Sai Patel loves WUML.
So when the junior computer engineering major got a call from Tom Tiger, operations manager for the university’s student-run radio station, he didn’t hesitate to help.
WUML (91.5 FM) needed to shift its operations online as the campus shut down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Patel was ready to jump in.
“I felt like I owed it to WUML to do anything and everything I could to help keep this station running,” says Patel, an assistant production engineer at the station.
Patel has been instrumental in keeping the broadcasts going. The station continues to operate, and in ways it never before has. In addition to its regular music and community programming, it is airing student-created COVID-19 public service announcements in multiple languages and news updates from BBC anchors on the hour. Alumni have also rejoined the station in special broadcasts.
“It’s about keeping students who now find themselves at a distance from the station engaged and able to enjoy the club aspect of this throughout the pandemic,” says Tiger.
According to Tiger, WUML has long simultaneously streamed and broadcast its content, but now it runs through a patchwork of student and community laptop links and Zoom connections. Tiger oversees an online automation and production portal from his home studio.
Students, alumni and community program hosts can do their shows from anywhere.
On April 11, a group of alumni and former station directors — Ben Miller '17, Kyle Clapper ’19 and Vicki Kurker ’17 — cohosted a show from their respective homes in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.
Santiago Rodriguez broadcasts “El Pollo Diablo,” which specializes in Latin and Iberian rock music Thursday afternoons from government-mandated isolation in his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Rodriquez had community shows on the station (he was not a student) beginning in 2014. His wife, Maria Mercedes Pereyra Boue ’15, earned a master’s degree in energy engineering and was a Fulbright Scholar. They moved to Brazil following her graduation, then to Buenos Aires a year ago.
Patel cherishes the friends he’s made at the radio station, where he also serves as metal director.
“Sai is my boots-on-the-ground student who is doing most of the technical work for students to be able to broadcast,” says Tiger. “I’m also helping him with production scheduling, and we touch base each day as I want this to be a learning and sharing experience about troubleshooting and broadcasting and web production.”
During a time of flux, Tiger says, it is important for the station to keep its identity: a mix of cutting-edge music, timely information and service to the broader Lowell community, a decidedly multicultural, multilingual community. Long-running shows like “Armenian Heritage,” Cambodian programming and “Gunjan,” which serves the Indian community, were priorities, as were such WUML staples as “Live from the Fallout Shelter” and “Blues Deluxe.” They all air from laptops now.
When COVID-19 claimed the lives of musicians John Prine, Hal Wilner and Adam Schlesinger, the station dedicated tribute blocks to each.
Patel continues to cohost his weekly modern rock and punk show “Washed Out Wednesday” from his Lowell apartment. He says the early stages of the virtual studio setup posed challenges.
“There were a lot of failed tests, there was a lot of buggy software and a handful of quirks that made testing difficult and produced a couple failures,” he says. But once they found the right “really intuitive” platform “it was smooth sailing.” The platform is an internet broadcast tool called Radio.co.
The pressure, the technical challenges and the skills he’s learning are all worth it, Patel says.
“It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.”