The corridors of WMBR are quiet—empty of the DJs who should be combing the shelves in search of the perfect song, the engineers ensuring that the equipment is broadcasting to the whole Boston area. MIT’s campus radio station closed its doors in the basement of Walker Memorial in March 2020, when the Institute sent staff and students home at the start of the covid-19 pandemic. Though the campus reopened in a limited way for 2020–’21, the broadcast studio has remained shut to the majority of DJs for more than a year.
But the 178 students and others involved in running WMBR were not about to let this decades-old institution dwindle. You can still tune in to 88.1 FM 24 hours a day and rock out to the pop-punk and rock show Breakfast of Champions or warble along with the Americana, country, and bluegrass of FM Road—all prerecorded and edited from the safety of DJs’ homes and submitted to Brian Sennett ’13, MEng ’15, host of the classical show Music by Dead People and WMBR’s technical director.
When the campus shut down, Sennett recalls, “someone wise said, ‘Take all the equipment you need to keep things operating. This is going to be a while.’”
Sennett joined WMBR as a sophomore in 2010 and is one of 40 alumni still active at the station, which for many has come to feel like a family. That feeling has a lot to do with this continued alumni engagement—and with why its members banded together to make sure the station and its culture wouldn’t be a casualty of the pandemic.
WMBR is an all-volunteer, primarily student-run group supporting an eclectic range of shows. Community members with no MIT affiliation work alongside students, alumni, and professors, all led by an MIT student general manager, currently Julia Arnold.
MIT has had a campus radio station since the late 1940s, but it did not begin using its current call letters—which stand for “Walker Memorial Basement Radio”—until 1979. That was when Jon Pollack, SM ’79, host of The Jazz Train, graduated. Briefly involved with the station as a graduate student, Pollack returned in 1987 and has been there ever since.
“I just really enjoy it,” he says. “That’s why I’ve stayed. It’s part of me at this point.”
A list of WMBR team members reveals graduation dates ranging from 1979 to 2020. Having that deep well of knowledge has helped the station stay on track as technology and tastes have changed.
As technical director, Sennett helped transition the station from in-studio to at-home operations in 2020. Now, after seven years in his leadership role, he’s started to train Gillian Roeder ’24 to take it over by the end of the fall 2021 semester.
“I’m glad that there’s this sort of torch-passing happening between generations,” says Jacob Miske ’20, host of Uncommon Grounds,where he plays a mix of older and newer underground and counterculture music. “It’s something that I worried about with covid—that a lot of student cultural groups’ traditions are being obfuscated by this dead period.”
Evidence of WMBR’s traditions is etched on the covers of the records and CDs in the station’s extensive music library. Classical, jazz, heavy metal, blues, rock—every genre imaginable is housed in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
“We write down who plays what on each disc,” says Marianna Parker ’00, one of three rotating hosts of alt-rock show King Ghidorah. “I could go to the record library and grab a record from 1988 and see that John played this, Sue played this.”
While their predecessors provide musical guidance, students get even broader benefits from working elbow to elbow with alumni and community members. Miske, for example, was inspired by Dave Goodman, host of WMBR’s political show Sound and Fury. A longtime radio professional, Goodman did not attend MIT but has worked with WMBR for 30 years.
“Through his show and talking to him, he motivated me to go out and become politically engaged during the 2016 and 2020 primaries,” says Miske.
As for Parker, who has volunteered for WMBR since 2012 after a brief post-graduation hiatus and is now a doctor, she hopes her professional journey offers its own encouragement to students she meets through the station.
“I wasn’t pre-med. I went and did some other things, then went back to medical school,” says Parker. “I hope they see in me a person who took a slightly different path and they can see a path for their future.”
The FCC is the limit
Parker is also involved with WMBR as president of the Technology Broadcasting Corporation (TBC), the entity that holds the station’s FCC license and looks out for its long-term financial and legal health. This corporation, consisting of students, professors, and alumni, is one of the things that set WMBR apart from other college radio stations. While day-to-day operations are 100% supported by listener donations, bigger projects—such as moving the FM transmitter to a taller building in Kendall Square—have the backing of the TBC and MIT.
As unusual as WMBR is in its support system, it’s even more unusual in its programming.
“Except for being FCC compliant, we really don’t have any rules about what DJs can do,” says Parker.
Sennett learned that on day one, when he was recruited to the station by a fellow violinist in the MIT Symphony Orchestra.
“She said, ‘I don’t know if you’re interested in radio at all, but I have a show on WMBR and I play classical music and death metal,’” Sennett remembers. “And I said, ‘In the same show?’ And she said, ‘Yeah. That’s just the thing we do at WMBR.’”
“A lot of other radio stations have some kind of programming board that decides what gets aired,” says Valentina Chamorro ’16, host of the poetry show Lentil and Stone. “WMBR just doesn’t have that. It’s a huge platform that we all have access to do whatever we want with, and that’s such an incredible privilege.”
Missing out on camaraderie and the live radio experience has been hard for many members during the covid-19 era. But they have adapted, learning new skills like using the audio-editing software GarageBand. While some hosts admit the result feels more like podcasting than radio, it has been keeping the station alive. And the leadership hopes to keep open the option for remote production so alumni can submit shows from anywhere.
But for many DJs, the chance to get back to the station—to wander the stacks and say hello to colleagues—can’t come soon enough.
“When I arrive and the DJ before me is on the air, I feel like it’s the bridge of a ship,” says Sennett. “The music’s playing, and it’s about to be your turn. You flip the switch to go on the air, and you hit play, and the ship is your hands. Then you say hi to the next person who walks in—someone you haven’ t seen for a week. They go on and you think, ‘Now the ship is in someone else’s hands. I’ve done my part.’”
The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush
The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania.
Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.
Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.
A changing way of life
The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.
Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.
One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.
Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.
The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.
The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan
Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.
Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost.
But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.
Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation
—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures
The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.
Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI
A strategic imperative
Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.
According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.
Mapping out a generative AI pathway
One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.
The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.
Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.
All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.
The benefits of third-party experience
Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).
Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”