Rock DJ Brian Sunberg climbs the stairs above Hutch, signs into WHPK, and pops open a 2 a.m. Coke. He fingers through a stack of records and makes his selection, placing the vinyl on the turntable. He takes the mic, greets his listeners, and—like a pledge he knows by heart—repeats the government-issued advisory on bomb threat procedures.
“It’s nice to have a place I can go to and just relax for two solid hours. I don’t really think about outside stuff,” Sunberg, a second-year in the College, said.
Now in its 49th year, UChicago’s second-oldest RSO is undergoing some changes: DJs are working to increase public programming, archive the thousands of records in the office, and line up a pre–Summer Breeze sister show.
Just last month, WHPK invaded the Film Studies Center for its annual event “Pictures and Sounds,” a multimedia showcase featuring artists like Japanese electronic composer Ryoko Akama and Brooklyn-based rock musician Dan Friel. Basking in the wild success of the event, WHPK has now shifted gears to preparing for its May 13 show, which, after two years of preemptive rain cancellations, is finally back.
“This year we’re doing something different, especially with the weather we’ve been having,” rock format DJ Connor Plunkett said. “So we wanted to make an event at ECO, a DIY venue. We’re having four acts with the headliner Pile, from Massachusetts, who actually has a pretty big following across the country. We sold out the last show that we did like this in the fall.”
The Funs, Highness, and Crown Larks will play alongside Pile next weekend, interspersed by short sets by WHPK DJs. Liaisons from the Feminist Action Support Network will also be present.
Plunkett, a second-year, has been working at WHPK since last year, when he started with Radio Dada, a live, three-hour experimental show. He currently runs a show every other Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., but his recent endeavors have begun to expand beyond DJing, becoming WHPK’s self-appointed archivist.
“I’ve started to organize all the records in our library. My estimate is that we have somewhere around 30,000 records—and that’s just vinyl. We also have a collection of 7-inches and CDs, probably around 20,000 CDs,” Plunkett said.
These thousands of tracks run the gamut: WHPK hosts shows across the major genres of international, jazz, rap, folk, classical, and rock, as well as a few talk shows and specialty sets. Technically a community radio station run through the University, WHPK maintains a staff of students and locals alike. Naturally, first-years get stuck with the 4 a.m. slot, but Plunkett’s slowly working his way up.
“Since we buy our own records and choose to curate our own collection, we’ve always been a free-form station: each DJ gets to pick what records he or she wants to play, and they’re not dictated by some sort of format of hit records,” Plunkett said. “There’s a huge variety—everything from ABBA or Beach Boys to Amon Düül, 1970s-weird Krautrock stuff or one-off punk compilations from the ’80s.”
Free-form always runs the risk of low listenership. For this nonprofit, however, that’s not a monetary concern; the RSO operates with sponsors and University funding, allowing it to cut out ads. While some DJs persevere through the early unpaid hours for the key to a hidden haven, others view their work as a public service.
“There’s obviously a slide across the whole country away from radio, but what I feel lacks is the forced variety. Oftentimes, Spotify playlists just skim the surface of the music that’s out there, picking up the latest hits or ‘underground’ hits…. But they’re not actually delving deep into an eclectic mix,” Plunkett said.
At most, Plunkett’s only ever had 16 listeners live-stream his set online. How many are really listening on the radio? He can’t be sure—although Sunberg and I got a call at 3:30 a.m. from a certain “Daddy Mac” asking for a legal consultation. But as WHPK begins to take inventory of its stock and push for a combination of promotion and programming, listenership is looking up.
“Our unwritten rule is to play music that other sources wouldn’t be playing,” Plunkett said. “We want listeners to be open-minded—who just want to hear new music. So it’s up to us to play music of a high quality.”
Tune in to 88.5 FM or stream live 24/7 at whpk.org. Stay tuned for more info on the upcoming show at ECO on May 13. Show starts at 8 p.m. $10 donation suggested.