Sept. 3 2009 12:00 AM

How The Impact chooses its music



The dial is tuned to WDBM 88.9 FM, the Impact, and in the last hour the Michigan State University student-run station has played the music of 311, Depeche Mode, Foo Fighters, The Darkness, a duet between Jason Mraz and Colbie Caillat, Sheryl Crowe, Akron/Family and Lily Allen’s cover of The Clash’s “Straight to Hell.”

If you think of this as an eclectic set of songs, then Jeremy Whiting, the station’s current manager, is doing his job.

“We try and keep it diverse,” said Whiting, a 27-year-old graduate student, who has been with the station since 2002.

Whiting said the station tries to operate as professionally as possible, running under the mission statement created when the station first hit the airwaves in 1989.

Before the Impact, several carrier current (low power AM broadcasting that doesn’t require a license) stations existed on campus, mainly in the dormitories. A request was put in to the FCC for a license to broadcast, but when that finally went through a decade later, it had mainly been forgotten. Then, Gary Reid, who is still a professor of communications at MSU, took the helm. He created a mission statement predicated upon three ideas: Education would be the main focus, there would be diversity in programming, and professionalism would always be maintained.

Twenty years later, the Impact is much different from the freeform, student-run stations typical of college campuses.

If you have ever found yourself wondering how the station picks songs, listen no further than “Sit or Spin,” a weekly show hosted by the station’s music director, 21-year-old Autumn Maison.

Airing every Sunday from 8 to 10 p.m., Maison and a group of panelists listen to somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 to 15 songs and, along with call-ins from listeners, decide whether a song will get more frequent airtime. Maison estimates around three or four songs per episode make the cut, entering into heavy rotation.

In preparation for “Sit or Spin,” a music staff, consisting of Maison and a dozen DJs, wades through the countless albums and singles that make their way to the station via labels and artists. The staff then decides what they think the audience may like. These songs make it onto the show, and if a song gets a yay over a nay, it will get put into heavy rotation on the box.

Maison estimates about three or four songs under the umbrella of “heavy rotation” make their way on the air per hour, plucked from a list that is typically at least 30 songs deep. Songs in minor rotation include what Maison describes as “artists we have a reputation for playing,” such as Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., as well more mainstream ‘90s alternative artists and, if applicable, their current songs (think Weezer, Pearl Jam).

“We try to connect with our core audience while trying to push their musical taste a little bit,” Whiting said.

The staff also takes requests. Although she had no hard evidence on hand, Maison believes William Shatner’s cover of Pulp’s “Common People” is one of the most requested. “People love that song!” she said.

So who plays these songs? One might believe the future DJs of America, and although that might occasionally be the case, Maison believes that is becoming less and less true. “That interest is really dwindling,” she said of people wanting to further their radio career. “But it is really cool that people still love DJ-ing as hobby.”

Elise Yoon, a 21-year-old entering her fourth year as a DJ at the station, is interested in the music as well as the production end of radio, but for her it’s about more than that.

“It’s not only the experience,” she said. “It’s a great community. We have classes together and we’re on the radio together. It’s great.”