The Last Days Of Alt-Rock On 95.5 WBRU

Sep 16, 2017

If you tune into 95.5 FM today, you’ll hear Christian rock, a far cry from the edgy, alternative music WBRU broadcast on 95.5 for decades. The station sold the signal to Christian broadcaster Educational Media Foundation this year. RIPR’s John Bender hung out with some of the WBRU DJs, reporters, and producers right before the switch.

WBRU sits on the outskirts of the Brown University campus in Providence. Inside an unassuming, two-story brick building, it’s a temple to alternative rock. Concert posters, album art, and gold records cover every inch of wall space.

“Pieces of audio history basically that we’ve contributed to getting to the top of the charts,” said Kishanee Haththotuwegama, a junior at Brown, who currently runs the station.

Those pieces of music history includes many of the singles WBRU helped introduce to local audiences.

“Currently staring at a Lenny Kravitz one, ‘Are you gonna go my way?’” said Haththotuwegama.

In a move perhaps unimaginable back in 1993 when that Lenny Kravitz hit was big, WBRU sold its 95.5 FM signal this year for $5.6 million dollars, in a deal with Christian rock broadcaster Educational Media Foundation. Station leaders said they agreed to the sale in the hopes of extending the life of WBRU, which will now only be available online.

“It won’t look too different from our end, we’ve still got the board, still got all the mikes,” said Haththotuwegama. “Same kind of stuff, just where it’s going is a little different.”

The rise of the internet has drastically changed the way people listen to and discover new music, and WBRU is betting students and other listeners will tune in online.

But some alumni and former DJs bemoan the loss of the signal, and question whether the station will still be taken seriously by the music industry. Current staffers are frank about the change but seem resolved not to dwell on the loss.

“We’re losing one of the most identifiable parts of WBRU,” said Kyle Tildon, a Brown junior who helps run WBRU’s R&B and hip-hop program. “But at the same time I’m super excited to see where we go next.”

The sale could mean big changes for Tildon, with plans for hip-hop to expand from Sundays to its own 24/7 internet stream. He is also hoping to find a new, terrestrial radio signal to re-start the Sunday broadcast.

Near the final day of live on-air broadcasts, Brown senior Matt Haronian was busy mixing promos in a WBRU production studio. Haronian has mixed feelings about the sale of the signal.

“It’s a very tough decision, it’s an emotional decision,” Haronian said. “But I think that it’s one that definitely still has a path forward. It’s one that in some ways allows us more flexibility that we weren’t able to have before. It’s bittersweet.”

It’s also bittersweet for reporter Jake Kuhn, who graduated last year. The station, which once won accolades from the Associated Press for student reporting, will now shift to podcasting.

“Everybody’s feeling this loss,” Kuhn said. “For my own personal perspective, I love going on air. I love news casting live. And that’s something that we won’t be doing that in the same way.”

Ashley Morse, a junior better known by her DJ name “Shlee,” spoke to callers with song requests in the hour before one of her last on-air broadcasts.

“Hey it’s Shlee here,” she said, turning the mic live. “I hope you’ve been enjoying this last hour of songs that I’ve been playing on my hour of going rogue WBRU.”

She’d been going rogue by picking songs she and her listeners wanted to hear, rather than choosing from a pre-approved list. The station, which is run independently from Brown University, relied heavily on ratings to sell the advertising that kept it afloat. Now that the station has moved online, DJs hope they’ll be able to exert more control over the songs they play.

Morse, who grew up in Foxboro, took advantage of the final broadcast to play songs that she remembered from high school, when WBRU provided a soundtrack for her teenage years.

“I got to play all the songs that remind me of my ‘BRU memories,” said Morse. “Obviously as a longtime listener of BRU, it’s kind of bittersweet, but at the same time I’m really excited for all that BRU is going to be.”