actually heard myself in Walmart the other day, and that was my 15 minutes of fame," she laughed. "I stopped what I was doing and I was holding my fiance's hand, and I said, 'Did you hear that?' ... Little things like that remind me of my passion for radio."
After graduation, she plans to go into production or radio sales.
Monday, she helped Vallie introduce the new DJs to the crowded studio. The sardine studio space will not be a problem for much longer. In 2012, the station gets its new home at the old Alliance Bible Fellowship in downtown Boone.
"You're going to want to listen to this," she said, adjusting the microphone and motioning for the DJs to move closer.
So will you. WASU can be heard on 90.5 in Boone and around the world at wasurocks.com.