The Free-Form Era: The 1970's
The Free-Form Era: The 1970's
"Like so much artistic energy of that period, musical output was vibrant, vital, creative, 'pushing the envelope' as it were. WBCR was a real, although small, element of that energy/vitality for the campus." - Thomas Dickinson, '72
By the end of the 1960's (during which Culver died on January 19, 1969), the gap between the more conservative programming of the Sigma Pi's and the increasing popularity of the underground format had become distinct. The FM rock programming that had grown with the slow rise of FM had now become prevalent on WBCR. It was ironic, of course, that WBCR-AM had most of the rock programming while WBCR-FM broadcast primarily Classical and Public Affairs. However, in earlier years, Public Affairs broadcasts had covered a wide variety of issues. And the AM station had not gravitated immediately to the underground format: When it fired up again in 1967, most of the programming was a simulcast of the FM station. Commercial rock comprised the rest, gradually moving into the underground/free-form territory over the next three years. This overall change in programming (once again, with the exception of Public Affairs) might have taken longer had the Beloit Plan not existed. Up until the mid-1960's Beloit College was a heavily conservative campus, with most students from Wisconsin, Illinois, and other Mid-Western states, in that order. On June 17, 1962 the Chicago Tribune featured a lengthy article on Beloit College with the headline: "Beloit Leads Other Colleges in Conservatism - It Sets Pace on Campuses of Midwest." Although a shift in the social, political, and philosophical environment of Beloit College would have been inevitable (as at almost all other U.S. colleges and universities) by the early 70's, the Beloit Plan, with its innovative programs attracted a more diverse, liberal group of students, thus speeding up the process. This, in turn made an impact on WBCR.
Exactly when free-form - underground radio officially began at Beloit College is unclear, but the eventual change of guard from the Sigma Pi's to the underground advocates occurred during the 1969-1971 period. Bob Wieland: "About 1970, Michael Board introduced free-form radio in his '1847 Rogers Brothers Silver Plate' program. The more senior staffers were scandalized by his show." Randy Wynne, class of 1973, also credits Board: "Michael Board '72, campus activist, did a very creative program on Sunday nights where he adopted different personas (fundamentalist preacher, Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy, etc.) and satirized campus and national politics (Fall '69 and maybe before)." However, Wynne acknowledges Tom Keenan (as many do) for its institution: "Tom Keenan '72 was station manager around '71 and '72, and really established the underground - free-form sound (he had been an intern at WBCN)." It was Keenan's experience at the famous Boston underground station that inspired similar changes at WBCR.
Once the FCC had ruled in the mid-sixties that jointly owned FM and AM stations had to present different programming, FM stations began picking up on the more inexpensive material coming out - rock n' roll records. They shunned the Top Forty format for the more mature "underground" programming. A strict definition of the "underground sound" is near impossible, as there were many variations of it. Still, there were distinctive characteristics: The disc jockeys took on a more mellow, conversational tone of voice (similar to the pre-rock DJ's) and played songs over three minutes long as well as more non-singles oriented material. The segue, the method of overlapping the end of one song with the beginning of the next (connecting albums trough musical similarities) was used and the length of the music segments increased. Underground FM stations also gained popularity for promoting concerts, drug paraphernalia, and other hip sub-culture items.
Programming on WBCR-FM, according to Wynne, was, "in line with the time (60's state of mind) mostly underground rock n' roll, with some specialty shows emphasizing folk, Jazz (nights), and classical (afternoons). A little news was done; sports was covered only from an alternative angle. It was basically pretty wide-open and free-form, with DJ's having a lot of latitude. Inspiration was taken from such underground radio as WBCN, Boston...Loose, fun, friends, hippies, DJ's on drugs sometimes (of course, drugs on campus were everpresent). Station was irreverent...during '72 election coverage, I said we had a call from George McGovern - played "I'm a Loser" by the Beatles. During airing of a "Watergate" press conference we played "Liar Liar" and "Lies" on top of Nixon speaking. During '73 graduation week we played dedicafions, often pointed or satirical, to most members of the class." The Beloit Times, an underground student newspaper that ran from about the Summer of 1971 through the Fall of 1972, remarked, "...half the fun of listening to BCR is to hear the mistakes."
Carl Balson's role at the station remained much the same as it had been in 1957, in view of the times, as Kent Sidel, class of 1972, explains: "Carl Balson was the authority figure. I perceived him as the perfect Liberal Arts advisor with his 'just don't burn down Scoville Hall or call too loudly for violent overthrow of the government' attitude."
"Prof. Carl Balson was the heart and soul of the station," remembers Michael Kramer, class of 1974, "and really ran the station with the station manager and its board of directors. Censorship was our biggest problem - Carl was always concerned about those four letter words. With Carl's blessing, we shared control of the station. He would only get involved in 'freedom of speech' type issues and in equipment problems. Student government relations were not important." This last comment is echoed by Wynne: "It [WBCR] existed fairly autonomously. The Round Table at the time was an uptight, administration-mouthpiece type publication; WBCR was more freewheeling and free-spirited."
But there was friction over WBCR's programming course, as the December 7th, 1971 Round Table reported: "Other problems arose in the struggle for Jukebox radio versus 'free-form music' radio. On the one hand were the jukebox people who felt that requests were a God-given constitutional right as opposed to being 'requests.' On the other hand were the people who tried to do something original: to educate, introduce different music to their audience, or simply go crazy." (RT 12/7/71): The conflict was over two basic directions WBCR could take. One would have DJ's merely directing their shows to their friends, ignoring the town (and even the campus) listeners, playing the most familiar songs, and disregarding news and public affairs programming, thereby pandering to the lowest common denominator (musical jukebox). The other possibility would offer programming that exposed listeners to material that couldn't be heard on other radio stations. Balson was always strongly against the "musical jukebox" mentality, as were many students. Chuck Savage, class of 1976, gives his view: "Carl's complaint was that he didn't want to hear a musical jukebox...I kind of agreed with him, I always thought that the radio station should be somewhat challenging rather than just an ego-trip for people on the air...keeping it fresh"
In the Fall of 1971, WBCR made its first attempt at programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week for an entire semester. It lasted at least a year. However, the hours were held to 19 to 21 a day into the 1990's because it was difficult to find anyone to fill the early morning hours and even harder to keep an eye on those who did. Occasionally the 24 hours goal would be made again, with less than satisfactory (even disastrous) results, including DJ's not showing up for shows, extensive album theft, and anything else that can be imagined.
Among the concepts taken from WBCN was the institution of playlists, where programmers would keep a log of the songs that were played, including artist and album. "These playlists make the programmer more aware and concerned as to what kind of show he has played, and hopefully avoids repetition." (RT 3/14/72)
The AM station continued broadcasting, despite the usual transmitter and wiring problems, and the increasing emphasis on the FM station. An AM director position was created at least by 1969, to manage the programming when the station happened to be on the air.
Classical music (still on the FM station) was scaled back to three hours a day, seven days a week, landing a regular noon to three pm slot by 1973. A Classical director position was created in the Fall of 1971 to oversee the purchase of records and the placement of programmers. Classical shows were exploring different areas, especially "Ethno-Musicology," started that same Fall. The show, hosted by a faculty member, consisted of foreign traditional music, mainly from Africa and Asia "The Sunday show includes Japanese koto and shamisen recordings, tribal songs and drum selections from Africa, and many other collections of music of non-Western cultures." (RT 10/5/71)
Sports coverage decreased considerably at the turn of the decade, especially the away games, as Balson explains: "It got to a point where away games were simply too expensive, so we had to drop it. We tried for a while sending our guys in the same van as the team but we just couldn't save enough to cover the AT&T costs that shot way the hell up. We still did all the home games from Strong Stadium and the Field House...Once in a while someone would take a tape recorder to an away game and bring it back on a delay basis; but it was rare."
WBCR-FM's ten watt broadcasts were known to go beyond the campus; how far off, no one was absolutely sure, though by most accounts it went anywhere from three blocks to a mile into Beloit. Even more ambiguous was the off-campus listenership, if any. Did anyone tune-in? and if so, who were they, and what did they think of the broadcasts?
One of those listeners was Jack Hodge, who began listening to WBCR shortly after he moved to Beloit in January of 1970: "My brother had been living here for about a year and a half and he found it - just thumbing through the dial, word-of-mouth or whatever...I lived on 2364 Pioneer Drive - on the other side of Cranston - and we could just barely get it. It was really tough, but we could pick it up using certain radios, if you moved them just right - that's the way it was through most of the seventies...A lot of people listened in - usually more on the south end, since it was easier to pick it up there."
Feedback was infrequent, however, leaving the staff to come to different conclusions. Bob Wieland: "Most students and townspeople were unaware of the station since there was little attempt to publicize programming. After 1968, the AM station was merged with FM operations and we began an extensive campaign to build an audience. We posted handbills, promoted contests and made announcements in Commons. In town, we distributed lists of top tunes being played. Don's Records provided us with albums for the AM station."
Al Thurley expresses a similar sentiment: "Well, I don't know whether anyone, other than those that worked there, knew that the station even existed. When students were tuning to the AM rock stations in Chicago, and the residents of Beloit were probably listening to the two local AM stations, WGEZ and WBEL or the Chicago, Rockford, Janesville or Madison stations, there wasn't a large audience for a college 10 watter, way down at the end of the FM dial!
"We had an adequate relationship between us and the community. I recall when WBCR-FM was invited to a press conference at the Beloit fire station directly below Scoville Hall, I was assigned to cover it, and showed up with more radio equipment than the local AM radio stations! Maybe that's why the Beloit Fire Department used Scoville for practice when it was razed!"
Kent Sidel attributes the lack of town listenership to more of a cultural gap: "Beloit was a three station town - WBEL and WGEZ shared the commercial side which left WBCR the lone "underground" sound for the community. I know of no audience research done during the time, but given the strong anti-war sentiment on the campus and the equally strong anti-Hippie sentiment in the town, I can't imagine there were many townie listeners. This town-gown antipathy was illustrated for me when, as a reporter for WGEZ, I was required to buy a woman's wig and pin my long hair under it before being admitted to the police station each morning. Buildings literally were being blown up across the country, and the Beloit police were taking no chances with one of those Hippie college kids."
"I tried to involve the Beloit community as well as the student campus," says Michael Kramer. "It was tough to reach-out to the community as there was much distrust." Some of this distrust was unavoidable, as Carl Balson recalls in an incident that occurred downtown: "I remember one time when we were trying to promote the station; so I had this neat idea that I would go to all the stores that sold FM radios. I said, 'Look, you gotta tune to some station to demonstrate the radio, why not tune to us?'...I was in some guys' shop...I said, 'Here we are, we're on the air' and I tuned over to our channel just when a four letter word came whipping across the air waves - it was an abbreviation for firetruck - and the guy looked at me and I looked at him and I said, 'well that doesn't happen very often.' He said, 'well, it can't happen at all in my store.' That ended that project. I left the store and came back to the station...that person hasn't been on radio again as far as I know."
Jack Hodge, who remarks that "the early morning shows were really raw sometimes," recalls a similar episode about a late-morning broadcast: "It was around 1973...I was working in town at this cafeteria...It was up to me to choose the radio station we'd listen to, so I did a survey and of course I knew Beloit College would be the favorite choice - so that's what we had on. One day, at about 10:00, there were a lot of stuffed shirts in there. Here again, another one of these songs [with four-letter-words] came on - I recognized it - I was in the lounge at the time and took off running as fast as I could - it was bad. I didn't make it, I was just a few seconds too late. I was told that that was it - I had to find a different radio station. So we went for a month listening to something else and finally I tuned back in [to WBCR]"
But in spite of the town-gown strife, there were those who were more confident, like Thomas Dickinson: "Hip townies would tune in because they knew WBCR would play music more exotic and fringe than any other station - Fugs, Zappa, Beatles backwards, and other wild and weird stuff. We came in, remember, 2 weeks after Woodstock, and when Hendrix, Joplin, Doors, Allman Brothers, etc., were all alive and musically prodigious and prolific. Townfolk I knew liked the hip stuff, and the reliable Jazz and Classics as well." Hodge agrees: "A lot of the music broadcast on WBCR is the same situation that's out there right now - a lot of people didn't know who they [the artists] were - and that was one of things that made Beloit College Radio so interesting."
Although Carl's efforts in town were not all that successful, the students still appreciated his help in keeping the station going, as Dickinson explains: "Much credit and gratitude must go to Carl Balson, who, on a shoe-string budget, with his own technical wizardry, persistence and enthusiasm, made all this possible for so many students. Carl is without a doubt, the godfather of WBCR. He kept it going through thick and thin, and like a good car mechanic, was up to his ears in tubes and wires.
"I remember wandering through Scoville Hall just before it was bulldozed down and thinking how sad that old WBCR wasn't there anymore. But Carl had seen to its continued existence, and a new home in Haven Hall."
From One Basement to Another: The Move to Haven
"It was a pit. But a friendly pit. Makeshift shelves, exposed wiring, albums all over the place, Salvation Army furniture. It was great." - Arthur Thexton, class of '72, on the Scoville WBCR
Scoville Hall, built in 1888, was in bad shape. Although many at WBCR looked fondly upon the building's decaying status, the studios were, as Kent Sidel remembers, "Dirty and unkempt. It demonstrated rule number one of sound broadcasting: radio audiences never see the studios (which was a good thing). It was years later before I understood that this appearance was carefully maintained by most college radio stations to depict the 'alternative' sound the station was trying to project." True, the wretched conditions were partly due to students who preferred it that way, but the building was in such a horrible state that almost nothing could be done with it, as Carl Balson explains: "We were below ground - when you stood up and looked out of my window then you would look at ground level...it was quite chilly from that point of view - they [the college] didn't care about heat down in the bottom of Scoville - because there was nothing important down there...except the radio station. There were times when you were in there with your overcoat. Yes, there was a heater and that clanked...There was a lot of dust and dampness so equipment suffered. A water pipe burst and we got flooded down there. Luckily it missed a lot of key equipment but some of it went, so we had to replace stuff." WBCR's neighbors were not much of a help either: "The first floor was the music department, so right above us was always someone practicing. So you would flip on the mike and hope that no one was going to start blasting a tuba or piano or whatever."
The building had violated a number of fire codes since the late 50's, but no one had taken the code violations seriously. Classes were still held, and of course, WBCR still operated out of the basement. Carl Balson: "Where we were was safe because we were down with all the brick in the basement. But the rest of the building, the interior parts, were all wood, very old wood." By the early 70s the Fire Department made a move, after having let regulations slide for about 15 years. "The building was so old, so rotten, in such condition...the Fire Department sits at the bottom of the hill, Scoville sits at the top of the hill. Everyone knew that the Fire Department could not get from the bottom of the hill to the top of the hill to save anyone if that building were to catch on fire - obviously they had to condemn the thing; so we had to move, thank goodness!"
But where could the station go? Originally WBCR was to relocate to part of the proposed "South-end Complex," (a project that was eventually aborted by 1975) but the Fire Department insisted that everyone move out by the Fall of 1973 (when Scoville was to be razed), long before the complex was to be completed. A more permanent location was needed. The basement of Whitney and the upper level of Morse-Ingersoll were considered, but the top floor of Pearsons (WEBW's old haunt) seemed to be the best bet. After all, Balson's temporary office was to be in Pearsons, so why not WBCR? "There was a period of time for the college when it was uncertain as to what was going to happen to Pearsons," says Balson. "Departments were moving out. The building was being systematically closed down; so that there were very few of us in the building for a while." After 1967, when the Science Division moved to the newly-built Chamberlin Hall, Pearsons quickly fell into disrepair, becoming a transient accommodation for various college departments and activities. "But alas, the eagle-eyes of the Fire Department have spotted code violations here too: there's no fire escape. Actually two would be needed, one for each end of the floor. The estimated cost is $12,000." and as the April 4, 1972 Round Table article added, "Getting $12,000 from the finance-conscious administration is about as likely as running into a delicious meal at Slater's Food Palace." So in Mid-December of 1972, when it became clear that Pearsons was simply not available, WBCR filed for a new location with the FCC.
"Haven was available," Balson recalls. "They didn't have a pressing need for it at that time, especially at the south end there. We only took up just a little bit of space." WBCR moved to the dormitory during the winter break, and the FM station resumed broadcasting on January 26th, 1973. "We lost a little bit in terms of storage," Balson explains. "That became a problem again. We were crowded with the office space for the students. But it wasn't too bad. We occupied the ground level floor at the south end of Haven. It was warmer...a little bit dryer when the pipes didn't burst." Flooding was one unfortunate characteristic that Haven shared with Scoville. The first pipe burst early that June. "When the water came down, it came into other areas than where the equipment was," remembers Balson, "If it had hit the equipment we would have lost everything - that was a little hairy. We were in there with the buildings and grounds crew and they said that we have got to get over to that wall and unplug all that stuff - but to get there you were going through ankle deep water. You think, well, this could be it...you know, we are going to die here as soon as we touch something."
Carl Balson recalls one direct result of the move: "It changed my life some because I was no longer at the station. In the early days in Scoville, I could see out of my office window into the control room. Everything that happened at the radio station was directly in my view and earshot. Now I was removed, with my office in Pearsons Hall. For me to pay attention to the radio station, I had to go over to Haven. That worked out pretty well. It wasn't as immediate but it didn't matter too much. The students even then had taken on an attitude of protecting the station and trying to make it work as well as it could."
Storage and office space was lacking, but studio space had increased: "We were at a point of time (late 60s through early 70s) where there were more of the radical students who had things to say, who wanted to communicate with the public. So the station became more important for the students from that point of view - it was a way to reach more people. We would bring people in to Haven Hall from the community who wanted to debate issues. We did a lot better with public service programming in Haven than we ever had the opportunity to do over at Scoville because we just had the space for it."
Programming at Haven
Comfortably set in its new home, WBCR continued its mission. The approach of the first few years of the 70s remained intact through the rest of the decade. "The general atmosphere at the station," describes Chris Simer, class of '79, "was mixed seriousness and a very fun attitude: all you needed to be a DJ was an exhibitionist streak a mile long and the desire to inflict your musical tastes on your fellow Beloiters, so everyone involved in the station was a little whacked out. Knowing that with 10 watts you would hardly reach off campus, the WBCR family was reasonably tight knit...However, the average WBCR DJ or board member took their work seriously, kept the logs correctly, filled out the playlists, and for many of us used our experience as a springboard to trying out broadcasting as a career."
Although "The [board] meetings were always a hoot - a lot of it was a great deal of gossip...," Chuck Savage adds, "the Board always had an agenda...helping programmers to improve as much as you could without being too obnoxious." As Cameron Murray, class of 1980 puts it, "Very relaxed for DJs, quite hectic for board." The institution of the 19 hour-a-day schedule, (longer and more stable compared to continuous changes in broadcasting hours from term to term in the 1960s) required a different system for choosing and training programmers. Eric May, class of 1979, describes part of the procedure: "As far as the programming goes, it was all decided at the beginning of each term. Students would sign up to work and fill out a form indicating their music preference and abilities. Then the music and program directors would get together and fill out a schedule for the week, trying to decide which program would work best. The typical show at that time ran about two hours. We broadcast from 6 or 7 am until 2 am during the week, and ran a shorter schedule on the weekends."
"You always had a body of students you could draw on...," explains Savage. "We also had auditions - to audition new talent early in the semester for the people that didn't have any experience. First you'd train them; that was always a big deal. Then you'd give them an opportunity to come in and audition: read copy and play some music...see what the personalities were like and how they sounded over the air. That had a big influence on determining how political things were too..." Heath Miller, class of 1975, describes the testing procedure: "Before anyone could be assigned an air shift, technical competence with the equipment had to be demonstrated. Training and practice sessions were set up. A board member was on hand during each session to answer questions and help out when needed.
"The test consisted of demonstrating to the board member that the prospective DJ knew how to use the turntables, cart machines and microphones properly. A number of potential DJ's complained about the test when it was started, but it did cut down on damage to the equipment. Also, the station sounded smoother during the first couple of weeks of each term. We always sounded like a college station, no matter what. I don't remember exactly whose idea the testing procedure was, but I think that it did a lot of good for the station."
Although the move to Haven had few direct consequences on station operations, it nonetheless served as a milestone for changes that were occurring: "In the last year, WBCR has moved away from the idea that rock and roll music is the only thing that a college audience will listen to. Aside from the image that this gives the station in the Beloit community, it is the purpose of an educational station to expose its listeners to new forms of music. The decision to turn over the late night format of FM programming to specialty forms of music, i.e. Jazz, soul, blues, country and western, was a decision about which we received a lot of flak from our listening audience. Those complaints have tended to die down as listeners have become more knowledgeable about the music that they were hearing." (RT 1/22/74) On a nationwide scale, this shift to a more explicitly eclectic format seemed ironic. Commercial FM underground radio had mostly disappeared by the mid-70s, replaced by the more conservative AOR (Album Oriented Radio) stations. However, many college stations (like WBCR) had adopted a diverse arrangement in an attempt to broaden the musical frontiers of their programming, their DJ's, and especially their listeners. The free-form format was expanding to the point where a variety of musical genres would be played during a single show. More emphasis in particular was placed on Jazz, as Savage explains: "Several people on the board were really into Jazz and pushed that whole concept of having much more regular Jazz programming, which was kind of radical. Jazz, unless it was specialty Jazz, had previously been regulated to late night. And unless you had a specialty program you could really play anything you wanted to."
How active were departments such as Public Affairs, News, and Sports? Savage explains: "That always varied from term to term depending on the interest and the energy of the Directors of those departments." This statement sums up very clearly the roles of the WBCR staff in the seventies, eighties and nineties: As the size and scope of WBCR's operations increased, of course so did the responsibility that went along with it. The director positions became even more important, and more vulnerable to neglect, because the departments were more at the mercy of those involved. A director could effectively "make or break" a department for that semester.
Sports coverage, although not an official "department" was at a low point during the 70s. "I think we would broadcast from the football field on very rare occasions," explains Simer. "We did give the intramural softball competitions in Summer Term considerable emphasis, with professional wrestling style interviews with the managers of the teams. For example, we would have the manager of Twenty Beds to Mecca (one softball team) meet with the manager of Capitol Punishment and discuss the big game they were to play: 'These lousy bums don't stand a chance! Mecca's team are such cake eaters, if they needed to shave they would use miracle whip.'" Carl Balson attributes the lack of coverage to poor equipment: "It wasn't a big deal...we didn't have any really neat equipment. There would be a lot of hum and we weren't too clever about it - Not that the interest was low, but just that it was very difficult for us." Savage, however, expresses a feeling that was commonplace in the 70s: "We didn't broadcast the football games for the most part...during my whole era Sports wasn't taboo but it just wasn't popular."
While the News Department was certainly in better shape, it would often swing between periods of great activity and great apathy. The most pressing concern by far was the news-reading itself. "Learning how to read news copy over the air is one of the most difficult skills a college programmer has to master. Accordingly, the only way for a newscaster to get more confidence is to get more practice. The management of the station is aware that there is a problem with some of the less-experienced newscasters, however we have found that the better newscasters can work their way out of their nervousness." (RT 1/22/74) A newscast course was set up in January of 1975 to help deal with the problem, as Chuck Savage relates, "Typically you'd listen to somebody reading news and you'd cringe and turn it off because they didn't know how to pronounce names." But at least the station was well supplied, according to Simer: "Copy was provided from a UPI feed, a pirated Mutual News Network tap (this got us into some trouble, and we had to remove it), copy delivered by subscription to the station, including the Zodiac News Service (sort of a counter cultural news blurb service, on its blue sheets we would get stories on dope laws, news of the weird, anti-government editorials, lifestyle notes from groovy hipsters across the land)."
The "Special Events" Department, created in the late fifties, was discontinued at the start of 1974, its activities absorbed by the Public Affairs Department. Now Public Affairs consisted not only of the interviews, debates and discussions it was known for, but also encompassed a grab-bag of programming, including live concerts, radio drama, comedy acts, and "album of the week" shows. One of the more prominent of the Public Affairs shows was "Equal Time" (1972-1975). Hosted by Max Tudor, the College Chaplain, the show focused on college and community affairs.
The move to Haven also served as a milestone for the involvement of women at WBCR. Although women had been involved since WBWR's existence, their roles at the station were limited. Over the course of the sixties more women were able to become programmers, but significant progress was not made until the next decade, when the number of women programmers increased: "At the start (1969)," Dickinson recalls, "it seemed mostly guys were "on-air", but by '74-'75, more women had shows, which was great - you began to hear more Holly Near, Bonnie Raitt, Chris Williamson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell, as a result." Women were also attaining board positions, with the first woman station manager, Peggy Robinson, in the summer of 1973. Public Affairs shows paid more attention to women's issues, and women's shows started showing up around 1973.
While the importance of women at Beloit College Radio increased by the mid-70's, the role of WBCR-AM was in a state of serious decline. When the FM station first went on the air, there were still a great number of people who only owned AM radios, so WBCR-AM was kept alive. But by the time the two stations were transferred to Haven, FM radios were more common. This decreased the need for AM, which was fine by Carl Balson: "We maintained the AM for those who didn't have FM radios. It wasn't any big deal but we didn't keep that very long because it was an awful system to maintain, just terrible."
"The AM program director - what a sad job!", Chuck Savage recalls, "Nobody wanted to do AM - it was just hopeless in how it worked. I don't know anybody that ever listened to it, it was crazy. And that's why we got rid of it - it was just a drain on our resources. At first, it was such a huge student body and so many people were interested in it that for a lot of people it was better than nothing; it was also a good testing ground for new programmers." And so, after years of irregular broadcasting, WBCR-AM limped to a dead stop in late 1974.
WBCR-FM continued to have a good relationship with the campus, as Savage remembers: "The response was really good - people listened to BCR, there was no question about that: it was a good alternative. There were plenty of students that didn't have stereo systems or record players, so they had to listen to the radio - in fact I think that was part of the thing that when there was AM there were people that didn't have FM radios either so that was their sole source of musical entertainment." As to whether there were any listeners in town, still no one could quite agree. Savage feels that it barely existed at all: "We tried to do some promotion in town and always thought that we were doing a good thing - providing an alternative and so forth. But typically the people that would be interested in what 'BCR was programming by and large didn't exist in Beloit - the people of that age bracket were listening to hard rock..." Chris Simer felt otherwise: "I know the townies would listen in, as nearly every late night programmer would take requests, and often non-students would call in some. As far as the town was concerned, many of the teens appeared to like to listen to the station. It was one of the few sources for music outside the mainstream that was available at the time.
"We also had a following among some of the classical fans in the area. One of them...subsidized the classical collection of the station. He would, in return, for first play taping rights, provide the dollars to purchase classical recordings." That person was Bill Kepplinger, who donated albums from 1973 through a good portion of the decade, as Balson remembers: "He was very interested in Classical music and we were playing Classics at the time when WHA, WERN was not...He decided he would help us out and so he and his firm, a cement company, decided to donate money. He would come in and make selections, (he knows Classics very well) and we relied on him to get the best and the latest records. It was a marvelous deal for all of us. He got to hear the music that he wanted to hear on the radio, we got our Classical record collection built up and helped to develop the interest in Classical records. It got to the point that he and his company simply couldn't afford it anymore, so he reluctantly had to withdraw."
Classics wasn't the only area able to boost its collection. In the Fall of 1971 the Music Director position was established to obtain albums and maintain the increasing record library. "It was mostly," recalls Savage, "depending on the person, a matter of dealing with the new stuff that came in, filling in niches, ordering new records, then previewing some of it and putting it out to listen to. You didn't put out albums that you thought were horrible that you didn't want people to play, but at the same time you did want to give them a choice. You couldn't put all the new material out there because they would just be overwhelmed..." Although there was some record company servicing, many of the station's albums had to be bought or ordered. "I don't think there was a lot of telephoning with the record companies. There was Billboard, and Billboard had Pop. They didn't have anything specific to College programming or playlists. We were kind of like the minor leagues in a sense, the testing ground for new groups that occasionally made it big."
"The Music Director usually felt that more money needed to be used to purchase albums, etc." Miller explains "The station received a good many promotional copies, but not all the record companies sent out the stuff that we needed to program the variety of music." And even though the library was growing, it still only made up a small portion of what was played, as Simer explains: "Djs usually played 50-75% of their shows from their own lp collection, and it was very typical to see programmers trudging along carrying their stacks of albums to play in their two hour and three hour slots." A large part of the problem was theft.
"Four records stolen from WBCR-FM were found yesterday in underclassman [name deleted]'s room. __ had no excuse for having the records. He was promptly fired from his job at the station, and charges may be filed against him. Radio Station Manager Tom Keenan suspected __ of having stolen records when some were noticed missing shortly after __'s 3-6 day morning show. Keenan checked out __'s room and found four radio station records...__ had tried to peel off the radio station labels and had colored the inner labels as to make them appear store-bought. But Tom knew what he was looking for, and he was not fooled. The problem of stolen records has plagued WBCR-FM throughout the station's existence." (Beloit Times, 11/4/71) Theft at WBCR had started not too long after the record collection began to bloom in the late 60s, but became an even greater problem once the station had moved to Haven. "Record theft was always a big thing," Savage recalls. "Haven had an exit door (where the station was) leading right outside - there really wasn't much you could do to stop it...The Jazz collection was good; it wasn't as popular so people didn't rip off Jazz records..."
Unfortunately WBCR could never afford any security devices to prevent theft, so board members had to revert to putting the "Fear of Death" into the hearts of students (including programmers) and failing that, staging rescue missions to get the albums back. Some claimed that the tactics used were of the "witch-hunt" variety, but one thing was for sure, theft was not tolerated, and just about any means would be used to get station property back. Eric May: "Huge stacks of records would disappear from our studios. One time we got a tip that one of our disc jockeys was stealing. He worked a late night shift and myself and two other radio board members waited on the back porch of Haven Hall for him to come out of the station. When he walked out with station records, we took them away from him and fired him (not prosecuted, though. That didn't occur to us.) Theft was a constant problem there. Some equipment, including a new TEAC cassette deck was stolen from the Haven Hall studios."
Another problem was obscenity, as May adds: "Occasionally a disc jockey would say things that weren't acceptable to even the very loose standards of college radio. I remember getting complaints about one such person, and listening to him one Sunday morning, obscenities and all. This person was fired as well."
Carl Balson: "Especially the late night students, when they knew that they had a little more freedom - that I wasn't listening or something - were playing a lot more radical stuff and saying outrageous things but no one got terribly excited. They understood that students and a lot of other people were protesting this that and the other and trying to find a new identity for themselves. We tried to keep a reasonable lid on it - it was the same story: you always had to answer eventually to the FCC. If you alienated too many people in the community, letters would be sent and phone calls would be made. We were able to avoid that for the most part." But when they couldn't..."There was one incident during my tenure as Program Director where Carl exercised his authority," remembers Miller. "The sign-on programmer made a bad judgement call during his selection of music. I, Carl and the campus population listening at that hour woke up to a song whose lyrics contained various obscenities...I immediately called the station to tell the DJ to get the song off the air. I found that Carl had beaten me to the phone. The DJ told me that he had just gotten off the phone with Carl who, using more colorful language than I did, had told him the same thing. That was the only time that Carl 'interfered' with my duties as Program Director."
Interference from other areas, such as the college administration, was rare, if at all, as Simer mentions: "The Administration would occasionally call the Station Manager on the carpet to voice concern over too much obscenity." This applied to the student government as well. In 1969, the government was rebuilt as Community Senate, to provide more student involvement in college affairs, and to better organize the government itself. The old radio board (not to be confused with the WBCR student Board of Directors) of the fifties and the Publications Committee merged to form the newly-created Communications and Publications Committee, Com-Sen's contact to the Round Table, The Gold, WBCR, and other campus media. Since the Round Table was always the center of attention (or controversy, as it were), the radio station was usually ignored, which was just fine with the WBCR staff. The WBCR Board was always able to handle its own affairs, so considered only minimal contact necessary.
The main exception was funding, as Com-Sen was the station's main source of finances. Up through the late sixties WBCR's budget was always meager, usually under one grand a year. By 1971 WBCR received about $1800 a year (the fiscal year was Fall through Summer). The next year when the station requested $6,665 for the 72-73 period, the Com-Sen Budget Committee decided that a change was in order and allotted them $5,500. "The committee felt that the station has been getting the short end of the stick for many years now." (Budget Committee minutes). Through the rest of the seventies WBCR's budget was to remain above the six thousand dollar level. However, it was barely enough to scrape by on, made more difficult by major inflation and Beloit College's budget crisis in the second half of the seventies. Funds for station growth and the upgrading of equipment (except in emergencies) were virtually unobtainable.
"Our relations with student government seemed okay to me," Simer explains. "We always needed money, and when I broadcasted at WBCR, we only had the generated power of 10 watts ("Less powerful than the average light bulb, this is WBCR, 88.1 FM in Beloit"), so a long range desire was to beef up the power. Also, Martin Security guards (the only people with keys to our offices other than radio board members) were long suspected of ripping off our latest albums, which were kept locked away from the main stacks, so this was a drain on the budget. However, when something really disastrous happened: like when the production studio blew up, or the day the transmitter tower blew down in a windstorm, the cash for some ad hoc repairs would be there." WBCR was able to raise money of its own as well, as Eric May recalls: "Periodically we held fund raisers for the station to buy equipment or records. We held two of these as I recall in conjunction with The Round Table. The first one was held in a basement at either Bushnell or Blaisdell Hall...hundreds of people packed into a sweaty cavern with music provided by 'famous' WBCR D.J.'s. The next one we held was more serene, and less well attended, in the safer confines of the student union.
"Equipment was not replaced on a regular basis, indeed we had basically the same set-up all five years I was associated with the station. It was pretty trashed by the time that era was over. One year (1977) the tower above Haven Hall blew over in a windstorm. Repairing that, as I recall, took the entire year's remaining budget for the station." There was a lack of student engineers throughout the seventies, but some improvements were made possible. "Part of my big project was building a decent productions studio in the old AM part of the station," Savage remembers, "so we picked up a 8-channel mixing board and a couple of new turntables and a nice Teac deck and also had the Crown reel to reels...The record shelves were old metal shelves that were typically sort of wired together and unstable. I basically reinforced the shelves with wood."
"The equipment we had," explains Simer, "was a polymorphous assemblage of cart players, an archaic mono board, a three station turntable set, a two mike news room, a listening room (a closet) with a cheesy mono record player, a separate office in Haven crammed with new albums, correspondence and esoteric trash, a 10 watt transmitter, and a production facility that looked like it was wired by a dyslexic pasta maker. We had two reel to reels and a 4 track mixing board in production, where our numerous id and Public Affairs carts were taped."
"Earlier on I think the programming was more interesting - the people were more eclectic. Towards the end of it [late 70s] the programming in a sense almost became a little more commercial. There weren't quite the variety of weird characters - you loved it or you hated it - it wasn't just background music. It's like a mosaic or a quilt: Some great stuff and some bad stuff." - Chuck Savage
Although the programming format was still free-form, there were differences in the music that was played, as Simer explains: "The period of the late seventies found the Beloit student body listening habits at considerable variance with the disco music then, sadly, of vast popularity. Reaction against disco, in the pre-New Wave days of the late seventies, generated much programming of early Motown for dancing purposes...(I remember 'I Second That Emotion' playing at every dance for two years), early and late 60s music...much folk music, as defined, Joni Mitchell was a big favorite...Bob Dylan was very, very big. With the popularity of Lady Sings the Blues, Billie Holiday was very in demand. All types of Jazz, especially 50's and 60's Jazz were quite popular too.
"One rather interesting event was when WBCR got the first copy of the Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks album in the Midwest (I had it sent to me from a student on study in London). You must remember that the barrenness of the commercial popular stations in the era of disco was even more stark than today (I know it is hard to imagine), with Lionel Richie and the Bee Gees drumming into your head twenty four hours a day. The news that something new was happening in Great Britain was rumored, but no one knew what Punk really was. Progressive stations in Chicago had gotten hints about the extreme sound of the Pistols, but had no copies. WBCR started playing the album, and soon we were getting phone calls from programming directors in Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago [wanting] to buy our copy. I guess we scooped them. No sale."
By the late 70s, the Productions Department had come into its own. Now occupying the old AM studio and with some more equipment of its own, interest increased as more students found in it a new creative outlet, as Eric May remembers: "We also had to run station identifications at the top of every hour. This minor requirement led to one of the best experiences I ever had at WBCR. A few of us would gather in the middle of the night (sometimes after serious pondering on the meaning of life at the coffee house) at the production studio at WBCR. Then we would make our own station I.D.'s...ranging from the combat I.D. (battle sound effects) the punk rock I.D. (Sex Pistols and sounds of smashing things up) stream of consciousness I.D. (sounds of urinating in WBCR toilet-very mature)." This inspired some to take the concept even further by lampooning the administration, as May adds: "This eventually led to full-fledged radio vignettes and satire which mocked (as only college minds can) the hypocrisies around us: 'The Last Summer Term' 'Bob and Bob Comedy Moments' and our satirical fun poking at the Dean of Beloit, Greg Fahlund and the Director of Information Services at that time, someone named Karl Gutknecht. As I recall the administration wasn't all that pleased by this and of course we loved that. But the atmosphere at the station allowed us to do it all without censorship or threat." More detail is given by Simer:
"There was one major flap when Eric May (Station Director), Warren Harshbarger and I did a series of 'Public Affairs Announcements' which were radio plays highly critical of Dean Fahlund and the process of ending the Beloit Plan, and terminating the Summer Term (this was during the dark days of 1978, when Beloit was undergoing financial pressures beyond belief. The student body was quite agitated when the year round schedule was dropped and the famous Beloit Plan died). They really had a cow on these 4 minute skits in Middle College: they were quite popular with the students, and we did a couple of them featuring 'Dean Greg' and a private eye character searching for the lost summer term, running afoul of Karl Gutknecht, Reichsfuhrer for Public Enlightenment, and 'Mysterious Martha' (Beloit President). Then we did the depressing 'Last Summer Term' id which put Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary as background music for a lamentation of the last summer term. That one ticked the Administration off too, as I recall. However, it should be said that the Administration allowed phenomenal anarchy to go on in the station, feeling (correctly) that the student leaders elected every quarter would keep things from getting too out of hand."
"The FCC would never approve our station as it was. We have to be more responsible." - Jeff Geer, from a October 26, 1979 Beloit Daily News Article
Besides the fall of the Beloit Plan, 1978 also saw new FCC regulations appear. Fifty years after the FRC's first crackdown on the over-population of the airwaves (which had severely damaged college radio), the FCC was planning to get rid of the 600-odd 10-watt stations, almost all of which were college stations. "NPR [National Public Radio] wants them out of the way in order to fill out its network and reach 100 percent of the population. The NFCB [National Federation of Community Broadcasters], even though some of its members are 10-watters, wants them out of the way, too. It feels the spectrum space could be better used." (Radio in the Television Age, p.180). There was also a problem with stations at the low end of the FM band interfering with nearby [TV] channel 6's, as Balson explains: "The FCC was having too much trouble with people down where we were at 88.1. The channel six's around the country were complaining. And it wasn't just 88.1. There were a lot of low wattage stations also. The FCC decided that maybe it was time to clean all that out. That sort of spurred us on - we always wanted more power - so I went to the college, armed now with the FCC directives, saying, 'this is what they are going to do. They are going to come down on stations like us that are only 10 watts and close to a channel 6 - we're pretty vulnerable.'" Not only was a boost in power and a change of frequency necessary, but as Balson was quoted in the November 30, 1978 Round Table: "We will have to clean up our act because the FCC will naturally be paying a lot more attention to us."
Now that WBCR was at a crossroads, changes would have to be made. In order to appeal to the FCC for the wattage and frequency change (and thus, WBCR's very survival), station regulations and programming would have to be tightened up. "We had gone to a form of radio which was then called 'free form,'" Balson explains. "The FCC didn't like it because it had no form at all...At that time one of our graduates worked for the FCC and he would call just to chat (my heart would stop when they would say, 'FCC calling'). He would say, 'what are you doing, now' and I would say, 'we are doing a lot of free form programming.' He would say, 'Oh, God!, don't tell me that - the FCC gets very upset about that'...I never liked it. It suited people because when you are working at a college station and have a lot of volunteers, people come in and play what they want to play and someone else would come in and play what they want to play; so you were all over the place...If you were supposed to be there at 10:00 you would be there at 10:00 but you played what you wanted to at 10:00. If you were into Jazz one week that's fine - the next week you might be into Country/Western - the next week you might be into Funk. There was no rhyme or reason to any of it. It made for interesting listening, I suppose, but there was no audience build up or loyalty. I liked to build audience loyalty. You've got Classics people, then they know when the Classics are...when the Jazz is...etc. We made the attempt. I convinced some students and they were of a mind to, 'ok, dammit, we are going to organize this place...we are going to have certain times of the day when this music is played and certain times of the day when something is played.'" Thus, in the Fall of 1979, the new Program Director, Jeff Geer, eliminated the free-form format, instituting a strict "block" schedule (where one type of music is played at a certain time every day) in its place. A wave of protest ensued.
"The healthy variety of past years has been replaced by a slick and vapid 'professionalism,'" declared an angry letter in The Round Table. It wasn't just the end of the 70s format that was brewing controversy. There were staff cuts, in particular the abolishing of substitute programming. "Whenever a substitution is made, Jeff Geer does a show. In fact, it is understood that Geer arbitrarily removes programmers in order to get his fill of airtime," one letter claimed. "It is substitute programming that often times is the cause for many of WBCR's 'in house' problems. This is simply because substitute programmers are usually not aware of station policy or technically proficient," Geer wrote in a letter to Carl Balson.
Many changes were made in the News Department, including a new station policy whereby news had to be read at the top of every hour. According to Geer's letter to the Round Table, "News programming is a very important part of our schedule because we are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission as a 'non-commercial educational station.' As such, WBCR should strive to present to the students at Beloit College and anyone else listening a truly serious and informative news program." (RT 10/15/79) Although Geer claimed otherwise, there were complaints that WBCR was purposely ignoring certain genres of music: "Mr. Geer has decreed that we are only to be allowed disco, Jazz, rock, and classics; and if he had his way, he would flush classical music down the same drain to which other forms of music have been dumped," wrote Martin Morse Wooster in the October first Round Table. Geer responded in the October 15 issue: "WBCR is not airing a Jazz-Rock-Disco format. WBCR plays predominantly three types of music: Classical, Jazz, and Rock. Folk, Country & Western, and Light Rock fill out the rest of our musical format." Geer's mission was, simply: "...an 'across the board' programming format with two goals in mind: to broadcast what the Beloit College community wants to hear, while simultaneously giving the Beloit community another responsible radio station." (RT 9/25/79) And as he remarked in the October 26, 1979 two-page Beloit Daily News article: "I think changes in anything at Beloit College are almost bitterly rejected. There are many people here who just want things to stay the way they are. It's unusual. I think they're a minority, however." WBCR had made changes in the previous ten years, but this drastic restructuring (in many ways a return to the stricter organization of the sixties) was a shock to those who were accustomed to the seventies WBCR. However, the new format endured.
The conflicts that highlighted the Fall of '79 would continue to appear throughout the next fourteen years, with WBCR searching for a niche between the professionalism of the sixties and the "free-form" of the seventies.