Station Destroyed By Fire, WTBU Beats On

To many, 'the Beat of Boston University' was more than just a campus radio station.

Photo courtesy Anne Donohue

The soot-covered mural inside the Howard Stern Lounge at WTBU. Photo courtesy Anne Donohue

Around 8:45 a.m., three student DJs noticed the lights flickering inside Studio A.

One of the students smelled something odd upon tinkering with the light-switch beside the hulking, butcher-block door separating the soundproofed studio from the rest of the radio station. They opened it, and immediately found themselves engulfed in thick, black smoke—unable to find the exit.

The three-alarm fire, believed to have been caused by an equipment malfunction in the older Studio C, destroyed nearly every trace of WTBU, Boston University’s trailblazing campus radio station. The three DJs, after feeling their way down the narrow hallway to safety, were taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and treated for smoke inhalation, as were two BU police officers who responded to the scene.

“Nothing is left in the station. Everything’s down to the studs. The walls are gone,” says longtime faculty adviser Anne Donohue, who had to wear a gas mask to tour the wreckage. “The entire station is gone, so it’s basically a big, empty space right now. I thought they were going to try to salvage some of the walls, but they decided between the smell and the toxicity of the insulation and everything else that burned to just get rid of it.”

The total loss of the station was devastating news for the extended WTBU family. For Deanna Archetto, who served as WTBU’s general manager in 2013 before joining WBUR, the station was her “home away from dorm” throughout her entire time at BU.

“I was initially a little shocked, but more sad,” she says. “It was a pretty glum weekend, actually, thinking about what had happened. It was just sad that so many tangible memories that were still there—photos, awards, other memorabilia—were now covered in soot and damaged by the extinguishing efforts.”

WTBU, the self-styled “beat of Boston University,” occupies a unique place in the history of college radio. It was the first station to hire (and fire) Howard Stern. On Halloween in 1999, it became the first to broadcast online. Following the death of the Boston Phoenix, WTBU launched its own culture ‘zine, The Beat, in the alt-weekly’s old distribution boxes. And in recent years, it’s made a habit of being named “Station of the Year” by CMJ, college radio’s equivalent of Billboard.

Now, the signal’s gone silent. The Boston Fire Department places the damage at around half a million dollars.

Hardly a stranger to acts of god, WTBU only took up residence on the third floor of the school’s College of Communication (COM) after two floods—one caused by a broken sprinkler main, and the other, the death knell, a torrential downpour—drove the station out of Myles Standish Hall in Kenmore Square and down the street to WBUR’s old digs on the third floor of COM in 1997. “Locusts are next,” Donohue deadpans.

A Facebook group for WTBU alumni has formed in the aftermath of this most recent plague, offering a place for bygone DJs to reconnect with one another and share memories. “Hearing from so many alums from the past five decades of WTBU’s existence is amazing, and shows what an impact WTBU had on them, and the impact they had on WTBU,” Archetto says.

“The most significant impact came from forming lifelong friendships,” says Charlie Ross, who worked at the station from 1977 to 1981. “When the fire happened, news spread as people looped in their own circle of friends. The Facebook group resulted just a few days later. We all have terrific memories of what we did back then.”

Ross, like other alumni, didn’t pursue a career in broadcasting after graduating. Instead, he’s spent the last 25 years in high tech, putting to use the leadership skills he says he developed while serving as general manager of the scrappy station.

“It’s one of the greatest places at BU, and still people don’t know about it,” says John-Michael Sedor, who succeeded Archetto in 2014 before moving to Hollywood in search of voice-acting gigs. “That’s what I loved about WTBU. There were people who weren’t COM majors—anyone from the school can get there. It’s for you to create and do your own thing, and that’s where people really shine and their true selves come out. They can have a good time, and there’s no judgment.”

“As a transfer student from Brandeis University, I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I found more than that at WTBU,” says Jay Sterin, GM of Philly Weekly and a member of the class of 1980. “The general manager when I joined the station was named Cory DeGeus. Cory was a great guy, mentor, and friend. He subsequently passed away at the very young age of 32 years old.

“It is no coincidence that my son’s name is Cory,” he says.

Kathy Wenner, a copyeditor at the Washington Post for the last 13 years, was once a “scared, mixed-up kid” with little self-confidence, pursuing an English degree at BU. At a concert in Washington, D.C. around Christmas 1978, she met the station’s music director, Jay Roewe, who urged her to join the station. Wenner was intimidated, but in January 1980, she made her WTBU debut, reading news and weather reports on-air.

“They took me seriously and I just blossomed and found a passion and a tribe simultaneously,” Wenner says. “I have never forgotten any of my friends from the station and have been exhilarated by this recent Facebook reunion. I’m still in awe of my ‘TBU colleagues.”

Howie Sylvester signed up for an engineering job at WTBU his freshman year, cleaning tape-heads and later working on a show called “Sports Probe.” (“Maybe the worst name in the history of radio,” he says.) Now at 98.5 The Sports Hub after nearly three decades covering professional sports, Sylvester, like others in the local radio community, is wondering how he can pitch in. Concord-Carlisle High School has offered its old equipment after a recent studio upgrade, while one alum, without hesitation, cut a check for $1,000.

“People come out of the woodwork and say, ‘What can we do to help?’ People want to send us their LPs and their CDs and cassettes,” Donohue says. “That part of it has been gratifying, that so many people have come forward.”

Larry Grubman—who loved the station so much, he lived in Myles Standish Hall in the early 70s to be closer to it—was one of the countless alums who have made donations to WTBU in the wake of the fire. “To this day, memories of WTBU always make smile,” he says.

Donohue says the school has committed to rebuilding the station, but specifics remain scarce. “We would love to hear from Howard Stern,” she says with a laugh. Sedor, who brokered a detente between Howard Stern and WTBU by sending him a CMJ Station of the Year sweatshirt after years of frosty relations between the shock-jock and his alma mater, sent another note to the “King of All Media” to let him know what became of the station.

“I don’t know how much it meant to him, but I’ve got to assume [it meant something]. That’s where he first got on air, in a sense. Even though we fired him and kicked him out,” Sedor says. “Who knows if he’ll do anything, but at least the idea’s out there. We’ll see.”

The author spent three years at WTBU, including a stint as the station’s news director.