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WMBR tops the Boston rock charts

The editors of Boston Magazine obviously thought they were being enticing and sophisticated when they penned the oblique invitation to WMBR general manager Marianna S. Parker a month ago.

It didn't work.

Ms. Parker, a senior in chemistry, skipped the magazine's party to tend to her experiment in Professor Steven R. Tannenbaum's toxicology lab in the Div-ision of Bioengineering and Environmental Health. She was growing bacteria and had to monitor progress hourly.

The follow-up e-mail from the magazine was clearer and more direct: WMBR and WZBC at Boston College had been chosen over the commercial stations with the big signals as the best rock radio stations in the Best of Boston issue, now on the stands.

"If the invitation had been more clear, I could have made sure I went to the party," said Ms. Parker, who promises to attend the big public bash on September 9 at the new federal courthouse on Fan Pier, at which the winners will be f��ted with food and drink.

"It's great," she said. "Especially since this is a labor of love for most of the people here. We're all volunteers and we spend wicked hours to keep the station running." The 200-person staff consists of MIT students, alumni/ae and staff, and community members with no MIT affiliation.

The honor came in the midst of a $150,000 renovation of the station's un-air-conditioned headquarters in the basement of Walker Memorial (WMBR stands for Walker Memorial Basement Radio). The staff has been choosing new carpeting and furniture as carpenters construct a new broadcasting studio, performance space for the live concerts on Tuesday evenings and a production studio. The project was funded by donations made during WMBR's annual weeklong fundraisers over the past five years.

The Boston Magazine citation reads: "WMBR (88.1 FM) and WZBC (90.3 FM): They aren't just a whole lot cooler than 'FNX, 'BCN and all the other top-40 alterna-drivel; these college stations aren't even allowed to broadcast commercials. From MIT and Boston College respectively, these kids pump out a wild array of shows, often with scary bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Slits. Stop wasting your time with commercial radio; Boston's best stations are all neatly bundled toward the bottom of the dial."

"We're not all-rock radio," said Ms. Parker, who hosts a rock program called Breakfast of Champions from 8-10am on Tuesday (others host the program on Monday and Wednesday through Friday). "Rock is scattered throughout our eclectic schedule of jazz, techno, R&B, classical, news and talk."

Other daily programs include the Late Riser's Club (10am-noon), which features punk; Lost and Found (noon-2pm), music from the 1960s and 1970s; and Pipeline (Tuesdays from 8:30-10:30pm), a local music show that features live bands. The entire WMBR schedule is available on the web.

MIT radio was established in 1946, broadcasting on campus as an AM station from the basement of the Ware dormitory (now part of Senior House). It went on the air on November 25 with the call letters WMIT. When the station applied for an FCC license a few years later, the call letters had to be changed to WTBS (for Technology Broadcasting System) because a station in North Carolina already had the call letters WMIT. The station signed on as a 10-watt FM station on April 10, 1961.

The WTBS call letters provided a $50,000 windfall in 1979 when Ted Turner wanted them for his superstation in Atlanta. MIT applied for new call letters and Turner Broadcasting System, in turn, filed an application to use the previous identification. The changeover to WMBR occurred on the air on Nov. 10, 1979 with a 200-watt signal. It was upgraded to 720 watts in 1995.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 25, 1999.

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