1700 Watts of God’s Favorite Noise
A Brief History of UMass Lowell Radio. ( Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine. )
My WJUL-FM (now WUML) radio show “Rotten to the ’Core” grew steadily in popularity from its inception in 1988 until I graduated from UMass Lowell in 1992. In the early ’90s, the show had one of the station’s most dedicated followings. Devoted listeners tuned in to 91.5 on Monday nights to be guided through the latest offerings in underground hardcore, punk and heavy metal music.
Being a disc jockey on “Rotten to the ’Core” was a dream come true for me, the defining activity of my college years. It was my coming-of-age hobby, supported by a music scene whose ideals, social mores, and auditory aesthetics I strongly connected with. I was granted interviews, free admission to gigs, and lots of promotional materials. They were euphoric and euphonic times, and I felt like what I was doing mattered.
The denouement of my tenure was never intended as such. Shock rocker GG Allin, whose onstage exploits made him infamous, happened to be in town recording with Mark Sheehan of the local band Out Cold. Sheehan called and asked me to interview Allin. Although hesitant due to the performer’s reputation, I acquiesced when Sheehan promised to chaperone.
During the interview, the dialogue was flowing, the phone ringing off the hook like never before. Allin’s demeanor was restrained and amenable. Unbeknownst to me, however, he was imbibing copious amounts of whiskey in the station’s lobby during breaks in the discussion. His persona decayed as drunkenness developed. Sheehan could not collar him, forcing me to assume the role of bouncer. Allin caused mayhem and vandalism on his way out, resulting in my show being given a short suspension.
Allin died a year after I graduated. I was working for Lowell commercial channel WLLH-AM (1400) by that time, the creative freedom of college programming behind me. My reputation preceded me, however, the question ubiquitous: “Hey, aren’t you that guy who interviewed GG?”
There are many other memories — critical cultural junctures where the things we were doing at WJUL seemed to foreshadow vogue: fraternizing with Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein from the Misfits and Siouxsie Sioux; partying with Scott Ian from Anthrax, and watching colleagues Sara Willman, Ian Kane and Trish Chapman bring a concert by nascent superstar rock band Pearl Jam to the school’s Cumnock Hall are all highlights from my time with a college radio station that was born in 1952.
Ed Bonacci, a sophomore at Lowell Textile Institute, started what was known as a “carrier current” station out of his dormitory room. The signal was generated by a small audio oscillator and distributed through the building by the electrical circuits within. The result drew so much interest from fellow students that a decision was made to begin the LTI Broadcasting Society, which evolved into WLTI-AM (550) less than a year later.
By the early ’70s, WLTI had upgraded to a much larger transmitter and moved to 91.5 on the FM dial. In the mid-’70s, Lowell Technological Institute merged with Lowell State College to become the University of Lowell, which demanded another evolution. There suddenly was a much larger pool of students from which to draw members, and the call letters were changed to WJUL.
Chris Porter, the co-founder of “Live from the Fallout Shelter” (running without interruption since 1985) and the former music director, says, “WJUL was by far my favorite thing at ULowell. I had great experiences, learning about the music business and greatly expanding my network of industry contacts.”
Bill O’Neill, who served as both program director and head of the university’s Audio Visual Society from 1981 to 1984, says his goal was “to sound as professional as any other station without giving up the essence of what only we could do: be unencumbered by the quest for ratings while being of service to both the school and community.”
Kris Thompson, the music director from 1985 to 1986, agrees with O’Neill, adding, “We had a community of creative people and status quo questioners. We took pride in giving listeners a for-real alternative.”
In 2003, the call letters were changed to WUML to reflect a name change to University of Massachusetts Lowell after the 1991 acquisition by the larger UMass system.
One constant throughout the station’s history has been the retention of control by students.
Patrick Murphy, music director at the station from 2001 to 2004, helped to spearhead two defenses during his tenure in the face of administrative attempts to co-opt the station in order to sell broadcasting time to corporate interests. “It was a dark time, and I try not to let it tarnish my memories of all of our hard work and how much we accomplished,” Murphy says.
Current station General Manager Matt Denaro and disc jockey Jim Warren are working hard to cement WUML’s legacy.
“Matt and I did a lot to rebuild a fractured and antagonistic relationship with the school and administration,” Warren says. “But our achievements could be undone if somebody tunes in and hears terrible programming … so quality needs to keep up.”
Denaro adds: “Our mobile broadcast equipment put us on par with many a commercial station, and it has been instrumental in making our broadcasts … the success that they are.”