In pictures it is difficult to say whether or not McMurdo Station is actually on the distant, icy planet Hoth of star wars. A cluster of low dwellings rise out of volcanic rock and are surrounded by miles and miles of snow and ice. But it is indeed located here on Earth, in Antarctica.
The American research base has been operating since 1955. In this desolate, frozen isolation, scientists carry out astrophysics, biology, geology, glaciology, geomorphology, ice core, ocean and climate systems to research. The resort currently hosts a large staff of 600, which increases to around 1,000 during the “summer” season. It’s practically a small town, and like any small town, they need everyone from cooks to welders to policemen to artists and writers.
There’s a bit of chill in the air these days, but it’s nothing compared to the average -70.6 degrees Fahrenheit that brave McMurdo employees face day in and day out. What are you doing there in your free time? What happens when the cold starts to get to you? You could head into a storm, go blind, and freeze to death. Or, you can sit down and tune into Antarctica’s only radio station: ICE 104.5 FM AFAN (American Forces Antarctic Network).
That’s right, somewhere out there, in a little room just off the dining hall, near the southernmost point of our little blue planet, there’s a radio DJ spinning tunes for researchers, seals and penguins. Maybe even literally spinning, because although McMurdo Station uses modern radio technology, it still holds a treasury of over 12,000 vinyl records, giving the airwaves – already a form of retro media – an even more nostalgic aura.
ICE FM is run by a team of volunteer disc jockeys from across the station: construction workers, military, scientists and ice divers sharing their eclectic tastes with others far from home. Angelo Bovara is one such DJ. He’s really out there as a production cook, feeding the station workers. “Today I made pork chops for 300 people,” he wrote in an email. “Tomorrow I’ll make maybe 80 gallons of soup or 200 pounds of steak.”
Email was the best way to get in touch with Bovara. Internet bandwidth is a luxury at the station and is mostly reserved for scientific purposes, so a video call was basically out of the question. It is for this very reason that 104.5 is so important for Antarctica. “The bandwidth is too high (and dedicated to science) here to allow everyone to stream their own stuff,” Bovara writes. “So we have the radio station.”
Kristyn Carney is the base’s most experienced DJ with nearly 20 years under her belt and has worked on the base since 1997 in a variety of roles, from cook to overseeing fleet operations. She says she never considered becoming a DJ. “It happened by chance,” she says. “A friend of a friend had us on her show a few times, and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.'”
So what are the DJs blasting 10 miles through the ice floe? It turns out to be a great variety. Bovara personally enjoys spinning any metal he can get his hands on. “Man, I’ve been fucking Metal Church (a west coast heavy metal band) on the radio! And most of [Metallica’s] …And justice for all“, he boasts.
It also makes a point of playing the reminder music that the station has stored. “There are hours and hours of this stuff. I write, record and produce my own music in order to understand the work required to produce it. They may never know it was performed and presented, but it was. And I hope someone would do the same if they found my music lying around unheard.
Carney begins each show with “Cecilia” by Simon & Garfunkel. “Then, depending on my mood for the week, I’ll do an 80s show or I’ll stick to even older songs. When I’m with my girlfriends, we’ll be doing what we call “the quadrilogy” which is REO Speedwagon, Journey, Air Supply and Styx.
As a veteran, Carney has a whole system, a 24-page spreadsheet with every song she enjoys that’s available in the station’s CD library.
Ralph Maestas — who has been in the United States for a few months and was able to speak via Zoom — manages television and radio operations at McMurdo. He says about 75 McMurdo employees volunteer during the summer and 30 in the winter when the crew is smaller. He says one of his German volunteers did his entire show speaking German, but only played old Latin jazz music on vinyl. “It was quite popular,” he says. “You never hear this music.”
Others host talk shows and take calls from other McMurdo staff as any other radio station in the United States would. Some interview station scientists and talk about their research. “We actually got a call from William Shatner all in one go,” boasts Maestas.
For these DJs, the station is as much an activity to do as it is a community builder. “You have to do something,” writes Bavarro. “Some people go to the little library we have and read. Some people are cool and know how to make friends to hang out with. Some people climb the mountain every day. I go on the radio twice a week and I impose XTREME background music on 12 or 15 people.
The station offers Carney respite from his daily duties of putting out fires and trying to ensure the base remains fully staffed. “It’s a place where I can go with one or two of my friends to play the music we like,” she says. “It’s also very good for morale. It’s exiting. Most people in the real world won’t have the opportunity to work with the DJ equipment we have or host a show. »
Maestas agrees that ICE FM plays a vital role on the base and this is reflected in the volunteer registration process. “For the past 10 years, we’ve had a trial prompt on the back of the volunteer sign-up sheet that asks them what they think it means to be a DJ in this community. Almost every answer is that they want to give something back to the community.