From WBS to WZLY, 80 Years of Wellesley Radio

Molly McCaul sits in the WZLY studio.
Image credit: Amber Celletti
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

It was September 2006, and we were on a bus. I don’t remember where we were going, but what I do remember is having a conversation with a first-year mentor, Ashira Beutler-Greene ’07. When I told her I was overwhelmed by all the student organizations, she said: “Check out WZLY. All the best people do radio.” That suggestion changed my life.

The History

WZLY began 80 years ago as the Wellesley Broadcasting Station, or WBS; the first program aired April 20, 1942, after the father of a Wellesley student donated $1,000 to the College so that his daughter could pursue her interest in setting up a campus radio station. “Wellesley Broadcasting Station does not claim to be trying to compete with national radio systems,” a Wellesley News story from November 1947 notes. “It has two purposes. First, WBS wants to give its listeners programs which they will enjoy. … Secondly, WBS is a workshop in which a great many people are able to gain radio experience while in college. … Every mistake made in the studio is one from which the girls learn, and learn more than when a show goes smoothly.”

In its first six years, due its start as a wired station, WBS could be heard only in the dorms (except Severance and Claflin) and Simpson Infirmary. The broadcasting station was in a tiny space on the second floor of Pendleton Hall at first, then it moved into a classroom in Green Hall and eventually to the second floor of Alumnae Hall.

Judy Randal Hines ’51, an early DJ for WBS, said the radio station was still very elementary in those postwar years. She learned how to carefully raise and lower her hand to switch out records, but she can’t recall what music they broadcast. “It must have been very bland if I don’t remember it!” she said, laughing.

Daily programs at that time included Morning Music Box, featuring popular recorded music, and Feature Show, showcasing faculty interviews, radio plays, readings of works of literature, and the popular “Who Am I?” guessing game, which asked listeners to guess the identity of someone affiliated with Wellesley, past or present. Music for Studying offered two hours of classical music interrupted by a news report sent directly from the New York Times (WBS was the first radio station on a women’s college campus to have a teletype wire connected to the Times).

By 1955, WBS was broadcasting to all dorms on campus and hosted “exchange shows” with DJs from Boston University, Princeton, MIT, Babson, Brandeis, Harvard, and Yale, despite struggles with funding issues and technical difficulties (an ongoing problem, as DJs from every era can attest).

In 1974, a group of students petitioned for an FCC Education FM license so that WBS could expand its reach to the surrounding community. With this license, the call letters changed to WZLY and the carrier frequency became 91.5 FM. In winter 1983, the station moved to its current location in the basement of Billings, the brick building connected to Schneider, then the campus center.

By fall 2006, when I started interning at WZLY, the Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center had been open for just over a year. Though Schneider was vacant, WZLY was still going strong: Ruth Nagel Jones ’42, one of the first WBS DJs, had donated $50,000 to the station in memory of her friend and fellow “radio alum” Rosamond Wilfley Neilson ’42 to help it make the transition to digital streaming, which allows WZLY to thrive today. It is the largest organization on campus, with over 100 students involved each semester, and radio alums numbering in the thousands.

The People

I was not alone in being drawn to WZLY based on the suggestion of someone older and cooler. “I’ve never known how to be cool, but when I got to Wellesley and learned about WZLY, I thought, ‘I think this is a way I could be cool,’” said Jennifer Starkey ’05. She learned about the station from Sarah Stone ’04, who became the WZLY general manager in 2003–2004. Record librarian VJ Jones ’22 has a similar story: She went to a WZLY general meeting because her house president was a DJ, and “I thought she was really cool.”

During her first weeks on campus, Samaa Ahmed ’13 was attracted by a “cool ’90s-style poster” for the WZLY general meeting; after that, she had a show every semester. Ahmed also produced the weekly news show, and liked that it gave her a way to keep track of everything going on at Wellesley and in the world.

Some students arrived on campus already interested in radio. Jessica Brommelhoff ’00 did radio in high school and only considered colleges with their own stations. Ami Li ’10 first heard about college radio in high school during the “halcyon age of music blogs” in the early 2000s. “I had a very high opinion of my musical taste,” said Li, “and I wanted to inflict my taste on other people.” Sam Kulok ’11 learned about Wellesley’s station during a summer program at Wellesley. “I saw the basement of Billings and just knew I needed to be part of it,” said Kulok.

Aislinn Bohot ’24, a music major focusing on composition and video game music, grew up listening to KXT, an independent station in North Texas. When Bohot got to campus, they immediately sought out WZLY. “Doing radio felt natural,” they said. Bohot currently serves as WZLY’s historian, a relatively new position on the executive board. Intern coordinator Haley Haines ’23 learned about WZLY after getting accepted to Wellesley and used the Simple Radio app to listen during high school painting classes in Baltimore.

As for me, I began interning with Courtney Campbell ’07 in fall 2006 and never looked back. I had a radio show called Soundtrack System, where I played music featured in movies and television shows, and I served as record librarian in 2007–2008 and as publicity director in 2009–2010. When I was lonely or sad, or just needed a break, I would find my way to the basement of Billings. I lived and breathed WZLY. Because that’s where I found my people.

“WZLY was my home at Wellesley,” said Brommelhoff. “I was molded into that couch.”

“I loved the station as a place to hang out,” said Starkey. “It was one of the only places where I felt like I fit in at the school.”

“WZLY was my whole life at Wellesley,” said Miranda Hardy ’19, the general manager in 2018–2019.

Not to say that radio can’t seem cliquey. When the Lulu became the campus center, people stopped wandering into the station by accident; you had to know about WZLY to find it. “The station had that secret clubhouse feel to it,” said Julie Daurio ’12.

But Jones pointed out that while many campus organizations require an application or financial commitment, anyone can walk into WZLY and sign up to be an intern. “I think it’s one of the most accepting and accessible orgs on campus,” said Jones. Haines loves to encourage interested students to try something new and not be intimidated. This past fall, Haines helped 50 interns become DJs.

In addition to the community feel, having a radio show is just fun. “I spent a lot of time curating playlists that I should have been spending reading for classes,” said Daurio ’12, who took over Soundtrack System after I graduated.

Perhaps what makes WZLY so appealing is that it can be, as Kulok said, “whatever you need it to be.” Some DJs come in just for their weekly show; others are involved in the executive board and planning committees every semester. Some come to the station to hang out with friends, while others prefer to have alone time while DJing.

Of course, even if you’re by yourself in the DJ booth, you’re never really alone. Bohot loves the way WZLY connects them to other Wellesley students––“I’ve met some of the coolest and sweetest people ever”––and also their parents in Texas, who listen to every one of their shows. “My dad recently discovered the chatroom feature on the website,” Bohot said.

Jones’s family in Arizona also listens to her show regularly. “They tune in every week, and they text me during the show,” said Jones. “I shout them out, and it’s a great way to stay connected with them.”

My own grandfather would stream WZLY at his insurance agency in Somerville, Mass., and call the station to request his favorites from the Goodfellas soundtrack. When I was studying in Russia my junior year, I would tune into my friends’ shows when I was feeling particularly homesick.

The Legacy

WZLY alums have more than just fond memories from the station: Many said their college radio skills have helped them in their careers.

Li, for example, says what she learned at WZLY has shaped her work style. She became the station’s promotions director in 2009–2010 to have a say in the bands that came to campus. She cold-called publicists and agents, booked spaces for events, chatted with the custodial staff and facilities folks, and worked with people on and off campus to make WZLY events happen. After graduating, Li moved to Beijing and worked at Split Works, an indie music outlet that puts on concerts in China. A few years later, she moved into marketing and journalism, becoming the nightlife editor for City Weekend Beijing. In her current job as content producer and marketer for Asia Society, a nonprofit in New York City that forges closer ties between Asia and the West, she uses her skills in collaboration, communication, talking to different stakeholders, and being able to prioritize all kinds of requests. “Doing WZLY makes you a functional human being who can manage her [stuff],” she said.

“Being live on-air for my radio shows helped prepare me to sit in a studio with a live show going on,” said Kulok, now a producer for CBS Mornings. She even gets to DJ a little, suggesting songs for the segments: “Last summer I produced a piece about how the pandemic has impacted dating, and I suggested we use ‘Kiss Me More’ by Doja Cat. I was proud of that one.”

Daurio said WZLY helped her figure out her voice. “You had to decide how you wanted to present yourself to the, well, at least a couple of people listening,” she said, laughing. “Still, you had to create this persona.” Daurio used this skill after graduation as an intern at WNYC and as an intern, a reporter, and then a producer at WBGO, and she uses it now as a senior editorial producer with NJ Spotlight News on NJ PBS. “There are a lot of people who transition from radio to TV who always think of themselves as radio people,” said Daurio. “I am one of them.”

WZLY music director Molly McCaul ’23 is an intern at WGBH and wants to pursue music journalism, and news director Ann Zhao ’24 is a linguistics major who said learning “how close to sit to a microphone” will be useful in her future research. Zhao also was inspired by WZLY when writing her forthcoming novel, Dear Wendy, a “platonic rom-com” set at Wellesley. One of the main characters is a DJ, and the book ends with a scene during a WZLY show.

Of course, WZLY has changed in some ways (the station has an elevator now!), and WZLY alums always think their era of radio was the best. Some older DJs shook their heads when I used CDs instead of vinyl, just as I did when younger DJs used the iPod hook-up cable. Now DJs use Spotify playlists, and while the broadcasting radius has gotten smaller, online streaming has picked up. But, as Li put it: “No matter in what incarnation it appears today, it’s nice that college radio still exists.”

Not only is it nice, but it’s important. Ahmed said being a DJ offered a break from the grind of Wellesley: “If things were getting overwhelming in my academic life, I would go to the station and be transported to another world,” she said. “What a little piece of heaven, honestly.”