The outer room of WQHS is the most organized it's been in a long time. Rows and rows of CDs and LPs stand ordered alphabetically and by genre. It's an appearance, however, that seems somewhat at odds with the student-run radio station's free-form aesthetic. And with a nearly defunct listenership, all that music seems like a reinvention of the timeless proverb: if there's a radio station in the forest, but nobody listens, does it really make a sound?
Inside the studio, Artie Vierkant sits in front of his laptop, pulling songs into an iTunes playlist. Co-host to "Salvation!," the station's Friday 10 p.m. show, he doesn't seem too disturbed that outside, everyone in the world is getting drunk, flirting, playing beer pong - doing everything but listening to him.
At 10:08, Jesse Harding, Artie's co-host, comes in with a backpack and messy hair. Within minutes, the two have hooked up Jesse's laptop, broadcast a computer-voiced introduction ("This is our show. You should listen") and filled the room with feedback while swapping cords. Artie re-attaches his laptop and cues the Avalanches' "Two Hearts in _ Time" - loud. The two sit back. The show has begun.
The Avalanches' piece is the show's only weekly staple. The electronica theme lasts a few more minutes (Aphex Twin's "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball," followed by the heavier Justice, tossed onto a turntable by their friend Ryley), but any half-conceived cohesion more or less disappears from there.
They play a mellow track by Stephen Malkmus. They toss on Gorillaz. Jesse gets on the air to read an advertisement for a funeral services company. It's 10:30 on Friday night. It's anybody's guess who's listening.
Originally affiliated with WXPN, QHS split off when FCC objections to inappropriate subject matter took WXPN out of student hands.
The station's website explains it best: "we were like that guy who spent all of his rent and food money on drugs, but accidentally dropped the drugs down the sewer, and was so desperate that he actually jumped down into the sewer and spent three hours searching for the drugs and drinking the sewer water because it might have remnants of his drugs in it." QHS, with a severely slashed budget, relocated to a small suite in the Hollenbeck Center at 3000 South. The marginalized location is telling.
"At least when you're on the radio, there's a chance someone will accidentally stumble across your station," Ryley explains, shaking his head. "But on the internet . no way."
He looks over at Artie and Jesse. They've reinvented the show again, this time with a Dr. Octagon track off Return of Dr. Octagon. They're also talking with Artie's girlfriend online. At least they have one confirmed listener.
Maybe it's the sight of the two that makes Ryley smile. "What is cool is that the DJ's who come in here and do shows really do it for their own enjoyment."
And despite all the rough ends, that enthusiasm shows. "Salvation!" might be disorganized, interrupted by moments of dead air and static, but in the end, it isn't half-bad. For the student lifestyle, internet radio might just be more practical than FM. On a late night in the library, the station is just a few clicks away - a temporary audio file in your iTunes. All the trials and tribulations may have led QHS to the cutting edge.
Ryley leans against the wall and takes it all in. "QHS," he says, "it's a real labor of love."
Maybe that labor is paying off. The records, after all, have been organized. As the website says, "from this point on, it's only getting better."
Maybe they'll even get Penn to listen.