A selection of 90s hip hop, with some R&B and 80s pop thrown in. Letters from inmates in a maximum-security prison. Music from Bollywood movies. Songs written and performed by queer and trans Latinx artists. A talk show on progressive American politics that includes music by Joan Baez and other veteran troubadours of protest marches and peace rallies. This eclectic lineup of music and talk shows is just a small sampling of what one can hear on WVKR—91.3 on the FM dial and streaming live all day and night at wvkr.org.
Recruiting the DJs and talk show hosts and taking care of all the other details involved in overseeing a full-time radio station is a big job, but the students who run WVKR say it’s well worth the effort, especially at a time when most of what you hear on the radio is pre-programmed in a corporate office somewhere. Even the names of the shows are entertaining: Screen Age Riot, Hudson Valley Rag Shop, Dusty Boots, Sonny for Miles, Mingus Moments, Hump Day Hullabaloo, Polka Rascals, Rave Hour, Reggae Emporium, and No Idea’s Original.
“I love the idea of giving people a platform for music and political discussion that you just can’t hear anywhere else—it’s genuinely empowering,” says the station’s general manager, Lena Redford ’18. “WVKR is definitely a benefit to the Vassar community and to surrounding communities. Our signal’s pretty strong; we get feedback from listeners, not just in the Poughkeepsie area but also in Connecticut and Massachusetts.”
Redford, a Media Studies major from Marin County, CA, joined the station early in her first year, DJing a show she dubbed Girlectro that featured feminist, electronic music. That show aired from 3 to 4am. Her current show, Femme Fatale—has a better time slot—Mondays from 10 to 11pm. “I treat my show like one of my classes in terms of research and the work I put into it,” says Redford, aka DJ lil red. “In a sea of boy-bands and bro-beats, Femme Fatale swims toward the femme artists and producers that keep electronic music afloat.”
That penchant for surprising and educating its listeners is part of WVKR’s culture. Community DJ Art Fisher, aka DJ TekWun, plays some old hip-hop favorites on his weekly, two-hour show, Throwback Sessions, but he mixes it up with more obscure recordings from the 80s and 90s as well. “I don’t just play what you want to hear; I play what you need to hear, little-known cuts from albums that may have had one hit song and the others never got much air play,” says Fisher, who launched his show more than a decade ago.
Another community DJ, Padma Hiranandani, has been entertaining WVKR listeners for twice that long with her two-hour Bollywood music show, Geetmala. “I used to listen to this kind of music when I was a little girl in India, and I still love it,” Hiranandani says. “The first hour of my show is music from movies from the 60, 70s and early-80s, and the second hour is newer stuff.”
The show has a loyal following. “I get lots of feedback from people in the Indian community in the Poughkeepsie area, and I can tell it’s popular because many listeners who give to the station’s annual pledge drive cite Geetmala as their favorite show,” Hiranandani says.
Fred Nagel, host of the progressive political show, Activist Radio, says he too gets plenty of feedback from listeners. He hosted several of his shows from the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota during the protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and he likes to feature news items from around the world that aren’t covered in mainstream U.S. media. Nagel, who retired from Vassar’s Counseling Service in 2001, says he conceived the idea for the show about seven years later, “and it’s been nice to be part of the Vassar community again.”
In addition to all of its standard studio shows, WVKR often hosts concerts and other events spotlighting cutting-edge or outside-the-mainstream music. The station recently hosted “Pink Noises,” featuring workshops by four “femme,” nonbinary electronic artists and a panel discussion offering students the chance to connect with them.
WVKR executive board member Jonathan Rodriguez ’19 says they were able to bring two popular Latinx artists, Helado Negro and Xenia Rubinos, to the campus for a show shortly after Rodriguez joined the station. “Organizing that show was part of my goal to raise awareness about a lot of international artists,” says Rodriguez, an anthropology major from Chicago. “Our work at WVKR is time consuming—it takes a lot of work to plan a show or organize an event—but it’s worth the effort. We’re interacting with the Vassar community and popping the bubble and reaching the community outside Vassar. The rewards are many.”
Redford says, “We aren’t paid anything—we do it for the love of the work.” The rewards are tangible. The station’s last fund drive raised more than $35,000—a sure sign that lots of people are listening and appreciating what they hear, she says.
“I’m inspired by the work of all of the DJs from Vassar and from the community and by the listeners who support a station that’s run by a bunch of kids,” Redford says. “It’s crazy and inconsistent sometimes, but lots of people do follow us, and we love what we do.”