Ben Michael is the General Manager of WESU, Wesleyan’s student-run radio station. As a lifelong Middletown resident, Michael has witnessed two decades of the radio station, the campus music scene, and University administrations. In a conversation with The Argus on a Friday afternoon in his WESU office, Michael discussed his time with the radio station and the accompanying changes that he’s witnessed over the years.
The Argus: How’d you first get involved with the Wesleyan music scene and WESU?
Ben Michael: I grew up in Middletown, and one of my uncles was a promoter for the Grateful Dead show in 1968, so we’ve been around. I didn’t really have a relationship with the University as a youth except that I went to school with kids whose parents were professors at Wesleyan. There were different echelons of kids who had access to Wesleyan, and it wasn’t until later that I had a friend from Mississippi, whose dad was a professor, that I got brought into the fold a little bit. I mean, I already at this point realized that there was the Film Series, which I credit for helping me develop a love of cinema as opposed to just Hollywood movies. Fifteen years later, when I’m trying to promote the Film Series, I get a cease and desist notice from the University. This is indicative of an administrative campus climate where the University gets a certain rate for not advertising these movies to the public, because they rent these movies from distributors, and if you’re the theater downtown you’re gonna pay a lot more to rent that film then the University does for their films. But we weren’t advertising, we were just disseminating public information. I just mention this as an aside because it’s indicative of the administration’s gradual move to make this a more tightly-restricted campus.
A: How much have things changed since your high school days in Middletown?
BM: I used to be able to go on campus to see countless shows at Eclectic House, but that house and the society was a part of the local music scene, so it wasn’t just for student bands, but for Connecticut bands and touring bands. And it was awesome, you’d see a triple bill—you’d see a Wesleyan ska band, a Connecticut ska band, and a ska band from New York or Boston. And that was really cool as a high school kid. I saw Souls of Mischief—an Oakland hip-hop group—which was just awesome. I saw Mojo Nixon, De La Soul, and Parliament Funkadelic, and local bands, but those are just some of them. It felt so great to be welcome to these events. And now it’s not the same. And I understand what happened. At this point the music I saw is so dated, but I went to some really cool experimental bands in the early ’90s on campus, like Blind Justice, but the scene offered a really diverse music experience for someone like me coming up in town, who was really interested in the outer realms of music. To have that in my home town for five bucks was really great, and there weren’t any problems that I ever experienced at those shows. Whatever rules existed from ResLife [Residential Life] were probably more relaxed, but people knew how to manage them. The Spring Flings were something we also always looked forward to, and now I don’t think Middletown kids even know about Spring Fling, but when I was around there were no gates—we would skip school and go. And of course, I’m sure you hear about these days in the ’70s and the ’80s when there weren’t any rules, but you know the ’90s and 2000s brought that to an end and introduced this whole concern about liability and trying to cut down on alcohol and drug abuse on campus.
A: Do you know what triggered that concern from the University?
BM: There were a few incidents that come to mind. I was at a hip-hop party at the old dining hall—that was a beautiful building, but horrible acoustics, on the edge of campus—Mos Def once said on MTV that the first concert he ever played was at Wesleyan in that building and I was at that show, and he was right. But there were some N.Y. DJs that came and played. And back in those days, hip hop wasn’t that accessible, so we relied on those hip-hop parties. At Wesleyan, and across the state, we would go see shows and check out culture at other campuses and it was really welcoming. So at this party, a lot of people came from out of town and the show organizers for some reason decided to switch the venue from X House to somewhere else for that night, and the rule was no more outsiders who aren’t Wes students. But the event was already started and the party was happening. But then the party broke down because there were too many people. And I’m leaving in my Ford Escort down Washington, and one car in front of me got pulled over by the cops, and suddenly the dude was ripped out of his car and suddenly was surrounded by every cop in Middletown. And the story was that he was some dude from New Haven and was frustrated about the event and said something stupid to the cops. But that event was a catalyst for these University policies about cracking down on public events. Since then I’ve never been to a party at X House and I don’t know if that’s organizers clamping down or the university but that event changed things.
A: From your time at the radio station and as a Middletown resident, how do you think the University has changed over the years?
BM: The University publicly has become more engaged over the years. It seems to me that the trend for years was that liberal arts institutions have to create insular experiences for their students to experiment and live free without having to worry about the world around them. And the story with the girl jumping out of the roof is a case of that—where I was driving by this house that was animal house in my mind, with kegs and frat dudes, and I don’t think the University likes that stigma. They outgrew the trend of creating insular communities. Wesleyan was known as a radical protest school, but now we have a president who says we need affirmative action for conservatives. I do think in general, though, the country has become more conservative in the past thirty years, and that’s a long line to draw, but I think that’s distilled down into the experience students are having today, which is on the terms of the University and can be kind of restricting.
A: In terms of the history of the radio station, what was the radio station like when you first got involved?
BM: I didn’t get involved until the ’90s, but I knew people who were there back in the ’80s, and anyone will tell you that WESU and other college radio [stations] were the jam back then—it was the only place you could hear hip hop when it was still underground and punk and alternative rock. So that was the real heyday. You couldn’t hear rap outside of New York, except for on college radio, and the same for alternative rock. U2, REM, and The Cure wouldn’t have made it anywhere without college rock and radio, so it was incredibly important. And WESU was running lots of the shows on campus, and brought on a lot of outside acts—from reggae to hip hop and alternative rock. But after the University started intervening for a few of our shows and making us move them, we stopped being as involved with bringing outside acts to campus.
A: And what about the ’90s?
BM: What I’ve pieced together from other people’s narratives who came before me is that there used to be a more close connection between Eclectic and the radio station. But Eclectic was organized enough to decide they would control the board of WESU and get the majority and run the station, which is fine, because they loved the station and were open to Middletown members…But when I got there in the ’90s, there clearly was a need for new leadership. And the station hit its low point when it moved out of its original building in Clark Hall, which is where we’d been for 70 years. There was a hasty decision in the late ’90s that the University moved us out of the old building and into the new one—which had been a Planned Parenthood—which was disorienting. They moved it at the end of the year when kids are checked out with finals, and graduation, and it was [a] hasty decision. We lost a lot of archival records and equipment.
A: How did the radio station respond?
BM: The radio station is one of the oldest student-run radio stations, but in the late ’90s, during its low point, the University said it would step in and said, “We’ll help you out and take over the license.” And I was at those meetings where they said to the board of directors that they wouldn’t change our program, and tried to get it in writing, but then within two years the proposal came in from the administration to bring on NPR for half the day and get rid of community volunteers. And it was the students and I that banded together to compromise and help map out where we are today. When Doug Bennet, who had been the CEO of NPR, brought up bringing on NPR there, of course, was skepticism. We had massive protests, where students wore duct tape over their mouths. So it was a pretty contentious period. But the station did need help and was underfunded, and there wasn’t enough management to keep it running on its own, so we needed more programming. We negotiated with the University to bring on Pacifica and Democracy Now! because we at the time saw NPR as being a somewhat compromised media outlet and we wanted Pacifica because it was more community-oriented and grassroots. Bennet, to counter Democracy Now!, wanted to have these students do a conservative show to “balance it out.” So maybe Michael Roth wasn’t the first one to think of this whole conservatives as marginalized voices.
A: What’s your perspective on the decline of the music scene this past year?
BM: Like everything, there’s bound to be [a] perfect storm of conditions that are making this unfold the way it is and have lead to the decline of the music scene. I’ve caught wind from students on the board at WESU that I work with [who are] frustrated with the number of shows on campus. I get that there are barriers, but on the other hand you’ve got to know how to do that, and like a lot of subcultures on campus that have been handed down from one person to another over the years, so folks [have to] know how to navigate the ins and outs of whatever bureaucracy they have to face. Because there will be bureaucracy and there always will be. After the first or second time you run up into an obstacle, you are less willing to do it again, if it’s seen as being out of line or inappropriate. But I will say the world you’re growing up in has so many more outlets at your fingertips compared to the ’80s and the DIY era. But I will also say that kids back then were putting in way more time at least into the radio.
A: So you don’t buy the administrative, bureaucracy answer?
BM: It’s a matter of figuring out how to navigate whatever the constraints and constrictions are. I don’t think the Wesleyan administration has a vested interest in stifling that scene—they have an interest in maintaining a healthy atmosphere—and with people jumping out of windows, like what happened a few years ago, or people setting themselves on fire, those things have happened in the last ten years. So the University has no choice. but to mitigate those liabilities where they can, but finding the sweet fun spot intersects is hard. And anytime the University revises its policy, no matter what answer they give is going to be seen as a constriction of student freedoms.
Luke Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.