Images of this Property
9 images: Press to view larger or scroll sideways to see more. Contributions from the John Hutchins Cady Research Scrapbooks Collection and the Library of Congress
About this Property
We can’t talk about this building without talking about the radio station that operates from it. 95.5 WBRU was a mainstay during our teenage years growing up in the Providence area. Alternative music and the 90s were synonymous with the station. They were the first to play and promote many artists that went on to make grunge famous.
The building went through a major transformation in 1969 as it was converted from a former fire station to a part of Brown University. Previously, its rusticated stone arches, double- and triple-sets of arch topped windows also highlighted with rusticated stone, and stone rope detailing on the front façade corners greatly resemble Niagara Engine Company number 5 at the corner of Doyle and North Main. Similar cornice, similar double-hip slate roof, and similar stone accents on pointed gothic arches.
Those details were all mostly removed during its conversion. A flat brick façade was created instead, with only a portion of the cornice along the roofline remaining. A neo-Georgian doorway was put in place. These heavy alterations are why the building is considered a non-contributing structure in the College Hill Historic District.
88 Benevolent Street is still home to independent radio station WBRU. Though not broadcasting on the 95.5 FM channel, BRU continues to promote independent music and the black experience in sound streaming over the internet.
From the College Hill Historic District nomination form, Edward F. Sanderson & Keith N. Morgan, January 1976 (manuscript)
Fire Station -WBRU- (c. 1867, altered c. 1969): 2-story, brick, hip-roof building, originally built as a city fire station. The present façade, three bays wide with a center entry with a neo-Georgian pediment, dates from the building’s late-20th century conversion into a college classroom building. Only the polychrome slate roof and the partially-obscured modillion cornice indicate the original character. (Non-contributing.)
These are the same map references as the nearby Robert H.I. Goddard stable at 100 Benevolent Street.
- 1900 Sanborn Insurance Map, Volume 2, Plate 119 (page 32) — The firehouse is simply labeled “House House” with a smaller portion labeled “Chemical.” In pink, it indicates it was brick, two stories tall, and 24 feet wide. There was a tower on the northeast corner of the building that is no longer present.
- 1920–1921 Sanborn Insurance Map, Volume 2, Plate 21 (page 28) — The firehouse is present and labeled simply “Fire Sta. No. 6.”
- 1926–1927 G.M. Hopkins Insurance Map, Plate 19 — Much the same as the 1921 map but the label reads “Hose Co No. 5” (or at least it looks more like a five in this map).
- 1937 G.M. Hopkins Insurance Map, Plate 19 — Much the same as the 1927 map except the label reads “City Hose 6” (though the six is blurry and it could still be a five).
- 1920–1951 Sanborn Insurance Map, Volume 2, Plate 21 (page 28) — Much the same markings as the 1921 map (these updated maps used the 1921 book as the basis and then overlaid updated portions of the map on top) but labelled “Vac.” presumably for Vacant.
There are lots and lots of great links on the web about the radio station’s history. Here are a few of our faviorites and why:
- Encyclopedia Brunoniana: WBRU — Penned by Martha Mitchell in 1993, this account from Brown University’s perspective traces the roots of the station started as The Brown Network
- Bracksco: Memories of WBRU in the 1960s — An early account from some of the people who were there as BRU transitioned from a college station for college students to a more broadly listened to station. The fuzzy recollections are argued about at the end of the article
- RIRocks.net: 95.5 WBRU — It says this page is mostly copied from Wikipedia but there are also plenty of details added by the authors about their personal experience
- Wikipedia: WBRU — An extensive history but best of all, a list of the firsts, the April Fool’s jokes, the list of Rock Hunt winners, and a list of everyone who played at the Summer Concert Series’
#In the News
by Jack Brook
Brown Alumni Magazine | November 3, 2017
“This is where Nirvana posed for a photo,” Breuer told a group of rapt new students, gesturing towards the big gold 95.5 numbers on the white wall, a reference to what had for decades been the station’s FM signal. “They also signed the inside of the bathroom but then someone painted over it,” Breuer added.
For decades since its creation in 1936 — and especially after converting to FM in the 1960s — WBRU has been a cornerstone of the Providence music scene. The station developed a reputation for finding talented alternative rock bands before they hit it big. From 1993 to 1995, Rolling Stone readers voted BRU the best radio station in the country. For students, BRU became a gateway into the music world.
“Working on WBRU launched me into a place where the entire music business knew who I was,” says Patti Galluzzi ’83, who worked at the station and went on to become a senior vice president of MTV. “Bands come to Providence because BRU plays them on the radio and promotes their shows. Having the [FM] signal is what makes WBRU what it is.”
But as of September 1, listeners tuning into 95.5 FM no longer heard WBRU. Earlier this year, following a recommendation from its student board of directors, BRU’s student station members voted to sell the signal after years of struggling with financial burdens, lack of student engagement, and the declining popularity of the radio format itself. The fact that the signal went to K-Love, a Christian rock station, might have caused Cobain to roll over in his grave.
“We see no other viable options,” wrote WBRU’s general manager, Kishanee Haththotuwegama ’19, in a letter to alumni about the sale. “We’re also faced with the reality that broadcast radio may not be the most engaging content distribution technology for the student workshop in the 21st century.”
Over the last ten years the station has seen its revenue consistently decrease, and last year it ran a significant deficit. “I think it’s not a secret that the radio business and the Providence market are deteriorating substantially and the chances of the station surviving in the long run were very small,” Peter Tannenwald ’64, a former long time board member and the station’s lawyer, told the BAM.
The decision to sell, however, came with significant controversy — a turnaround plan put together by alumni in the months leading up to the sale vote failed to persuade the board and a majority of the students. The University could not intervene, as WBRU is owned by the independent nonprofit Brown Broadcasting Services. In the aftermath, BRU station member Tucker Hamilton ’17 filed a suit against Brown Broadcasting Services over the sale of the station. In an interview with local online news site, Hamilton alleged verbal “intimidation” in the student meetings to pressure a pro-sale vote.
Other alumni, like Galluzzi, don’t think station members gave enough consideration to alternatives to the signal sale. To them, giving up the FM signal means stripping BRU of its fundamental identity, severing the station from the Providence community and music scene. “I put in 30 hours a week for four years without pay for a station that would be handed on from generation to generation,” says Bill Lichtenstein ’78, who has started the website Save WBRU. “Not for one group to just say ‘We’re going to sell it.’”
However, according to Haththotuwegama, actually following through with the proposed turnaround plan — or any other — would have meant heightened pressure for an already depleted student volunteer group to meet increasingly ambitious sales targets. Preserving the signal, she says, would have prevented students from developing a digital format and taking on other creative projects. There simply wasn’t enough time or resources for the station to do both.
“Under the turnaround plan, the student experience would have been severely limited,” Haththotuwegama told the BAM. She stressed that the organization is “still being driven by the same mission” to give students an educational media workshop experience that provides content for the Providence community.
“This is really about bushwhacking and trailblazing,” says Jon Klein ’80, a former president of CNN who once worked at BRU. “These students understand what all the great communicators have always understood: what’s most important is the content and not the signal itself.”
According to Haththotuwegama, the station will place profits earned from the signal’s sale in a fund and use the interest to sustain the station. Current members are in the midst of gearing WBRU to adapt to an exclusively digital platform that will host two 24/7 streaming sites. Such station staples as the “360 Degree Experience in Sound,” devoted to hip-hop and R&B, will now be able to play seven days a weeks online instead of only on Sundays. A comprehensive app update is in the works, too, something no one had time to do before the sale.
“We have a lot more freedom right now,” says Andie Corban ’19, director of the news department. “We have a lot more opportunity to experiment and finally do things we have wanted to do for a long time but haven’t been able to do.”
Corban says that when the station was tied to the radio format, her department had to focus all its energy on putting out a daily newscast. Freed from the constraints of limited radio airtime, her team is now developing a long-form podcast.
While WBRU alums and Brown students might not agree on the sale of the station’s signal, everyone, from FM diehards to streaming proponents, expressed their love of BRU as a place for student learning. Memories of late-night DJ sessions, bungled interviews, and the thrill of being on air—it all came back to that.
“Change is never palatable because people think about what [WBRU] was, what it was for them,” says Caroline Giegerich ’00, who used to work on the station and is helping with the digital transition. “But those students know what’s right for them. Did I always agree with what they were doing? No. But I’m not them, and they’re the ones who have to run the thing.”
— Captured 14 May 2023 from https://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/articles/2017-11-03/radio-silence