Emerson College is cancelling the reggae and hip-hop programs its radio station, WERS, has aired nightly for more than three decades. School officials argue the decision came out of necessity in order to bolster the station’s long-term viability. Maybe so, but the cancellation is a serious loss to multiculturalism both at Emerson and on Boston’s airwaves and should be reconsidered.
Its specialty programs are what have always made WERS cool, introducing thousands of listeners over the years to stand-out newcomers, little-known artists, and eclectic genres. The show, “Rockers”, started in 1978 by current MTV Networks head Doug Herzog, is one of the few in the country dedicated to reggae. The other show disappearing, “889@night,” has featured underground hip-hop acts from both coasts. Both programs have attracted diverse staffs, students who not only unearth new and exciting music but also hone in on news from the city’s urban neighborhoods as few other Boston media outlets do. In return, the students gain on-the-job business training, news and programming judgment, as well as technical skills that allow them to compete for top-notch radio and journalism positions after graduation.
WERS’s management has been in disarray for several years now, and its programming and ratings have suffered as a result. The recent hiring of longtime local DJ George Knight to host its morning show alongside students and be the station’s first on-air professional staff member shows the school hopes to revivie the station, but perhaps a more comprehensive overhaul is called for. If so, a good model would be Brown University’s commercial alternative rock station, WBRU, which went from near-bankruptcy to a profitable, student-run operation in the early 199os.
Nonetheless, shows like “Rockers” and “889@night” are why WERS stands out. And in today’s age of clogged airwaves, stripping away what makes a radio station unique will accomplish very little.