The early history of college radio has not been documented sufficiently and much of it is sequestered away in the archives of colleges and universities.
Last year I was thrilled to see Hugh Slotten’s book, Radio’s Hidden Voice: The Origins of Public Broadcasting in the United States, as it is one of the first publications to give credit to college radio pioneers in the very early days of radio.
Personally I’m invested in this, as I’ve done quite a bit of research to uncover the hidden history of radio at Haverford College, where I got my start in radio. Students at Haverford College built a radio station in the 1920s and achieved a great deal of press and attention for both the station and their radio experiments (including a chess match with Oxford students by radio).
While investigating the Haverford station’s history I’ve also run across a number of other histories of college radio stations, often compiled by students or staff members. One such history is Dave de Anguera’s book Ethereal Messages: A History of Beloit College Radio 1907-1994.
Radio experiments began at Beloit College with the arrival of Physics Instructor Charles Aaron Culver in 1907. During his time at the college he initiated pioneering work in radio and wireless, leaving in 1920 to join the faculty of Carleton College (where he was also instrumental in college radio). As Hugh Slotten pointed out in his interview with me, Beloit College held one of the earliest licensed stations at a small college, with WEBW, having its initial broadcast in October, 1924. Beloit’s current station, WBCR-FM, is still going strong today.
I reached out to Beloit College radio historian Dave de Anguera, as I thought he would be a perfect addition to the Radio Obsessives series here at Radio Survivor. From my own experience, I know what a challenge it is to dig through the archives of college radio stations, in which history is not necessarily documented all that methodically.
In his interview, Dave shares with me why he was inspired to research the history of radio at Beloit College, his take on how the trials and tribulations of college radio today are similar to its struggles in the past, and provides some perspective about the role of technology in college radio in 2010.
Jennifer Waits: What prompted you to research and write the history of radio at Beloit College?
Dave de Anguera: I’ve always loved radio and have been a lifelong history buff to boot. So, when I kept coming across information on WBCR’s history, and the fact that it stretched back so far, I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer and thus started investigating further. I eventually made a proposal to the college (with the support of Beloit College archivist Fred Burwell and Professor Carl Balson) for writing and publishing a book on the subject.
Jennifer: Can you give a quick snapshot of the history of radio at Beloit and why you think it’s a significant piece of college radio history?
Dave: Beloit College started experimenting with “wireless telegraphy” in 1907, established a wireless station a few years later, and eventually operated one of first college radio stations (WEBW) in the ’20s. After a hiatus during the Depression and World War II, a new carrier current station (WBWR) was constructed in the late ’40s. Eventually WBCR-FM was established in the mid-’60s, evolving from 10 to 100 watts in 1983, where it continues today. It’s important because they became involved very early on and (except in the ’30s and ’40s) have endured for so long. Also, the changes they went through reflected so much of what was happening in the larger world of radio.
Jennifer: What accomplishments do you think have set the Beloit College radio station(s) apart from others?
Dave: Being ahead of the game on radio experimentation, essentially due to Dr. Culver’s pre-WWI work. Of course, there were other colleges that did research on this, but for a small institution such as Beloit it was unusual, to my knowledge. Also the notoriety of operating two stations at once, twice during its history: Briefly in the late ’40s with a very early commercial FM station (WBNB) and a carrier current station, and later from the late ’60s through the early ’70s with WBCR-AM (somewhat sporadically) and WBCR-FM, which for the most part had separate programming.
Jennifer: What were some of the most interesting things that you learned during your research into the very early years of radio on campus?
Dave: How similar the budget woes, equipment snafus, and bureaucratic hassles were to what we were enduring at that time (late 1980s and early ’90s), and indeed, throughout its history. Also fascinating was how, due to the lack of federal regulations (at least early on), stations could broadcast as far as money and technology would allow: Even WEBW could be heard out in Cuba! And that such heavy and cumbersome equipment was at the same time so incredibly fragile.
Jennifer: Can you tell me a bit about Beloit College and the role that radio played on campus when you were there? Was it purely a student station or were community members also involved?
Dave: It’s a liberal arts college located in Beloit, Wisconsin (90 miles northwest of Chicago), with currently around 1250 students and over 100 full-time faculty. At the time I was there (1987-91), there was a great deal of student involvement – it was one of the biggest organizations on the campus. But there were also a number of djs from the town and surrounding areas (as well as Alumni), which was important to WBCR’s sense of diversity and community outreach.
Jennifer: Are students/DJs at the Beloit radio station aware of the lengthy history of college radio on campus?
Dave: Prior to the book’s release, there was apparently little knowledge of it. But now it seems that Ethereal Message’s objective of giving a sense of history to incoming students, at least those who become involved in WBCR, has been attained to some degree, judging by the feedback I’ve received.
Jennifer: Your history covers the years 1907 to 1994. Do you have any plans to update the history to include the last 16 years?
Dave: Not right now, but eventually I would like to find the time to update it. There are many developments – including the obvious technological ones – that need to be documented, and I’ve also been itching to make a number of improvements to what’s already been written, as I’m rather critical of my work.
Jennifer: Are you still involved with radio? Do you have connections to the current WBCR?
Dave: Not presently, though I’d love to get involved again in some manner. I still have an infatuation with radio, and listen to college and public stations quite often: I’m a fan of certain radio shows with an intensity most others reserve for television. I don’t currently have any direct connections to WBCR, aside from Fred Burwell, who is on the advisory board and does a summer program: Red With Purple Flashes (Wednesdays 6-8 pm CST) “Rare and obscure rock ‘n’ roll from the 1950′s-1960′s.” Listen in on www.beloit.edu/wbcr! It’s a great show, so by God I’m plugging it…
Jennifer: Why do you think college radio history hasn’t been fully documented?
Dave: College radio has a much lower profile than its commercial counterpart, due to the fairly constant turnover in personnel and the (usually) much shorter broadcast range. This (along with the relative inexperience of the staff) also results in a complete absence of well-known national and regional radio personalities, which many histories tend to focus on. This is unfortunate, as college radio’s history is a fascinating story waiting to be told.
Jennifer: Anything else you’d like to add?
Dave: Some friends of mine have expressed concerns (which I tend to share) about a dissipating interest in radio among college students, particularly due to the internet’s increasing demands on their attention. There’s also the growing reliance on “loop shows,” where pre-recorded material is used to fill air-time, thus taking away from the spontaneity that college radio has thrived on for so long (though it’s uncannily similar to the taped reel-reel programming that stations such as WBCR used in the 1950s). Still, many stations have utilized technology in more constructive ways, such as creating web sites for their stations and podcasting their shows. The key is for college radio to continue to embrace and evolve with the ever-changing technologies while maintaining its unique voice and independent spirit.
I couldn’t agree more! Thanks to Dave for chatting with me about the history of radio at Beloit College and for sharing some amazing archival photos.
Previous Radio Obsessive Profiles: