At the top of Reynolds, WHPK keeps its music underground

A Maroon contributor spends the night with the storied radio station, which has seen the likes of Kanye West and Common.

By Will Dart

A writer for the Chicago Maroon once claimed, correctly, that at our school “it is possible to go four years without realizing WHPK exists.” I place the blame on the combination of general disinterest, a certain amount of intentional alienation on the station’s part, and the fact that nobody listens to the radio anymore, unless it’s called Pandora or Spotify. And so, in the spirit of musical and journalistic inquiry, I took the better part of last Friday morning to familiarize myself with the folks behind the obscure music, to see what was going on inside 88.5 FM.

My brief visitation got off to a good start when I forgot that the Reynolds Club, from whence WHPK is broadcast, closes early on weekdays. I had just jimmied the lock and was about to enter Eckhart Hall through the back door when I received a text informing me that Simon Wiener (fourth-year, station manager, and sick DJ) was waiting for me out front. Wiener, upbeat and excitable after 12 a.m., led the way up the stairs, and then down a hallway, into the heart of WHPK: a two-room studio in the second story of Mitchell Tower.

The place is cleaner than you might expect. Though much of the studio’s equipment was probably minted in the late ’70s, it looks well maintained. Graffiti is disappointingly sparse, the walls having been whitewashed several times, though I did catch a few scattered references to Passion Pit and an assertion that “Slayer sucks many dicks” (no argument there).

And while everything is now iTunes compatible, most of the DJs I spoke with preferred to use the station’s massive record library, which occupies a giant room opposite the broadcast booth. Once used for arcane rites by The Society of the Owl and Serpent, the space retains a decidedly cultish feel—high walls house what I can only assume to be millions of pop, rock, folk, rap, and metal albums and a veritable treasure hoard of obscure EPs and limited releases. There’s some sort of organization to it, but after several hours of fascinated perusing I still hadn’t sensed any semblance of a pattern. Gangsta rap sits right next to Wagner. As one drowsy and thoroughly exasperated DJ later informed me, even with years of careful study, “it’s fucking impossible to find anything.”

That DJ was Rob Sperry-Fromm, a second-year and host of “Women’s Rugby,” which airs every other Thursday from midnight to 2 a.m. Rob spun a strange concoction of loud and dissonant noises he called “sludge metal,” along with some pretty groovy rock and at least a few exceedingly weird songs that likely receive airtime on the Dr. Demento Show. Interspersed among these 18-minute sound voyages were several mandatory public service announcements, delivered by Rob in a soothing, apathetic monotone that made him sound kind of like a sleepwalker who had wandered into a radio station. “Passing gas. Is there a right time and a wrong time to do it?” he croons at 1:26 a.m.

Near the end of his set Rob got a call; it seemed that the next DJ on the docket wouldn’t be going on as scheduled. The guy Rob brought up instead was wearing flip-flops and swim trunks, and informed me that he was about to lay down a set of the nastiest underground rap I’d ever heard. Accompanying him was a posse of two chill dudes and a dudette, all of whom were friendly and knowledgeable and all of whom were almost definitely stoned out of their minds. The next few hours promised to be interesting.

But, just as we were getting started, Colonel Albatross (he asked me not to use his handle or real name, as he felt the following did not accurately reflect the quality of his work) encountered what I can only imagine is every DJ’s worst nightmare: technical difficulties. These gremlins are blessedly rare for WHPK, and can usually be resolved either by making sure the record is playing at the right speed or by whacking the soundboard with a wrench like in Armageddon. But this time the problem was persistent; unable to play his intended set, the Colonel had to improvise with whatever was close at hand. The result was a pleasing mix of vintage jazz, punk, and classic rock; when Journey’s “Faithfully” came on, we were all belting our hearts out with Steve Perry. I can only imagine that a plethora of surprised listeners were doing the same.

At this juncture, having been awake for over 48 hours and beginning to fear for my health, I decided to duck out of the studio for a bit and sleep on a couch in the basement. But, certain that one of the Reynolds’s infamous giant centipedes was going to crawl up my nose and start living in my brain, I did my best to stay semi-conscious, an act made extremely difficult by the melodious echo of polka leaking from the headset of a janitor down the hall.

At 4 a.m. I wandered back up into the studio to sit in on “No Stairway to Heaven” with first-year Kylie Zane. She was impossibly chipper for 4 a.m. Kylie hails from Seattle, which I could probably have guessed from the plaid. Her show consisted of “anything that’s fast, loud and doesn’t have lame vocals”: exactly what you need to hear if you’re up this late/early. Kylie was excited about being on the radio, and, after checking online, clearly ecstatic to find that 19 Internet listeners were tuned in to her show. Pretty amazing for thrash metal on the 4-6 a.m. Friday morning slot. Out in the night, 19 hardy folks were wide-awake and grooving to Meshuggah and Municipal Waste.

That prolonged exposure to loud music and old records must have had some sort of effect on me: despite leaving Reynolds with ample time to get my two hours of rest, I started messing around with my clock radio as soon as I got home. When I found the channel again, Kylie and her music had gone home, and there was some sort of indie jam lingering in its place. I didn’t recognize it, but I liked the beat. Sleep’s temptations were no match for WHPK’s eclectic jams: Despite knowing better, I just couldn’t stop listening.