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Steady beat



Steady beat

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.

Generational impact

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. 

Missing out on the live radio experience has been hard for many members during the covid-19 era. But they have adapted.

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.’”


Chinese creators use Midjourney’s AI to generate retro urban “photography”



Three AI-generated images representing workers in China in a retro photographic style

If you saw these images pop up on your timeline, would you be able to tell if they were real photographs of the southwestern city of Chongqing in the 1990s?

Zhang Haijun via Midjourney


In fact, none of them are real. Zhang Haijun, a street photographer in Chongqing, generated these images with Midjourney, an image-making artificial-intelligence program. 

A number of artists and creators are generating nostalgic photographs of China with the help of AI. Even though these images still get some details wrong, like the number of fingers that humans have or what Chinese characters look like, they are realistic enough to trick and impress many social media followers, including me.

Retro AI artwork like Zhang’s has also caught the attention of Tong Bingxue, a collector of Chinese historical photographs. He reposted some of them to his popular Twitter account China in Pictures last week. 

These generated photos are indeed aesthetically pleasing, Tong says. They look sophisticated in terms of standard photography metrics, like definition, sharpness, saturation, and color tone. “When people look at things on social media, these [attributes] are the first things that catch the eye. The authenticity of the photo comes second,” he says. Real historical photos, on the other hand, sometimes look amateur or come with material imperfections.

Zhang, the creator of the AI images above, was born in Chongqing in 1992. He grew up near the Chongqing Iron and Steel Company, one of the oldest and largest steel factories in China, and remembers watching the workers when he was about seven years old. “When I was little, I would often watch them come out of the factory during their break, sit on the ground, smoke a cigarette, and look into the distance. There were stories in their eyes,” he says.

When he turned that experience into an image-generating prompt for Midjourney, he was amazed by the results. “What the AI generated—the look of resilience in their eyes and the way they are dressed—it looks exactly the same as what I described to it,” he says.

Now, Zhang pays more than $200 a year for Midjourney, and uses it to generate new retro photographs with different themes: rural weddings in the ’90s, physical laborers for hire waiting in the market, and Chongqing street fashion. Each time, he writes the prompts in Chinese, uses machine translation tools to convert them to English, feeds them into Midjourney, and spends about 20 minutes tweaking them to get the ideal result. 

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Technology and industry convergence: A historic opportunity



Technology and industry convergence: A historic opportunity

And it’s that combination of technology and human ingenuity, as we say, and as Danielle just alluded to in her medical example on cancer treatment, that is really where the greatest value and the greatest impact is going to come. We believe the companies which are going to be leaders in the next decade are going to need to harness five forces, and all of these forces are going to require technology and ingenuity to come together. They’re going to require organizations to work across all elements of their organization, to work with new partners, to expand into new areas and ecosystems, to learn and collaborate with innovators across industry, as well as across industry and academia and beyond to really push the boundaries of science and impact.

The five forces that we see right now, the trends that we’re seeing that are impacting our clients the most really start with what we believe underpins everything right now, and that is something we’re calling total enterprise reinvention. And we really started to see this come to the fore as we moved through covid. And what we’re seeing now is that as companies are looking to enter these new waves of change and opportunity, that they’re needing to execute strategies to change and transform all parts of their business through technology, data, and AI, as Daniela just talked about, to enable new ways of growth, new ways of engaging customers, new business models, new opportunities, but they’re doing it in a very different way. They’re doing it in a way where they’re looking at every part of their organization and the technology and digital core that underpins it at the same time, so we believe we’re in the early stages of this profound change, but we believe it’s going to be the biggest change since the industrial revolution.

And embracing total enterprise reinvention often requires something that we call compressed transformation, which are bold transformational programs that, as I said, span the entire organization with different groups working together in ways that they never did before in parallel, but in very accelerated timeframes. And underpinning all this is leading edge technology, data, and AI. At the same time, the second trend we’re seeing with our clients, and we certainly are all reading about it and of hearing about it for the past few years, is the power of talent and the importance of the human side of this equation. And we think that one of the forces that’s going to shape the next decade with talent at front and center is not just the ability to access talent, but really for organizations to learn to be creators of talent, not just consumers. To unlock the potential of the humans in their workforce. And that’s going to require technology to unlock that potential. And again, as Daniela just gave in some of her examples, to compliment the talent that they have in the organization.

The third is sustainability. That trend is … I would say personally, I’m very pleased to see this trend underpinning everything that we’re doing and everything that our clients are thinking about right now. We believe that every business needs to be a sustainable business. And every industry is looking at this in a way that is unique to their industries. But whether it’s consumers, employees, business partners, regulators, or investors, we know that we’re moving in a direction where companies are being required to act. To make a change, not just around climate and energy, but areas like food insecurity and equality. All of those issues are coming to the fore, and underpinning this, again, is the ability to leverage new bleeding technologies to accelerate the pace of change and find solutions to the issues that we’re facing as a planet and across society.

The fourth force that we’re seeing is the metaverse. Now, there’s been a lot of confusion, and a lot of talk about the metaverse, but our view is that the metaverse is a continuum, and we’re seeing this come to the fore in the marketplace right now. As we look at the metaverse and how that’s going to impact, just if you think all the way back to when the internet was in its early stages, we believe that the impact is going to be that great. And while it’s early stages and not everybody can see exactly how the impact is going to be there, we believe that this is going to impact not just consumers, and of course interesting areas like virtual reality and using AI to bring new experiences to life, but also to look at extended reality, to look at digital twins, smart objects. So how do cars and factories run? What’s happening with edge computing? Looking at blockchain and new ways of payment. All of those things are going to change the way businesses operate and really the way society operates, and we believe that this is going to underpin change as we move forward over the next five to 10 years.

And then lastly, the fifth force is what we’re calling ongoing tech revolution. And the ongoing tech revolution is a pretty broad expansive category, often pushed by our friends in the academia world around science, but we believe in the coming decade, the pace of technological innovation is not just going to continue but accelerate, which we believe is going to create positive change. New technology, whether it’s in quantum computing or it’s in areas, as I said, like blockchain or material science or biology, or even space, we believe this is going to open brand new areas of opportunity. And all of these things are allowing companies, our clients to find new ways to not just serve their customers, but to monetize their investments, to impact society, to impact their employees, and to drive positive change for their business as well as for the world around them.

Laurel: Yeah. Kathleen, I feel like some of that acceleration happened in these last few pandemic years so that businesses and consumers are operating differently from remote healthcare solutions to digital payments, greater expectations of those immersive virtual experiences. But how can organizations and technologists alike then continue to innovate to anticipate the future, or as Accenture likes to say, learn from the future? You have some good examples there, but the five different areas all kind of also lead to this acceptance of change.

Kathleen: Yeah, they do. And they also lead to embedding data in everything, in new ways into every change that organizations are putting forward. When we think of learning through the future, we think about organizations and leaders who are constantly seeking new data and insights, not just from inside their organization, but from outside their organizations’ four walls. So we like to use the phrase intentional futurists. These are people and leaders and organizations who use AI-based analysis to find patterns, anticipate trends, detect new sources of growth opportunities, understand their consumers, their customers, other enterprises, the markets and their employees better.

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Delivering insights at scale by modernizing data 



Delivering insights at scale by modernizing data 

This data is often siloed in enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. However, with ERP data modernization, businesses can integrate data from multiple sources, which will ensure data accessibility and create the framework for digital transformation. Migrating legacy databases to the cloud also gives companies access to AI and ML capabilities that can reinvent their organization. According to Anil Nagaraj, principal in Analytic Insights, Cloud & Digital at PwC, companies that modernize their ERP data see increased efficiencies, costs savings, and greater customer engagement, especially when it’s built on a cloud platform like Microsoft Azure.

Cloud transformation—along with ERP data modernization—democratizes data, empowering employees to make decisions that directly impact their segment of business. And in an increasingly competitive marketplace, becoming data-driven means organizations can make faster, timelier, and smarter decisions.

Download the report.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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