By: Audrey Nakagawa
Morgan Dowsett whips their red Jetta Volkswagen into the vacant parking lot of Harrisonburg's sole public radio building. Morgan gets out of the car, immersing themself in the cold, snowy evening, their co-host, Dylan, at their side.
There are five minutes until their show will start — the pair hustle into the building.
It can be confusing to someone who has never been in the radio building. There are long hallways with many closed, unlabeled doors on either side. But, Morgan has been here hundreds of times, and effortlessly leads the way to the studio.
College radio is a dying art, yet Morgan has committed a substantial part of their college career to WXJM, James Madison University’s college radio station.
WXJM uses a closet-sized studio near the back of the building. Inside there is a standard desktop computer, four professional-grade microphones that hang from adjustable poles and a small soundboard that's backlit with soft, blue light.
Four years ago, Morgan hosted their first show.
It doesn’t sound like much, but it intimidated Morgan as a first-year.
“Every single thing you can do wrong, I did wrong,” Morgan reminisces.
Morgan cussed on air, a big red flag that the FCC can ding WXJM for, and they stopped a song that was playing on air smack dab in the middle of it.
“I think I mentioned drugs, somehow,” Morgan says with a soft chuckle — drugs are another big FCC no-no.
Morgan looks back on all of this lightheartedly while their dutiful co-host/close-friend/roommate, Dylan, listens passively, occasionally chiming in to fill in the gaps.
Morgan reaches over the soundboard and pulls out a 1-inch white binder that reads “Boo-Boos” in red sharpie, which they created to document on-air mistakes.
On the bottom of the “Boo-Boo” binder, Morgan wrote in green sharpie this time,
“(you're still doing amazing, sweetie — but don’t freaking curse. please.)”
“Devil Like Me” by alternative/indie band Rainbow Kitten Surprise is playing over the speakers — not too quiet, but quiet enough that Morgan and Dylan can still easily talk and share stories.
While Morgan and Dylan tell the nostalgic story of their first time hosting their radio show together, — named “Spicy Almonds” — they’re in the midst of conducting that same show together, four years later.
“This is WXJM, 88.7 on your FM dial,” Dylan says into the microphone.
“Thank you for tuning in this evening. This is our second show of this semester. We're gonna be playing some more soft rock for you tonight,” Morgan adds.
The station has an ardent devotion to playing lesser-known music: anything that's mainstream is not in its repertoire. Unlike other forms of media, having a large audience isn’t a priority for WXJM — it's all about artists in the DIY scene.
“Our whole purpose is to represent underrepresented artists,” Morgan says.
Many WXJM members who host programs are also musicians and artists, including Morgan themself.
Under the stage name Rose Blush, Morgan composes, writes and records music.They have released both an EP and an album during 2020 — the year everyone had extra time on their hands. Morgan uses their music to amplify female voices and their debut album “Wide Margins” has eight “female-aligned singer-songwriters” all of whom tell their own stories through music focusing on modern-day feminism.
WXJM is run solely by JMU students, and Morgan has served as the general manager of the station for two years. Their experience has been entirely atypical, having run into extensive issues: losing a faculty advisor (and not being able to find a replacement), dealing with a mass divide among WXJM members and a global pandemic.
It got so bad, at one point, Morgan thought about quitting.
“We were more trouble than we were worth,” Morgan says. Between WXJM being audited, losing an advisor and experiencing declining membership, Morgan worried that WXJM would cease to exist.
At a southern school, the JMU social scene focuses heavily on athletics and Greek life (20% of students at JMU are in Greek life) but WXJM tends to defy what a stereotypical JMU student looks like. To Morgan, WXJM is not just about college radio — it's about fostering a community, one that reaches beyond WXJM’s general members and challenges JMU’s social boundaries.
“I think people listening to radio is actually a much smaller part of radio than people think, Dylan says. “It is a big part — I'm not saying it's negligible, but we're also about the community of radio.”
Morgan cares about the longevity of the station; they want it to be alive and well for years to come.
Yet, preserving the heart of WXJM wasn’t easy nor glamorous — Morgan had to learn the nitty-gritty details of keeping a radio station afloat. Morgan programs shows, works with the station’s database, manages a full staff and makes quarterly reports to the FCC.
The two years have been taxing in many ways, but the uphill battle seems to have paid off.
Morgan will earn their degree in Public Health this spring — a major they chose because it was a safe, practical choice — but at the end of their JMU experience, Morgan is entering a musical field.
“I'm passionate about my major,” Morgan says. “But I am way more passionate about music.”
Morgan intends to take their passion for music beyond JMU, as they were recently offered a position as Assistant Director for The Bach to Rock music school in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
“I realized that where I actually thrive is management positions,” Morgan says. “As long as I can develop that skill set in a setting related to one of my passions, it doesn’t matter to me if that’s in healthcare or music.”
xX Long live college radio Xx