I have one burning question as I take the elevator up to the fourth-floor studio of UW-Madison's student radio station, WSUM, on the west end of the Lucky apartment building.
What does Snake on the Lake mean?
The slogan is the motto of WSUM (91.7 FM). It's also the name of the eight-hour free music festival the station is sponsoring this Friday, Sept. 4, on the Memorial Union Terrace.
Station manager Jenny Underwood has the scoop. She tries to diminish my expectations for a juicy story. But if you're familiar with Madison radio, it's a pretty hilarious anecdote.
"It's not as good a story as you would hope for, to be honest," says Underwood, a 21-year-old senior communication arts major. "Do you remember back when 93.1 was the Lake? That's where it came from," she says. "One of their promotions was a little bit silly."
Then, in a deep voice, she mimics the overly dramatic station ID of the now-defunct classic rock outlet: "'93.1, The Lake.' So we kind of took advantage of that and someone came up with 'Snake on the Lake,' and it really stuck."
College-student mockery of Madison's institutions lives.
Underwood is also quick to explain the purpose of the third annual Snake on the Lake Fest.
"It's kind of a representation of what we do. It lets people know that there's a radio station here on campus, and that it's a good one," she says. "It shows people that we've got kind of an eclectic style. The bands that we pick, they're, like, all over the place. We hope that sends the message to students that it doesn't matter what they're interested in, they can get involved."
The headlining act of this year's festival will showcase that eclecticism in a single set of live music.
RJD2 is a Philadelphia-based producer and DJ who blazed a trail fusing hip-hop and electronic genres earlier this decade. He blew out that boundary in 2007 when he released a guitar rock album, The Third Hand, devoid of his signature sample-based style.
Just two weeks ago, RJD2 announced on his MySpace blog that he's started his own record label and will release a new album on that label this year. In the same post, he reminded fans that he's all about musical substance. "I feel like our time on Earth is very short and that the most I have to offer this planet in my little window of time here is through the vessel of music," he wrote.
Underwood's own WSUM show, "Argyle Cat Explosion," is consistent with the style and eclectic principles of RJD2. It's a mix of hip-hop and electropop meant to create a dance-party vibe.
Underwood sees it as pop music's current direction. "There was a time here at WSUM when we played a lot of indie rock," she says. "But a lot of students are listening to dance and electronic now. They want to keep it upbeat."
That's an insight that rings true nationally, as indie folk-rock bands like Death Cab for Cutie increasingly seem like yesterday's news next to up-and-coming electro-dance artists such as Passion Pit.
The festival lineup features local music, too. The UW campus band the Nod kicks things off with a 4 p.m. set.
With the origins of Snake on the Lake now solved, Underwood left me with this teaser: "Everyone on campus knows someone in the Nod."
Maybe the Nod can tell us more about that on Friday.