Back to college radio, for alt rock
BRIDGEWATER — Tune into WBIM-FM (91.5) on Saturday afternoon, and you’ll hear a mix of post-punk, new wave, and Britpop music, along with the smooth, polished voice of Chris Atwood. As the host of Alternative Underground Radio, he’s one of the newest — and oldest — disc jockeys on the student-run radio station at Bridgewater State College.
Atwood isn’t his real name; it’s his radio pseudonym. That man behind the mike dishing out commentary and music trivia is Christopher Smalley, a 43-year-old Bridgewater State alum who’s making a comeback to college radio and wants to share the alt-rock of his youth.
Every Saturday, Smalley treks up to the third floor of the Rondileau Campus Center, gets behind the microphone in the WBIM studio, and spends a few hours playing the best of indie rock from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, interspersed with newer bands you won’t hear on mainstream commercial radio. It’s strictly volunteer; he doesn’t get paid.
His weekly broadcasts usually have a theme: One time he did Generation X movie songs; another week he did new wave hair bands vs. 1980s hair bands (i.e., The Cure vs. Poison). The theme this Saturday: top alternative bands from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
On a recent afternoon, Smalley stood in the studio and slid a disc into the CD player. “This next song is from a local resident, from Duxbury — Juliana Hatfield,’’ he said, as he cued up her 1992 hit, “Everybody Loves Me But You.’’ His set that afternoon included The Fixx, Gary Numan, XTC, and local DJ Chris Ewen’s former band, Figures on a Beach.
Since Smalley started Alternative Underground Radio last fall, the show has developed a small but loyal following. Some fans are in their 40s, and have fond memories of buying records and cassettes of The Jam and Joy Division. There’s also a younger set, some of whom were still in diapers when Smalley was getting backstage at concerts. “To my age bracket, this music is classic alternative,’’ said Smalley. “A lot of people who call in are younger, and to them, it’s all new.’’
Judging by his clean-cut appearance and conservative wardrobe (white button-down shirt, khaki shorts, brown belt, white socks, and New Balance sneakers), Smalley may not look “alternative,’’ but he knows that genre of music well. He grew up listening to Oedipus, the legendary DJ and former music director at WBCN, and sought out music that was out of the mainstream, listening to bands like Bauhaus and other British imports. “Depeche Mode, Yaz, and Erasure ruled my life,’’ said Smalley.
He went to high school in the John Hughes-Brat Pack days of the ’80s, graduated with Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School’s Class of ’85, and went to Bridgewater State and was a DJ at WBIM from 1985 to 1989. He once manned the decks at the legendary Cambridge nightclub Manray (“I did DJ for an hour at Manray back in ’88 as a tryout for their sister club, Ground Zero,’’ he said. “I didn’t get the gig.’’)
He’s heard young ones say, “ ‘Wow, you lived through that decade?’ ’’ said Smalley. “It really was a great time for music.
“My friends and I sometimes wonder what nursing homes will be like in 40 years — Depeche Mode will be blasting for the Friday night dance,’’ he said.
Smalley said his love for radio goes way back, and started long before his college days.
“As a kid, I had a fake radio station in my house with a friend, and we would spin 45s on a portable record player and DJ to my family and friends and conduct ‘man on the street’ interviews,’’ he said. “The call letters are still in day-glo paint in my parent’s house in Bridgewater.’’
During his senior year at Bridgewater State, he landed a gig at Cape Cod radio station Pixy 103 and started using a radio name, Chris Atwood. (Atwood is a surname from his father’s side of the family, says Smalley, and “it’s got a ring to it.’’)
After graduating from the college in 1989, he went on to earn a master’s degree from Emerson College. He now lives in Halifax and works in public relations. In addition to his day job as marketing and communications director for Jordan Hospital, he does voice-overs for radio, TV, film, and corporate clients. (Several years ago, Smalley was the “voice’’ of Chevy Dealers of New England.)
“I wouldn’t have gone on to FM radio and voice-overs if it wasn’t for WBIM,’’ he said. He said his weekly gig at WBIM is just a hobby — something he does for fun — and he’s thankful to his alma mater for letting him use the studio and go on the air.
Fellow BSC alum Lindi Nordin has been listening to Alternative Underground Radio from her home in Illinois and counts herself as a fan.
“We both worked at WBIM back in the day,’’ said Nordin, who was a DJ from 1986 to 1990. “I feel like I’m stepping back in time. It really takes me back.
“Chris is just a really great personality. He’ll play the popular stuff from the era as well as very obscure gems you can’t find anywhere, and he gives you a lot of back history to the music.
“It’s good to hear him on the radio again,’’ said Nordin, with a chuckle, “I’m jealous.’’
The Alternative Underground Radio show’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/pages/80s-Alternative-Underground-Radio/174573999751) includes fans from as far away as Los Angeles and even Israel.
“Not sure how they are learning about the show,’’ Smalley said, “but happy to have them as fans and, hopefully, tuning in.’’
Alternative Underground Radio airs Saturdays 4 to 7 p.m. on 91.5 WBIM-FM. The show also streams live at www.bridgew.edu/wbim. To make a request, call 508-531-1303.