If you’re used to Penn’s infamous pre–professional culture, walking into the studio of WQHS—the University’s only student–run radio station—might feel like a culture shock. Graffiti scrawled across the bright blue walls declares that “love is the answer” and “love is fury,” while overflowing racks and bookcase shelves full of CDs and vinyl records provide ample inspiration for any music lover.
At the beginning of their shift, WQHS DJs enter the broadcasting space attached to the main room—which is equipped with comfortable leather chairs, soundproofing, microphones, and a soundboard. The stream is online, so first, they have to get an audio streaming provider called Caster.fm up and running. During the stream, they can select songs on Spotify to broadcast, add live commentary over tracks, and if they want, connect a turntable tool that enables them to play vinyls live on stream.
Originally built as a power plant in 1924, the Hollenback Center containing WQHS’s station looms large at 3000 South St., where its red brick exterior is nestled among train tracks and Penn’s athletic fields. It’s on the very edge of the east boundary of campus and a 20 to 30–minute walk away from most off–campus housing units, which are concentrated to the west of 39th Street.
For Station Manager and host of "Ode to Underground" Giselle Wagner (C '24), the lack of convenience and community of the space mean she has a “love–hate relationship” with the location. On the one hand, she says, it’s definitely less than ideal for DJs with late–night slots to trek half an hour back home after running their show. But there are upsides: “It gives us our own little space,” Giselle says. “This is somewhere we can collect and be creative and do our homework without someone bothering us. Also, the space itself is very different than on-campus—it's very colorful and lively.”
Back in 2007, when Max Hass (C '11) first joined WQHS as a DJ, this love–hate sentiment was already common among those involved with radio. As new first years, Hass and his friends hosted an indie rock show that occupied the less–than–coveted slot of Sunday night (or rather, Monday morning), beginning at 12 a.m.
Just like in Max’s day, the weekly schedule for WQHS this semester is filled with eclectic blends of music and commentary along with some more talk radio–style shows. Depending on when they tune in, listeners can expect anything from DJ Harper Prentice’s (C '26) "Back to the Zoo," if they “want to feel like you're walking on the streets of NY hearing a range of music on a warm summer day” to DJ Alex Zhou’s (C,W '25) "Sunday Scaries," which strives to soothe with “classical music for the soul, and hip–hop for the heart.”
The radio shows span a world of languages, genres, and vibes. Many hosts try to take the listener on a journey through their lives via music—like Naomi Bekuretsion (C '25), whose show aims to take the audience through “the music of my every day with me, inspired by all the people/places/things/feelings/thoughts that make up my world.”
The first time Max ventured to the studio, he recalls being confused about how to enter. Was it through the ground floor entrance or the South Street level? Once he got his bearings though, it became “a little sanctuary” outside of his usual spaces where he could share the music he was passionate about with an audience, which was mostly his roommates at first, but grew over time.
“Especially if you’re there for a nighttime show, it's quiet. There's literally just shelves and shelves of music around you at all times, CDs, vinyl records,” Max says. “When you're sitting there with the microphone on, talking to whoever's listening, you're also looking out over a portion of Philadelphia.”
More than ten years after Max’s era, Lex Giglio (C '25), host of "matchboxx," entered the studio for the first time. They recall being immediately obsessed with the space—from the Sharpie drawings and random stickers placed on windows to the vinyl records and CDs lining the walls. “Physically being there, it’s unlike anywhere else that I've been,” they say. “There's this unabashed creativity to it all, you can tell that it's a space that people, over the course of us having it, have left their mark on.”
While Penn’s student radio has been making memories in Hollenback since the early 2000s, its full history dates back nearly 80 years. The station now known as WQHS was originally founded in 1945 as a part of WXPN, which broadcasted on AM radio frequencies. In fact, WXPN—now staffed by professionals and student interns—was formerly run entirely by Penn students. But an array of scandals struck the station in the 1970s: Students aired “obscene” sexual content, the station’s business manager mismanaged funds and was impeached, and there was even a case of suspected arson. The Federal Communications Commission conducted investigations, eventually fining the University for WXPN’s misconduct, and the station shifted away from student control.
In the middle of all this drama, WXPN AM changed its name to WQHS—which came from a combination of the Quad, Hill College House, and the so-called “super block” encompassing the high rises and the west side of campus. WQHS kept its student radio roots as WXPN gradually expanded its scope and prestige.
By the time Max arrived at Penn, WQHS had suffered a different setback: A storm blew out the antenna they used to broadcast AM radio, which had been located on top of a high rise. According to Hass, the lack of action or assistance from the University to replace it was typical of the relationship between the administration and the radio. In the end, the station switched to a completely online presence due to a lack of funds.
“People just saw it as something of a lost cause,” Max says, “which was disappointing. When there's very little support from the University itself, even while the University actively supports all kinds of other artistic endeavors on campus, you [think], ‘Is this really going to be worth it?’ Maybe we just make do with what we have.”
Now that the radio is fully online, the requirements for it to survive are far more basic. Giselle and Leah Van Dyke (C '23), last year’s station manager and squeeze box, agree that there’s one absolute essential: a physical space equipped to maintain the radio’s 24/7 live stream. “The single most important thing for radio is keeping the broadcast going,” Leah says. “There's no radio without a stream.”
So when Rodney Robinson, the Office of Student Affairs associate director, informed Giselle in late January that HVAC renovations will force the radio station to leave the Hollenback building for a year, she was shocked. While Robinson typically meets with the new station manager at the beginning of the board year to talk logistics, she was apprehensive when he mentioned a renovation she hadn’t heard about at all in the email he sent beforehand.
At the meeting “he essentially was like, ‘Great meeting you. Congratulations on your position. You guys are going to be kicked out March 31 for an entire year,'” Giselle recalls.
Initially, the only suggestion from the administration was to temporarily move into WXPN’s space, which Giselle says was confusing, since today, WQHS is a “completely other entity.” When asked for comment on WQHS’s current situation, WXPN’s General Manager Roger LaMay wrote that “It’s an unfortunate situation and we are sympathetic to the students involved. We are at full capacity in our facility, but if there is another way for us to be helpful, we will try to do so.”
According to Giselle, Robinson said in the meeting that since WQHS survived outside the studio through the COVID–19 pandemic, the group should be able to continue without relocating to a new space. The difference, Giselle says, is that “COVID was something that was out of everyone's control. This is something that's in the University's control.”
After hearing the news, Giselle rushed to inform the board group chat, summoning everyone for an urgent midday FaceTime call to unpack the situation. The station had just over two months to figure out how to move forward.
“It felt like a punch to something that I really cherished,” says Josue Ruiz (C '25), WQHS’s music director and host of "Girl Boss Radio," about the renovations. “It sort of feels as though it's our responsibility now to justify our community's existence,” they add. “Although our community is here, and our community is stable and thriving, a lot of the administration is finding it hard to see that.”
As a first–generation, low–income student, Josue says that it can be difficult to find a comfortable niche in the Penn community, adding that “institutions like this may not have been built for me but I still want to be participatory.” In WQHS, he found a space where openness and self–expression were encouraged. The “peace and tranquility” of the studio combined with social events open to all general body members made the community a welcoming place for Josue, and it’s become a major part of their life.
WQHS’s Financial Director Griffin Weil (C '25), one of the hosts of "6PM in Philly," was similarly shocked at the news. For Griffin, being involved in WQHS has offered him a carefree space to forge closer friendships by bonding over rock music. He says the news was hard to hear, and that he “felt a little bit disrespected in the sense that there weren't any accommodations made for the radio station to continue operating.”
Giselle knows that no temporary space will be exactly like the Hollenback, but she says that a small setup will suffice, as long as they have 24/7 access. “All we're asking for is essentially a room that up to ten people can meet and where there can be one computer that runs 24/7, a microphone or two, and a soundboard.”
In a scenario where this doesn’t happen, Griffin adds that incorporating commentary on Spotify could be one possibility. “It'd be us playing music and then recording voice memos and talking about it in between segments, so it'd be like a podcast episode,” he says. Leah, however, emphasizes that something critical is missing when student radio can’t broadcast live.
Of course, this isn’t the first time WQHS has had to operate without a studio. During the pandemic, a Discord function allowed the group to stream and offer live commentary alongside tracks.
But this isn’t exactly the glimmer of hope it seems. Discord wouldn’t work as an easy fix this time, since the music bots—a function that allows users to broadcast songs to all users in a channel—that the station used were taken off of the platform. Even back then, Leah says that it wasn’t ideal. Listenership took a hit throughout the two–and–a–half semesters that students were out of the studio and into the server due to the added barrier of listeners having to make a Discord account.
The timing of the studio shutdown especially stings for Leah, who experienced only one full semester of normalcy before joining the board, just in time for everything to be turned upside down. The 2022 board year, which she helmed as station manager, was one of rebuilding. Her overarching goals were reviving the community and increasing web traffic.
She explains that aside from the accessibility and lively atmosphere that the stream provides, getting site traffic for the radio to rise opens up a whole world of opportunity.
“When you're an online radio station for Discord, no one's gonna invest in you. So now that we have a stream up, if we get engagement up, then we can start to get that fundraising that we're missing out on if we lose our stream,” Leah says.
Web traffic numbers on WQHS’s blog are valuable assets. Writers from the station attend concerts and interview musicians in the area, producing content for the blog. When it comes to getting free tickets for these reviews and speaking with bigger artist names, showing off the blog’s traction goes a long way.
“My thought process was, if we use last year to build a community again, then by this year, we should be on track to start getting more of those benefits of advertising,” Leah says. “It does feel like, ‘Oh, if we can't have a stream, then everything that we were working to set ourselves up for this year is gone.’”
Before hearing the news about the renovations, she was excited that Giselle would get to continue the progress she’s made. Now, the board might have to return to square one.
The board members haven’t lost hope yet, though. The day after hearing about the renovations, Giselle started a petition to move the station to a temporary location, which has garnered over 500 signatures. In early February, she met with administrators from OSA, who told her that they were searching for a temporary space. Recently, Katie Bonner, OSA’s executive director, suggested touring Irvine Auditorium to look for a potential temporary broadcast space to Giselle and other board members, but nothing has been settled yet.
In response to a request for comment, University spokesperson Ron Ozio wrote that “The Office of Student Affairs has been working hard to meet the needs of the students affected by the University's renovation of the Hollenback Center. OSA is moving quickly to find the best solutions for WQHS following a very productive meeting with student leaders to better understand their needs.”
Another part of the college radio magic—and part of the relocation challenge—is storing the hundreds of pieces of physical media currently housed in Hollenback, which include albums and tracks that bands from around the world have sent to the radio for airtime exposure. Right now, the studio in Hollenback offers not only the ability to record and broadcast high–quality audio, but also a temperature–controlled storage environment, which could be jeopardized by renovations.
Leah remembers that back in March of 2020, when the physical station was shut down as a result of COVID–19, there were issues with the temperature of the building, and “a lot of things just weren’t stored properly.” Lex, the station librarian, adds that while administrators have said they will find storage to protect the music, it’s unclear whether it would be separate from the space they will broadcast from, if one is found.
According to Lex, many student DJs turn to the station’s extensive collection to add a special feel to their shows. Vinyl records were also a big part of Lex’s music journey. Growing up, their father’s love for classic rock and metal records gradually rubbed off on them and sparked the passion that led them to get involved with radio at Penn. “There's something very special to me about having [a record] in your hands and saying, ‘This is my copy. It's real, and it's right here.’”
To Lex, who labels themself as a “huge music nerd,” the ability to broadcast yourself—sharing passions with the whole world through a student radio—is incredibly meaningful, and so is continuing a decades–long tradition. Leah agrees, adding that college radio allows students to express more niche interests, and “talk about the music the way you want to” rather than having to cater to mainstream tastes and avoid certain topics.
“I get kind of sick and tired of all the classic rock stations always playing the same three songs every time it rains. Trust me, it rains outside: ‘Riders on the Storm,’ ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,’ or ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain?’” Leah says.
Max echoes these sentiments, saying that the creative control that students have to play more underground music is unique to college radio. “There is an ethos to those types of stations, and a certain aesthetic,” he says. “A big part of that comes from the creative freedom and independence that something like a student radio station has, compared to stations owned by Clear Channel or Cumulus [Media] with somebody in the New York City office dictating what all 5,000 radio stations need to play at 11 a.m. on a given Thursday.”
Josue also emphasizes that WQHS provides the opportunity to explore both the vinyls in the studio and his own identity by sharing music. “I think that in all senses, the community and the individuals [are] embraced in college radio,” they say.
At the end of the day, Lex has faith in the community they’ve built. “I believe in us,” they say. "I always like to sign things off with ‘Long live college radio.’'"