Every week, the Features Section publishes an interview with a particularly active, interesting, or notorious senior: the WesCeleb. But where do these people go after they graduate? In our WesCelebs Revisited series, The Argus is checking in with alums who got the special designation in the past to hear about their time at Wes and see what they’re up to now. And as always, we’re taking WesCeleb nominations for current seniors.
In his original WesCeleb interview, Evan Simko-Bednarski ’07 discussed WESU, music, and the anonymous confession board. Simko-Bednarski now works as a journalist on CNN’s Breaking News Desk and as a photographer. His work has been featured in The Stamford Advocate, The Nation, and the Columbia Journalism Review, among others. The Argus caught up with Simko-Bednarski via Zoom to chat about chalking, freeform radio, and Hurricane Katrina.
The Argus: What’s it like to read the interview now?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: Oh, man, it’s really funny. I—randomly—over the past six months read a couple of things that I wrote or listened to music that I made all around a couple of years of that interview. I still very much am the same person and agree with the same levels of earnestness, [which] both give me pause and is kind of admirable. It also made me feel good in the way that I described trying to be creative and how important that was to me. It’s still something that feels very true and close to my heart. It’s nice to see that that’s remained consistent. Despite the fact that life is pretty different.
A: One thing you mentioned in your interview was an anonymous message board. What was that?
ESB: As it was explained to me before I got to campus in 2003, [there was a] large queer advocacy and activist group [called] Queer Alliance, known as QA, when I was there. it went by a couple of different names and they referred to themselves as the endless acronym for a while. Queer Alliance apparently would go around chalking as many provocative things as they could before students would come to campus. Mostly on tour days and when pre-frosh would come. The University, in its attempt to make itself look more respectable, tried to shut that down and basically banned the writing of messages with chalk on sidewalks. Which was every bit as absurd as it sounds. There was a big pushback the year that I got there and there were a lot of folks chalking anything, just chalk[ing] to chalk. We would come up with the longest songs we could think of and write all the lyrics out from memory in front of North College.
The argument was, “this is a space where you can communicate things in an open forum without having to sign your name to it.” There’s a real benefit to that, especially [on] a campus. My junior year, somebody set up a blogger site called [Wesleyan’s] Anonymous Confession Board. The idea was that you could anonymously post. What it became was people having these open conversations. Much like chalking, I’d say 60 to 70% of it was silly and fun and 40% of it was really serious issues on campus, people really being able to speak up about things that they didn’t feel like they could speak up [about in] whatever other environment was open at that point, which was really not much with chalking being banned. You’d have to go to the WSA or you’d have to write something with your name attached to it in The Argus.
This also predated Twitter in any meaningful sense, predated any real conversations about social media having the sort of political functions that it very obviously has now. It was a very cool experiment. For about two years, if there was a conversation happening on campus, a good portion of it [would] be happening [on the forum].
A: You were also the president of WESU. How did you get into that?
ESB: I got onto the WSA my sophomore year, mostly as part of the chalking debate. The WSA was approached because WESU said the University is trying to split our time, basically give our airtime to an NPR affiliate, which was part of the same conversation that was happening around chalking. It was this idea of let’s make this University more respectable, whatever that means.
[WESU] was one of a couple of stations that had pioneered this idea of freeform radio, which was basically this offshoot of college radio that put a premium on having these, to my ear, very interesting, but sort of wandering, less programmatic shows. The history of the station involved a lot of community members being part of it. It wasn’t advertising Wesleyan University as a university, it was its own kind of institution.
The WESU folks who came to the WSA were looking for some sort of help and they mentioned something about how they couldn’t find some of their documentation, the FCC license, things like that. At the time my work-study job was working for the University Archives, under Suzy Taraba…she’s a wonderful human being. I reached out to them like, “Hey, I work in the University Archives, tell me what you’re looking for, I’ll see what I can find.”
There were huge boxes of documents and long story short, it had been a total mess. It was really unclear who owned the airwaves and in the nineties, the station had basically just stopped keeping their books. I kept filing everything that I could find for them. I started bringing them what I would find, helping them reconstruct their own records. And as a result got involved in the station. They basically were like, ‘Okay, you should be on our board.’ And I was like, ‘I’ve got no idea how to do any of that.’ I was the archival officer, which was a position we created my sophomore year. It’s a really great institution.
I think I said this in my old interview, but the thing that was so great about it…Wesleyan was one of the greatest experiences of my life, but it felt very much like being in a bubble. You were literally on a hill over the town of Middletown and I was very conscious of that fact. One of the phenomenal things about the radio station was that even when I was there, it really was this 50/50 split between community members from the surrounding area coming in and doing their shows [and Wesleyan students].
A: Did you ever have your own show?
ESB: I had a show at one point that became a recurring thing, playing a lot of lo-fi indie Americana, stuff like Califone and Sparklehorse. There used to be a record store downtown called Record Express that was a great place to be as a college freshman or sophomore. Always had some guy behind the counter or in the rows being like, ‘Oh, well, if you like that, you’ll really like this.’ They were always right.
I took to calling that show The Errant Transmission because most of the time it would go on the air when I was listening in my room and [the station] would all of a sudden go down for some reason. I would rush down to the station and nobody would be there cause it’d be automated. I’d throw a record on and do the show for like 20 minutes at a time while I was trying to figure out what was going wrong. That became The Errant Transmission. I really liked it. I would love to do that again someday.
A: How often would that happen where it would just go dark?
ESB: Kind of a lot in the first year. Our transmitter was ancient. It [was] this big refrigerator-looking thing that had not been properly serviced in probably 15 years. We were probably broadcasting all kinds of places and frequencies we shouldn’t have been. The deal was okay, we’ll give some of the hours to NPR, but as a result, you give us our independence for the slice of time that isn’t NPR. NPR was largely weekday mornings. We had the run of the place for the rest of it. That involved this complicated, automated switching system that would switch between the NPR feed from WSHU down in Bridgeport and hand the studio back to us at the end of that. That would occasionally go wrong.
I remember at one point being in my dorm room and hearing Champagne Supernova by Oasis play and I was like, “Okay.” And then it ended. Then Champagne Supernova by Oasis came on again. I’m like, all right. I mean, that was not atypical. We were not a professional operation, the same song playing twice, that happens. So it ends. And then it starts again, so I get my car. I called the station, nobody answers. I get in my car, go down to the station, I go upstairs and there’s nobody there. Meanwhile, I’ve had it tuned in on my car the whole time [and] we were at five or six Champagne Supernovas. I’m looking at the schedule and I see who’s supposed to be on: it’s a friend of mine, Brendan. And I’m like, all right, I guess I’m doing my show until I figure out what’s going on here. I fade out, I cut in, and no sooner do I do that than the phone rings, and Brendan’s like, ‘Man, what are you doing? This is Champagne Supernova hour!’
There was a lot of that which was the character of the station and which was why I loved it, but it got weird. I’d say probably not quite once a month, somebody would have to run down and figure out what the hell was going on.
A: To pivot to what you did post-grad, it was interesting to read the interview because I had assumed you would talk a little bit about photography or journalism. I was just wondering where that came from in your life.
ESB: My junior and senior year I went with a bunch of friends on repeated trips down to New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina came in the fall of ’05. And it was devastating. If you were marginally tuned into the news, at that point it was all terrible, terrible stuff. A bunch of us were like, ‘We have time, we have spring break, one of us has a car, why don’t we go see what we can do?’ A couple of us went down to New Orleans and ended up working with an organization that was gutting houses. A lot of people were displaced and were living in Texas or were living elsewhere and couldn’t get back to New Orleans because they had to leave immediately, didn’t have the money or a functional car or whatever. The idea was if some work starts to get done on these houses, then you can make the case that these aren’t blighted properties. We went down and volunteered with this organization gutting houses, doing some work, and then eventually lending tools out to people, trying to help rebuild mostly in the Lower Ninth Ward, but [across] a couple of neighborhoods in New Orleans.
A bunch of us made that a regular thing whenever we could. We went over that summer between junior and senior year. I remember being there in August, around the first anniversary of the storm, and all these news crews descended and were interviewing all of us, anybody who [was] doing any of the work. I distinctly remember this one day when I was sitting on the lawn in front of this house that we were gutting, reading The New York Times. It was talking about [how] even a year out, there was [only] a third of the population back in the city. At that point, the economy really begins to crumble, right? There’s nobody to pay the power bills and so power plants are shut down and everything. I was like, on the one hand, I’m really glad you guys are covering this, on the other hand, it wouldn’t be this way if you guys had been covering this in the past year. I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of my wanting to get into journalism.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sophie Griffin can be reached at email@example.com