Film Photography

A visit to Rose-Hulman on Kodak Ektar 100

I missed my 25th college reunion in early October, so I was glad to have a chance to visit campus the day before Halloween. I was officially on campus to interview summer-intern candidates to work for me testing software next summer, but I played hooky a little and spent the morning walking the grounds taking photographs.

I shot these photos with a camera I haven’t reviewed yet, a Nikon N2000 film SLR, on Kodak Ektar 100. This day I alternated between the 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Series E lens that came with the camera and a 135mm f/3.5 AI Nikkor lens.

Consistently ranked as the best undergraduate engineering school in the nation, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology sits on a 200-acre campus in probably the last place you’d guess: Terre Haute, Indiana. It’s on the eastern outskirts of town, actually, on a wooded, rolling plot, which creates a feeling of immersion for students. There’s little here to distract a budding young engineer (or scientist, or mathematician) from study. And that’s good, because this is one tough school.

It’s also a picturesque school with lots of great scenes. It helped considerably that plenty of autumn color remained. This is Deming Hall, the school’s first and oldest residence hall.

Deming Hall

On the right is Moench Hall, the oldest building on campus. Attached to it on the left is Crapo (CRAY-poh) Hall. I spent most of my classroom time in Crapo, as that’s where the Departments of Mathematics and Computer Science were located, and those were the subjects I studied. I stood in the middle of Root Quad to take this photo, which was newly built the summer before my sophomore year, 28 years ago. Before Root Quad, this was just a grassy field with a driveway running up the middle. The wall in front of Moench didn’t exist then, either.

Moench and Crapo Halls

This is the front of Moench Hall, which faces US 40. Long before I arrived as a student in 1985, the main driveway from the highway ended at this, the former main entrance to the school. When I was a student here, the campus switchboard sat behind those doors. I worked the switchboard, an archaic concept even in the late 1980s. I had plenty of opportunity to look out on the highway before I knew it had been the National Road, before I’d ever heard of the National Road. Today, I believe these doors aren’t accessible from the inside anymore.

Moench Hall

I took this shot from the back door of Baur-Sames-Bogart Hall, in which I lived while I was a student. I took a photo from the same place one spring morning in 1987, on a day when the freshness around me lifted my spirits. See that photo here. This little body of water is known as either Scum Pond or Muck Pond; it even shows up on Google Maps labeled as Scum Pond. Beyond it is Speed Lake.

The muck pond from BSB Hall

I didn’t spend much time on the back side of campus as a student. This little footbridge over Lost Creek didn’t exist in my day, and neither did the enormous athletic facility behind it. Rose-Hulman went on a building jag in the 1990s and 2000s; campus hardly looks like it did in my day. Rose is one of the most expensive schools in the state. Total cost of a Rose-Hulman education has about quadrupled since my time here — I don’t think I could afford to send my sons. I have to think that all of these buildings are part of why.

Footbridge over Lost Creek

Fortunately, some recognizable icons remain, such as the smokestack. The school was originally called Rose Polytechnic Institute. The Hulman family donated the school’s campus, which was enough to have their name added to the school’s on its centennial in 1974. You might know the Hulmans as the makers of Clabber Girl Baking Powder, or for a little racetrack that they own up in Indianapolis.

The smokestack

That’s Deming Hall up on the hill, overlooking the vehicle bridge over Lost Creek. My best memory of this bridge is the day in May of 1989 when I marched in cap and gown with my classmates over it, ready to receive my degree.

Deming Hall and the bridge over Lost Creek

The Rose campus is filled with art. The school has no art museum — no need, as art fills the walls inside every classroom building. Since I graduated, sculpture has been placed here and there around campus. It looks like students created all of this sculpture.

Art on Campus

I have to admit that most abstract sculpture doesn’t speak to me, although I do appreciate the work that obviously went into making it. I liked this twisty piece best, and I loved how I could get White Chapel into a shot with it.

White Chapel

The chapel begs to be photographed. Someone who follows me on Flickr asked if the chapel is covered in solar panels — which would be super cool. But that’s just stainless steel.

White Chapel

Somewhere around here I have some late-1980s photos of campus taken from the roof of the building I lived in. (I had an illicit master key.) I ought to post those someday.

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White Chapel

I got to visit my alma mater, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, on the day before Halloween. I made time to take some photos around campus; I’ll share a bunch of them with you on Monday. I was shooting a Nikon N2000 I picked up to get the 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Series E lens attached to it, but I used my 135mm f/3.5 AI Nikkor lens for this shot on Kodak Ektar 100.

This is White Chapel, which didn’t exist when I was a student. A compelling, photogenic, and highly visible presence, I took eight or ten photos of it. Perched at the west end of Speed Lake, you can see it from all over the front half of campus.

Photography

Captured: White Chapel

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Stories Told

It’s a shame what’s happened to radio

I signed off the air for the last time 20 years ago tomorrow, capping a nine-year side career on the radio. People still sometimes ask me if I miss being a disk jockey, and for a long time I always wistfully answered yes. But not anymore. It’s not that I would be rusty as heck after all these years – and boy, would I. It’s that radio has changed drastically, and it just wouldn’t be any fun for me today.

MeOnWZZQ

I listened to a lot of radio when I was a teen. It was a companion when I was by myself doing homework or whatever. I called in requests and tried to win contests (but never did). I had a few favorite DJs, the ones who kept you listening because you wanted to know what they’d say next. The fun they were having made whatever I was doing more fun.

So when I got to college and found out about the campus radio station, WMHD, I had visions of being the kind of entertaining on-air companion I had enjoyed. I asked for and was given a weekly two-hour shift, just like every other disk jockey at the station. We could play whatever music we wanted, but my musical tastes were pretty narrow and I had trouble filling my time without always playing the same handful of artists. And I found out that wit failed me when the mic was open; I was lucky just to announce the next song without tripping over my tongue. My early shows were really pretty bad! Fortunately our puny signal covered just a few square miles, so hardly anybody heard me. Here’s a brief clip from the oldest show I have on tape, from 1986.

Needing to expand my repertoire, I had fun discovering classic and progressive rock of the ’60s and ’70s and even dabbling in heavy metal. I brought the music I found to my shift and learned how how to match key and tempo to transition smoothly between songs. I also started to find my on-air voice, as you can hear in this 1988 clip.

When I got my first part-time professional radio gig at WBOW, I had fun building and honing my on-air skills. There was a lot more to pro radio than what I’d done in college and it took time and practice to be good at it. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the station in your town that everybody turned to for news, community information, and inoffensive music; in Terre Haute, that was WBOW. I was supposed to provide some “personality” between songs. Here’s a clip from 1992; you be the judge of whether I succeeded!

When I moved down the hall to the company’s rock station, WZZQ, I had fun connecting with listeners. I loved hearing from them when they called to make requests and play the contests. Over time, a handful of listeners came to know me on the air and called during my shifts to just say hello. I looked forward to their calls and meeting them at station events around town. It was great to know that I was providing the same kind of pleasure for them that radio gave me when I was young. It gave me the energy to do my best work, as you can hear in this clip from 1994.

After I left Terre Haute for Indianapolis I tried to get on part-time at a few stations. One polite rejection letter essentially said that I might have been fine in Terre Haute, but I wasn’t ready for the big time in Indianapolis. I decided to take the hint and went back to being just a listener, and now I’ve been out of radio more than twice as long as I was in it. In the intervening years, a number of things have changed that have made radio less fun to listen to and, I’m sure, to work in.

First, now that I’m in my 40s, advertisers don’t care about me anymore. Radio stations choose their formats to appeal to the groups that advertisers think spend the most money. Advertisers love thirtysomething moms, by the way, which is why there are so many country and adult-contemporary stations playing eleven hits in a row or forty minutes of uninterrupted music. No one radio station really reaches me.

Second, thanks to government deregulation radio is now big business. Owners have always been in it to make money, even when ownership was local or regional. But now very large corporations own so many stations and cost management seems to be more important than the quality of the on-air product. Live and local talent is increasingly being replaced by satellite-delivered formats and a form of prerecording called voicetracking. The evening jock on your favorite station probably recorded tonight’s shift this morning in a studio in Tampa or Minneapolis. Try calling the station you listen to in the evening or on the weekend. Nobody will answer, because nobody’s there. It’s cheaper that way.

Third, a change several years ago in the way radio ratings are measured has changed radio programming. As long as there have been ratings, radio stations have formatted themselves to maximize listening among the average, everyday people the ratings companies ask to track the stations they listen to. But the new way of measuring ratings, which uses a listening device called the Portable People Meter, showed a very different picture of actual listening from the older paper-diary method. It pinpointed exactly what caused listeners to change the station. This has led to stations framing programming in much shorter blocks with less human interaction with the audience. It’s why many stations have become anonymous appliances. Why listen to a station that doesn’t relate much with you when you can just listen to your iPod on shuffle instead?

I’m painting a pretty one-dimensional picture of radio’s problems; they are actually layered and complex. I don’t pretend to get all of it, but what I do get is that it has squeezed all the fun out of the business for me. There are few on-air jobs left where you can hone your craft and relate to the listeners.

When I first posted this in 2009, I called out my two favorite local on-air talents, both of whom were among my last reasons to listen to commercial radio: Steve Simpson at news/talk WIBC and Tom Berg at classic-rock WKLU. But since then WKLU was sold, changed formats to contemporary Christian, and sent poor Tom packing. Steve was shifted to mornings and later fired when the station wanted to shift to a deliberate conservative bias and Steve said he didn’t know how to play along.

I’ve given up. When I want to hear music, I listen on my iPhone now. When I do listen to the radio, it’s almost always to hear the news on NPR.

Meanwhile, every station I ever worked for is off the air now. The fellow who owned WBOW and WZZQ got into legal trouble that cost him his licenses. Both frequencies are “dark” today, meaning no stations broadcast on them. WMHD gave up its license last year as student interest dwindled and airshifts couldn’t be staffed.

It’s foolish for a middle-aged man to assume that the institutions of his youth will endure forever. New things will come along and replace them. But at least half of why radio has become irrelevant is its own fault. And that’s a shame.

This is expanded and updated from its original posting in July, 2009.

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Stories Told

A radio station that lost its will

Me on the air at WMHD in 1987
Me on the air in 1987

Last November I shared with you that my alma mater’s radio station, WHMD at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, had shut off its transmitter and gone Internet-only.

Last week’s Indiana Radio Watcha weekly e-mail digest of statewide radio happenings, reports that Rose-Hulman is selling WMHD to crosstown Indiana State University for $16,465, to be a companion to ISU’s existing WISU.

This is a sad end, but probably only for those of us who gave our hearts and a lot of our time to this radio station during our college years. Terre Haute and even Rose-Hulman students probably barely noticed WMHD’s passing. Radio’s place in our lives has been pushed into a niche role, now that YouTube breaks new music, which we listen to on our iPods or on Internet streaming services such as Spotify. WMHD, always a niche station, simply never found a way to remain relevant in this landscape. I don’t think the station even tried.

Me at WMHD
Me outside the station in 2012

Indiana Radio Watch speculates that ISU might make one of its two radio stations an NPR affiliate. NPR is available in Terre Haute only on a weak signal that repeats Bloomington’s WFIU. NPR’s news and talk programming is a great radio niche. When I’m not listening to music from my iPhone as I drive around, I’m listening to Indianapolis’s NPR station.

Something similar is happening in Atlanta. Georgia State University recently handed over control of its station WRAS to Georgia Public Broadcasting, which wants to make it an NPR outlet. Read the story here. Georgia State is keeping the student-generated programming sort of alive by allowing it to continue on the Internet and on HD radio. But do you know anybody who has one of those? Me neither.

But here’s the big difference: when the news broke, hell broke loose, because WRAS has a dedicated and vocal audience. I’m sure WRAS’s audience isn’t large by Atlanta standards. But those who listen love their station, probably because it remained well programmed and interesting.

WMHD, on the other hand, was neither of those things in its last several years. Students simply lost interest. Over the past ten years or so, more and more of the broadcast day kept being given over to an automated music stream. Listenership was never large in the first place, but with nobody running the show I have to think it fell to zero. I’ll bet that if you search the Internet, I’m the only person lamenting WMHD. Search for WRAS and you’ll find lots of anger and hand-wringing.

Any radio pro will tell you: people will listen to a station where the programming is thoughtfully chosen, where there human beings on the air relate well to the listeners, and when these things come together to make listeners look forward to what will happen next. The days of radio commanding the enormous audiences of 30-50 years ago are probably permanently over. But a university- or college-funded station that tries can still find enough of an audience to at least justify its existence. WMHD simply lost the will. Here’s hoping that WRAS, which hasn’t lost the will, finds a way.

Hear me on WMHD’s air here. Hear me on the air professionally here.

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Personal, Stories Told

Paul McCartney kind of saved my life once; he has no idea of course

I was away at my first year of engineering school working harder than ever before or since. My full class load was delivering six to ten hours of homework every night. I tried to keep up but it involved too many late nighters. My life consisted of meals, class, homework, and too little sleep. As my fatigue mounted I became increasingly isolated and my health began to suffer. I lost hope. I fell into a deep funk. I began thinking a lot about how I might be better off no longer walking around on the face of the Earth.

That’s when I came across this record.

McCartneyCover

This is Paul McCartney’s first solo album after the Beatles broke up. He released it in 1970, but I first heard it 15 years later in my dorm room at the center of my despair. The music sounded spare; many mixes were rough and some songs seemed unfinished. The music gave a strong sense of a man shut away in a room, playing alone, trying to get his head together. Indeed, I learned later that Paul produced and engineered the album himself, and except for an occasional backing vocal from his wife Linda he played and sang every note.

McCartney’s signature musical move has always been to find a bright side even when the going is rough. This song, which closed side 1, is a perfect example. It led me to consider that after the Beatles ended, he released (at that time) more than a dozen albums and had given concerts all over the world. It had been impossible to listen to the radio and not hear his music! He’d done quite all right in the intervening years. I could see that perhaps so could I, and so perhaps I should push through. I did, and now I’m fine all the while.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because I first posted it in 2011.

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Stories Told

The $60,000 baseball cap

When I was 17, I was very fortunate to be accepted into Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a school of science and engineering, one of the best in the nation. It was also one of the two most expensive schools in Indiana, competing each year for that title with the University of Notre Dame.

60000DollarCap
John Becker photo

Upon graduation, each man in my class was issued a baseball cap just like the one pictured here, as a gift. We all joked that it was our “$60,000 baseball cap,” for that was about the total cost of a Rose-Hulman education in the mid-to-late 1980s.

I’m sure that my dad swallowed very hard when I told him that I wanted to go to Rose. We were a working-class family. But the financial-aid office told us not to worry, that they would find us a way. And they did. I got a Pell grant from the government, and the Lilly Endowment gave me a healthy scholarship. I borrowed $12,000. My parents scraped together the rest, which was on the order of $20,000. I’ll never know how they managed it, especially starting my sophomore year when my younger brother entered Notre Dame.

Last October I was on campus recruiting soon-to-be graduates to write code for the software company where I work. One of my former professors stopped by our booth to say hello. He’s nearing the end of his career, and he reflected on how much things had changed in his 30-plus years on campus. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to go here now?” he asked. Of course I didn’t. He quoted me a number well north of a quarter million dollars. “That’s for the whole four years, tuition, room, board, everything,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know how any of these kids can afford to be here.”

That really hit home because I now have a 17-year-old son thinking about college. Thank heavens he doesn’t want to be a scientist or engineer. Thanks to my parents’ sacrifice, I make way more than a working-class wage. That means my son won’t qualify for the same level of aid I got. And while I do all right, I don’t do so well that I can scrape together the kind of money it would take to send my son to a school as expensive as Rose.

I guess I should be glad he’s not interested in science or engineering. Maybe he’ll want to go to a state school. I might be able to afford that.

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