Sequestered at the top of the staircase next to the first floor ladies’ room in the Reynolds Club, WHPK’s reclusive location belies the enormous amount of volunteer power that goes into keeping the University’s college radio station streaming into thousands of homes on the South Side.
Founded in 1946, WHPK 88.5 FM is one of the oldest Registered Student Organizations on campus. “We’re a student and community station with a variety of different formats,” explained fourth-year Program Director Eric Hanss. WHPK boasts an impressive array of volunteer DJs, totalling about 150 in all. The station’s programming hours are divided into several genres including rock, jazz, public affairs, sports, blues, hip hop, and folk.
Central to WHPK’s mission is a desire to promote independent underground music. “The reason we exist is to give people alternative music and shows. There’s no point in existing if we are just another commercial radio station,” said third-year Station Manager Sophia Posnock. This independence has helped foster emerging music genres. “We’ve always been proto-rap, proto- rock,” Hanss said. WHPK was actually the first Chicago radio station to play hip hop, a fact the rapper Common cited in a recent Time Out Chicago article. He was among a number of South Siders who grew up listening to WHPK as a teenager and even sent his demo tapes to longtime Rap Rormat Chief, JP Chill, to play on air.
Though WHPK’s actual broadcast range is pretty small (extending from the Loop to a few South Side suburbs), WHPK has become an integral part of the larger South Side community. “Our slogan is 'The Pride of the South Side,'” Posnock said. Show hosts come from a myriad of different backgrounds--community members DJ on the same station as young undergraduates. Arkansas Red, for example, hosts the most popular show on WHPK, “The Blues Excursion,” every Saturday night during the coveted 7 p.m. to 12 a.m. time slot. Red has been hosting this show for a number of years and has become such a fixture of the South Side community that, according to Hanss, old women will often emerge from their homes to sit in their cars and listen to Red talk about the blues.
While Arkansas Red has been on WHPK for decades, fourth-year political science major Allen Linton, in contrast, has only been hosting his show “The A.L.L. Sports Hour” for the past two years. Together with regular contributors Chika Okafor and Louis Smith, Linton tries to cover as much as he can about the sports world. “I set up the argument if needed and then we go for an hour. Sometimes we have callers,” Linton said. When asked how he conceived the idea for a sports radio show, Linton explained, “After watching playoff football first year, I liked arguing with my friends, I liked hearing my opinions and thought it’d be cool to have a radio show; there had been no sports talk show [on WHPK] to my knowledge.” Linton pitched his idea to the WHPK staff, and after a long wait they responded. The training process was pretty minimal; within a few months, Linton was on the air.
However, the process is not usually that simple for most aspiring student DJs. “We get a lot of applications,” Hanss said. In order for students to apply they must send in a playlist for the format of their choice. “We take a playlist and look to see that [there’s] this kernel of understanding of what independent music is,” Hanss explained.
Third-year Ryan Lavery is one such student DJ whose playlist caught the folk format chief’s eye. His show, “Freak Street Radio Hour” began as “a jam-based rock show, although it was never devoted too specifically. I saw that as an exploratory phase for me on air, trying a whole bunch of different structures and styles of communicating with listeners. Eventually, I focused more specifically toward folk music, especially artists who have tried to bring back folk music in a new way for our generation.” Artists that have recently been featured on Lavery’s show include more mainstream folk groups like Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, and Devendra Banhart.
Despite the number of years that WHPK has been a fixture of the South Side community, the radio station still suffers from a lack of visibility on campus. "We actually had flyers that said, ‘We exist,’” Posnock said with a wry smile. In efforts to increase their visibility on campus, WHPK stages several events throughout the year, including an O-Week concert and several smaller concerts. The organization also hosts, in conjunction with the Film Studies Center, "Pictures and Sounds," an event in which bands improvise a soundtrack to a silent film. Their main event of the year is the Summer Breeze soundstage, a concert showcasing the talents obscure rock groups students might not usually encounter. Numerous bands, both known and unknown, have played Summer Breeze in the past 15 years, among them the Smith Westerns and the Roots.
Among this year’s batch of bands are the eclectic San Francisco duo Sic Alps and the recently reunited Bunnybrains, notorious for their avant-garde live performances (including a predilection for playing songs in their underwear). The soundstage is also streamed live online and offers the Hyde Park community all the perks of a free outdoor concert. As for the somewhat esoteric nature of the bands listed, Hanss emphasizes the importance of diversity and independence in the bands the station promotes. “We’re a college radio station,” he said. “We have to be edgy.”