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Saturday, June 22, 2024

WSUM 91.7 FM: The radio station that could

WSUM student radio had a long, complicated journey before it became the institution it is today.

Camila Trimberger-Ruiz woke up on Nov. 2, 2022 with a pit in her stomach. It was election day at WSUM, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s community radio station. 

As the WSUM News Director and member of the station’s executive staff, Trimberger-Ruiz attended and spoke at almost every all-station meeting she has ever attended. But this evening was different. Tonight, Trimberger-Ruiz’s name would appear on the ballot for 2023 station manager. 

It was a short but anxious election cycle, a combination of excitement and passion. Speech and debate were Trimberger-Ruiz’s forte in high school — having to speak in front of a crowd was no issue. But when she stepped up to the podium at the front of the room, she set down her computer with a shaky hand. It was the most nervous she felt in a long time. 

“I stuttered a few times, which is something that I usually never do,” Trimberger-Ruiz said. “But I just care about this so much.”


Radio’s Roots

WSUM 91.7 FM Madison Student Radio is UW-Madison’s student-run community radio station, located on the fourth floor of the Student Activity Center on East Campus Mall. It’s open to students at the university as well as community members in the Madison area. Five different stations attempted to achieve success on campus between 1952 and 1993, each station failing for various reasons, including money troubles or skirmishes with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over “creative student wiring.” 

WSUM was brought to life by Dave Black, the station’s first ever general manager. Dave Black was pursuing a doctorate at UW-Madison when he was approached by Dr. James Hoyt about starting a campus radio station in 1997. Early broadcasts were done by means of an internet stream from their first “studio,” a space on State St. above what is now Urban Outfitters. 

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“There [was] this old, dingy, gross elevator… the slowest elevator on the planet. It had carpet on the floor and the walls — brown 1970s carpet. It was just so gross,” said Cynthia “Grandma Cyd” Schuster, host of WSUM’s longest-running music radio show. 

Dave Black continued to build up the station and keep operations professional, setting up procedures, governance boards and democratic decision making, said Kari Black, Dave Black’s wife.

“[Dave] just never wanted to infringe on the students’ freedom to do what they wanted,” Kari noted. “Dave was always adamant about it, that this is their station. He said, ‘I'm there as a mentor.’”

In the meantime, Dave Black worked to secure the station a radio tower to broadcast on the FM radio dial. They decided the WSUM tower would need to be in Montrose, WI, a small town about 20 miles outside of Dane County, in accordance with FCC frequency policy. 

In 1998, the Dane County Board of Supervisors granted WSUM and the university permission to construct a radio tower. However, Dave Black was met with considerable resistance from Montrose residents. A 1998 Badger Herald article noted that, with the continued appeals against the tower’s construction, the station would “not go on air until February 1999.”

A 2001 article from the Wisconsin State Journal even goes on to detail a a rocky public hearing where WSUM and UW-Madison were met with defiance from the Montrose community: 

“It’s going to be an eyesore!” 

“The tower light will be too bright!” 

“Why do they need a tower? Can’t they just stay on the internet?”

“It’s going to kill the birds!”

The complaints continued. After years of debate and steady battling, WSUM was ultimately granted a permit by Dane County to build their radio transmission tower at a public hearing in 2001. Today, the 400-foot tower sits on a lush, fenced-off plot in the middle of a dairy farm in Montrose. 

“It was such a long and really, really hard fight for him to get that tower,” Kari Black said. “I’m not sure that anyone with less patience or commitment would’ve gotten that done. He got put through the ringer.”

Feb. 22, 2002 was the magic day. At 2:22 p.m., WSUM 91.7 FM was live and on the air. Dave Black and his WSUM crew — even former Chancellor John Wiley — gathered in a classroom at Vilas Hall. 

“Being there for that first transmission was really something,” Kari Black said. “My whole family was there. And of course, Dave was crying, so there’s that. It was such a huge relief, it’s like 'oh my God, finally.'” 

WSUM moved to the Student Activity Center in 2009 after the building finished a large remodel. An immaculate facility with top-notch equipment, the new studio space finally gave WSUM a permanent and professional home in the heart of campus.

Community ties

On Saturday nights, Cynthia “Grandma Cyd” Schuster arrives at the station and heads to the Main Studio. She sets down her coat, places her computer on the desk next to the soundboard and plugs it in. Her show “The Heavy Petting Zoo” begins at 7 p.m. 

Schuster knows the board like the back of her hand, starting off the top of the hour with her theme song before jumping into her world of “make-out” music for the next two hours. 

Schuster, station manager at WSUM, has always felt old at heart, and “Grandma Cyd” was the fitting DJ name that stuck. Her undergraduate years were spent on the news team, with “The Heavy Petting Zoo” getting its start in the summer of 2005 when she graduated college. 

Now, by day, Schuster works for the Madison Fire Department as a Public Information Officer. Come Saturday night, Schuster uses her two-hour slot on the air to introduce her listeners to jazz and swing music from the 1930s to the 1950s. 

To date, “The Heavy Petting Zoo” is WSUM’s longest-running show. 

“I think there's something very romantic about it, '' Schuster said. “Many people never get to hear this music anymore, and I think they're missing out by not being introduced to it. ”

Having worked closely with Dave Black during her undergraduate career, Schuster considers him an important mentor in her life. 

“Dave wore many hats at the station, but for many, he was foremost a mentor,” Schuster said. 

Schuster made a home for herself at WSUM, both during her undergraduate career and beyond. 

“It’s the feeling that I’m providing a service people care about,” Schuster said, describing the importance of WSUM to her. “Duncan in Verona, he's been calling me since forever. Jerry in Belleville will always call me and tell me what he's putting on his homemade pizza that night. And he always requests Dean Martin, but I haven't heard from him since before the pandemic.”

Pandemic proves tough

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, WSUM was one of the many campus organizations put on pause. New trainees were taught the rules and regulations of radio over Zoom, and DJs had to create pre-recorded shows to air. Dave Black ensured students would be able to come into the station about once per week, despite strict masking requirements and studio sanitation procedures. 

“It was tough to come back from COVID and have a bunch of brand new DJs who don't necessarily have that experience or don't necessarily even have those same role models of what is really good, interesting programming,” Will Mandel, a UW senior and the former station manager of WSUM, said. 

Having been a member since 2019, his freshman year, Mandel saw the station endure its fair share of changes. 

“So many people that were really integrated with the station when COVID hit were juniors and seniors at the time, and they're long gone. That's a ton of institutional knowledge that just disappeared,” Mandel said.

Nonetheless, the WSUM spirit never faded — even when Dave Black announced he would retire in December 2021. If anything, students at the station wanted to further what Dave Black so meticulously built: a safe space on campus for people to be themselves. 

“We [at WSUM] really try not to place too many restrictions on what people can and cannot do here,” Mandel said. “We don't tell people what to play, we don't even necessarily tell people where to get the music that they play which really helps foster creativity on the airwaves.”

With WSUM seeing its highest levels of interest among eager trainees this semester, according to new General Manager Kelsey Brannan, new members will be able to hang out at the station and rebuild the discernable sense of community that once existed before the pandemic.

New beginnings

Brannan was daunted to step in as WSUM’s second ever general manager. A WSUM and UW-Madison alum, Brannan went on to work at other public radio stations across the country. She kept in touch with Dave Black over the years, but when he contacted her about applying for general manager, she wasn’t sold on the idea. However, the opportunity to return to the place that fueled her love for radio was too good to pass up.

“I have never worked in a space where everybody is so passionate and enthusiastic about the work that they do,” Brannan said. “I've worked in public media before, and everybody is very mission-oriented and mission-driven. And that's always really exciting. But here, I mean, the excitement is just palpable when you're working with students.”


Students can record their own podcasts and join the podcasting club at WSUM, UW-Madisons student radio. 

Dave Black passed away unexpectedly in February 2022, leaving a hole in the heart of the WSUM community he loved — and that loved him — so dearly. This loss of mentorship was felt strongly by members of the executive board and especially by Brannan, who was due to fill his large shoes. 

“There's a delicate balance that I need to find as a leader — and that I hope I have found — of really instilling those best [media] practices and reinforcing them, while also creating a safe environment for people to experiment and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes before they go out into the ‘real’ world and start their careers,” Brannan said. “I think it was Dave's vision, really, that established that first and foremost.”

‘Keep an ear out for me on WSUM’ 

Mandel was calling, excitedly, to offer his friend Trimberger-Ruiz the station manager position for the next year. 

Just before 9 a.m. on Nov. 3, 2022, Brannan hit send on an important mass email.

“WSUM, Thank you to those of you who voted in this year's election! The station has elected Camila Trimberger-Ruiz as WSUM's Station Manager for 2023.”

To say she had not envisioned this moment before would be a half-truth. A junior at UW-Madison, Trimberger-Ruiz had been preparing for this since childhood. The Wisconsin native and longtime fan of community radio envisioned one day hearing her own voice on the air. She knew she wanted to be a journalist from age 10, later selecting a college with a strong broadcast journalism program. Her senior yearbook “Letter from the Editor” reads, “Keep an ear out for me on WSUM.”

Trimberger-Ruiz was drawn to WSUM’s professionalism, their music choices and their social media presence, carefully comparing them to other college radio stations around the country before committing to UW-Madison. She trained at WSUM her first semester — the fall of 2020 — via Zoom and joined the news team right away to get into audio journalism. Virtual training meant pre-recorded radio shows, but Trimberger-Ruiz wasn’t deterred. By the time her sophomore year rolled around, she was the only person who applied to be the news director. WSUM News was under her domain for all of 2022. 

“It all happened so fast. Freshman year I knew no one and I was kind of doing [training] by myself. But it wasn't until a year ago where I met all these people and we all became so close, which made it even more worth it to be an even bigger part of the station,” Trimberger-Ruiz said. 

WSUM is not trying to build back to what they were before the pandemic. Instead, keeping in tradition with the inclusive and experimental ethos Dave Black instilled in the station, WSUM is looking forward with plans to expand their community reach and multimedia coverage. 

“I think people are much more willing to listen and watch than they are to read. And I think we have the upper hand on that with our equipment,” Trimberger-Ruiz said. “That's my vision for the station in the future. I want to be not only the cool alternative, but the easier and preferred alternative on campus.”

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