It’s 2 a.m. on a Thursday night. Outside it’s freezing cold, pitch-black, and windy.
At first, these circumstances made my trek to Pennypacker seem adventurous, but now, as I stand in the dark with frozen toes and wind-whipped eyes, trying to figure out just where this Pennypacker place is, I’m having second thoughts.
I’m here because Pennypacker’s basement is home to WHRB, a commercial FM radio station run by Harvard undergraduates. The station itself dates back to the 1940s and was originally affiliated with The Harvard Crimson. From jazz to classical to blues and even opera, for the past seventy years, WHRB has broadcast just about every conceivable type of music.
I’m here for WHRB’s late night, underground, little-known rock program: Record Hospital.
When I knock on the door of Pennypacker’s basement, Billy A. Janitsch ’15, tall, lanky, and dressed in all black, lets me in. His set starts at 2 a.m., but he has a few minutes to show me around. As we walk through the station, Janitsch gives me the lowdown on Record Hospital’s history.
The program was started in the ’80s by Harvard undergraduates working at WHRB who wanted to appreciate, discover, and play less, well, “conventional” music. They named the program Record Hospital, a play on the popular soap opera “General Hospital.”
Record Hospital occupies the airwaves every night from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. This late time slot allows a certain liberty; the DJs play songs laced with profanity and experiment with grittier music that’s been banished from the mainstream airwaves and WHRB’s other programs.
“Our goal is to play stuff no one has heard before and expose people to new music,” Janitsch explains. “I guess you could say that anything that’s too weird to be played by another department is fair game.”
We step into the lounge, the room where all of the program’s music is kept. Shelves and shelves of records line the walls; more lie catalogued in boxes that litter the floor. While most college radio shows play their music off computers, Record Hospital encourages DJs to make use of its vinyl collection. It’s an opportunity to engage with the music on a different level, to sift through the apocrypha of modern music and land on a hidden masterpiece.
Janitsch has to begin his set. I follow him inside the recording studio and take a seat on the ragged couch in the corner. My eyes are drooping, and I have class in seven hours, but I’m strangely focused. What does he mean by “weird”?
The first song Janitsch plays is “No Heroes” by Converge. He describes it as mathcore, “a mixture of the more aggressive side of hardcore with the more technical aspects of math.” Janitsch is the expert here, and I have to trust him. But, if I’m being honest, “No Heroes” sounds kind of like a few guitars laid over a grown man’s temper tantrum.
But as the show goes on—minutes ticking by, the dark outside growing denser—Janitsch plays some music that I genuinely like. I’m drawn to a song called “Heartbeat in the Brain.” The mellow instrumentals, idiosyncratic lyrics, and general lack of grunts or screams catch my attention. When I ask, Janitsch tells me the band is called The World is a Beautiful Place and I am No Longer Afraid to Die, or TWBP, for short. For some reason I’m not really surprised.
One hour and about 20 songs later, my sense of exhaustion is too great to ignore. I want to stay, but I can hardly keep my eyes open. Janitsch, on the other hand, is alive with motion, switching records and flipping switches. He’ll be here for another hour.
I thank Janitsch and head back out into the wind with music ringing in my head.