When Patchen Mortimer stepped into the dusty basement of Williams College’s radio studio to visit his friend at their radio show, he was immediately hooked — mesmerized by the room stocked full of CDs before his eyes.
That moment early in his college years sparked Mortimer’s interest in radio, leading him to later become a fixture as an alumni DJ at WMUC 90.5FM, the University of Maryland’s radio station.
Immediately after learning of his acceptance to this university’s creative writing graduate program, he remembers calling WMUC and asking if he could have a radio show.
“I had a radio show before I knew where I was living,” Mortimer said. “I had a radio show before I’d signed up for classes or had an apartment.”
Before starting his radio show at this university, Mortimer had a “graveyard shift” of 3-5 a.m. on Tuesdays with his first show at Williams College in 1997, called 00G & SPECTRE — a combination of Mortimer and his friend’s nicknames.
Becoming a DJ was his way of sharing new music and connecting with people.
“One of the things that I’ve really tried to do is maintain that indie rock aesthetic,” he said. “Maintain that ‘90s sensibility of what education is.”
It is this commitment to his niche style that draws other DJs to his WMUC show, The New Indie Canon.
Rae Gaines, an alum of this university and former DJ at WMUC, burst into the station after hearing a song by The Dismemberment Plan and had to meet the person playing it.
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Gaines, a software engineer, joined the station in 2007, and said by then Mortimer was already a “fixture” there.
“He was just so dedicated to doing a show and making it fun and varying it up and playing music that people are really going to enjoy, but also he has fun with it,” Gaines said. “He also has a great radio voice, which definitely doesn’t hurt.”
Mortimer said he used to come into the studio at Williams College with a shopping bag full of CDs, and would play whatever he wanted to.
As he got more comfortable with his show at this university, he would throw on CDs he had never heard before. He started programming his show with more of a plan when he moved from CDs to using his laptop, as he does now.
“Now I walk in and I have my whole show programmed, I know all 30 songs I’m going to play most weeks,” Mortimer said. “There’s so much music at my fingertips on my laptop that if I tried to do it on the fly I would freeze up, or I would play the same songs I always play.”
After years of requests, Mortimer eventually created a style guide in 2010 for all current and future DJs to refer to and keep the quality of radio shows high.
Mortimer embodies what listeners desire in a radio host — a companion.
Gaines believes Mortimer’s persona embodies his personal honesty and transparency. He talks to his listeners like they are his friends, coming across approachable for anyone to tune into.
Madeline Redding, an alum of this university and former DJ at WMUC, said Mortimer is “the friendliest person in the world.” She remembers Mortimer striking up a conversation with her in the lobby of WMUC and his ability to connect with anyone. But that is part of what makes him such an asset to the station, she said.
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“He’s able to bring the excitement out and the collaborative nature of what the radio station should be – not people every hour not talking to each other and doing their show and leaving, but hanging out in the lobby and chatting and teaching each other things,” Redding said.
At WMUC, Redding served as the program director in 2020 and the general manager in 2021.
Being in those positions during the COVID-19 pandemic was challenging because she had to retrain DJs every semester, she said. Mortimer aided her in the stressful time and was a huge help because of his years at the station.
Spotify and AI are changing the radio industry because they can predict your music behavior and likes better than you can. Spotify currently has 515 million monthly listeners and Mortimer worries that people will use it as a “crutch.”
“When you listen to Spotify, you’re killing radio, and you’re starving musicians because they are getting paid shit,” he said.
What can radio still offer people that streaming cannot? Mortimer said it is surprising the listener in a way that streaming platforms’ algorithms cannot.
While radio hosts are now competing with other audio services, Gaines said there is something unique to radio that keeps people listening.
“There’s something different to live radio that isn’t edited, and isn’t polished in the same way podcasts are,” Gaines said. “It just has that exciting, surprising quality.”
Mortimer currently works as a marketing content director. Radio is technically his “hobby,” he said, but means so much more to him.
“I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing this for the listeners,” he said. “You do it because you love it.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the name of Mortimer’s show at Williams College. His show was called 00G & SPECTRE. This story has been updated.