Monday, November 9, 2009

Greatest Thing of Anything: WEQX

I grew up in western Massachusetts, which was home to a few radio stations and got most of the other signals from Albany. And none of them were all that good. Quite a few fell along the lines of what I heard one comedian describe as something like "Kill Yourself Radio:" a lot of sad dreary songs about lost love, some with the sideshow of minor league baseball broadcasts. The others were your standard pop tripe, with the DJs apparently getting paid to overplay the latest hot single. Ultimately, I had to hunt and peck through the different frequencies, hoping to find something to like and not commercials.

That was how, in the late 1990s, I stumbled across WEQX.

The EQX crew in 2004 or so

I don't know why I didn't discover the station sooner. It may have been because it took me awhile to warm up to some of the harder rock, or it may have just been a little fuzzy until the antenna was pointed in the right direction, or it may have just happened to be on a commercial whenever I went past it. Whatever the case, I ended up tuning in to find nearly nonstop alternative rock, most of which the other stations had never bothered to pick up. The dial stayed there until I moved out of the area.

WEQX was founded in 1984, and has operated since then as an independent radio station. It prides itself on being more about the music than the commercials, and it lives up to the promise. The commercial breaks are short and mostly local, with the on-air talent often providing their voices to promote local events and businesses. So while some stations have commercial breaks that practically outpace the music, WEQX somehow manages to get by on breaks that are relatively non-obtrusive and, incredibly, mostly not annoying. The specialized programs include an all-request hour during the traditional morning commute (including a "Top 5 at 5" based on the most-requested songs throughout the day), a midday "retro lunch," a Saturday morning of acoustic and other more mellow music, and a Sunday night three-hour look at new music. The station has sponsored concerts and won several awards, including Rolling Stone's Best Radio Station of the Year three times.

Rather than some drab downtown brick structure, WEQX is based in a Victorian house in Manchester, Vermont. I've unfortunately never been there, though I'd be interested to see how it's divided up. The studio seems to be about standard size, and I'm sure most rooms are used for advertising and other such purposes. But the fact that they're broadcasting from a house just makes them that much more endearing. They even have pets, for crying out loud. Formerly it was just the EQX cats but now a pug has been added into the mix.

Fred, the EQX cat

Even the transmitting tower is in good company. WEQX broadcasts "from high atop Mount Equinox," a 3,848-foot-high peak in the Taconic Range from which the station gets its callsign. The mountain seems to be a little version of Mount Washington. One gets to the summit via a 5.2-mile toll road, and the tower is located within sight of a mountaintop hotel known as The Inn Atop Equinox that was established in the late 1940s. Assuming Wikipedia is to be believed, the mountain once held a NORAD defense station and also includes the remains of a tunnel system installed in the 1960s by a Vermont company seeking to install a cryonics system to freeze people with high IQs. What's more, the mountain includes a one-of-a-kind monastery on its slopes.

How the magic happens

I'm not sure if radio, like everything else on the planet, is in danger of becoming obsolete thanks to the Internet. I no longer live within listening distance of WEQX's transmission, and if I'm in the mood for rock or alternative I'll turn my radio to a similar station called WCYY. Most of the time I listen to NPR, the other station I heard a lot of growing up and one which, thankfully, has not changed much at all. But I spend a lot of time on the computer, and it's hard to compete with something like Pandora where you can simply plug in the songs and bands you like, not have to deal with commercials, and even skip a song if you don't like it.

So it doesn't have those perks, but WEQX is still something I'll be sure to keep tuning in to; thankfully, they're online too.

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