Carrier Current Redux: 1954 - 59
"It was exciting - It was primitive and simple but at the same time it was our little cubbyhole down there. It was kind of a clubby atmosphere because it was like a student club. It didn't feel yet like a real radio station since it wasn't a full time operation - It was like a child at that point. It lacked the maturity of a full fledged real broadcast station that is on the air from morning to night. I guess that was the main drawback, maybe, but in a sense you have to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run. We were the first couple of steps." - Chris Albright
Throughout most of 1954 and 1955, while plans were made to revitalize the radio station, (and while the college changed Presidents) the Beloit College Radio Players continued their work over WGEZ, which also handled the Basketball broadcasts. By November of '55, a "new club," WBCR (Workshop of Beloit College Radio) was formed. Chris Albright, '60, who attended Beloit from 1954-56, and 1958-1960, explains: "We didn't broadcast at all. At the beginning it was truly just a work shop. We continued to use the old call letters which had been standing for 'Workshop of Beloit College Radio' but we were just producing programs on a more or less individual basis - At one point I guess I can modestly say that I and a couple of friends were the workshop. We were doing a series of programs that were played on the two radio stations in town - WGEZ and WBEL." Radio drama was still a viable commodity then, as Peter Maiken, class of 1955, recalls, "TV hadn't quite swept it all away, and of course comedy and variety shows were still on the airwaves, mostly courtesy of CBS and NBC. WGEZ, I think, was Mutual, which didn't have much entertainment appeal, so they probably welcomed having something other than country music to go against Jack Benny, or whomever we were slotted against.
"Students made sound effects any way they could - from plumber's helpers on the chest for horses hooves, to gutteral gargles for motorized effects. We made our music from an assortment of a dozen or so 78 r.p.m. albums of music (each generally missing at least 1 record from earlier breakage), Stravinsky, Ravel, etc. It was by no means professional radio drama, but everyone had fun doing it."
On May 11, 1956, The Round Table announced: "Saturday, May 13, is going to be 'wire day' on campus. This will involve the laying of about 3000 feet of coaxial cable plus about another 1000 feet of 'two wire twist' for the campus radio network. This coax will connect all the residential buildings on campus with the transmitter...All students are urged to assist in helping to put in insulators, climbing trees, crawling through heating tunnels, digging trenches, drilling holes in window frames, etc. for the installation." If this sounds familiar, it was because by this time it became clear that an FM station was not possible, for a few reasons. The most obvious was the supposed lack of money needed to purchase the necessary equipment for such a station. Supposed, because when money did become available, the College administration decided not to let it go where it was intended. This occurred in November of 1954, when the mother of Roger Sherman (a Beloit College student who died in the Korean War) made a donation of $1,000 (possibly for an FM transmitter) to the station as a memorial to her son who had been active in WBWR. The college instead channeled it elsewhere, provoking an angry letter to the Vice-President from the Theater department on November 8:
"Dear Mr. Wood:
"Naturally, the faculty of the Speech department was considerably alarmed and displeased by receipt of the carbon copy of your letter to Mrs. Roger Sherman with regard to her proposed gift to the radio station. It seems to us that you are ignoring our interests and needs completely when you attempt to channel the proposed gift to the student union instead of the radio station which was Mrs. Sherman's intended recipient, apparently with some good reason.
"We should like to remind you again that WE DO HAVE A RADIO STATION NOW, even though we don't have the FM station which was considered last year. You seem to have forgot that fact in your letter to Mrs. Sherman.
"The teaching of radio has always been our principal concern...The present radio station is desperately in need of new equipment if we are to continue to have classes and broadcasts of high caliber...According to your letter to Mrs. Sherman, it would seem that the gift she suggested was to be made to the radio station per se, without any mention of the purchase of the FM transmitter. Naturally, we would like to see that gift come to the radio station as suggested.
"So this letter is written to remind you that we HAVE a radio station at present, have had one since 1947, and that it needs new equipment for teaching. We also wish to remind you that we shall be having broadcasts from the present station even if there is no FM student station - and if the present equipment does not break down completely."
But the administration's decision was final, and the station never did receive the donation. This lack of administrative support was partially due to what Ruane Hill describes as "The College's memory of having been gifted with the Daily News' WBNB-FM...an enormous budgetary drain...[that] fed a lack of administrative interest in a student-run radio station." Lastly, at that time FM was still an extremely minor aspect of radio, and would be until the late-1960s. Hence, there were few FM receiving sets, and most people were still more comfortable with AM (a major reason WBNB failed). The only alternative left was to return to the Carrier Current system, and hope for the best.
Albright describes the technical beginnings of WBCR: "Somebody came up with the idea of wiring in the campus so that we could actually broadcast on a limited basis to the various buildings. I think what we did at first was to get somebody who knew a little bit about engineering, somebody from the physics department or maybe a ham operator who helped us devise this system where we actually strung a copper wire all over campus. It radiated out 100 feet or so and this passed by every residence building (and the union building) - it went all the way down to the other end of campus - where they have dorms - in a sort of a loop: That way everybody could pick it up on AM. We refined the system a little bit whereby we actually wired it into each building and had some kind of an amplifier in each residence hall. It broadcast using the electrical system of the building itself...People were criticizing it all the time saying, 'why can't you guys do a better job?' Well, with only a few hundred dollars a year and a very primitive kind of broadcast system, there wasn't much we could do."
"Primitive" might also have described the location of WBCR, which occupied its predecessor's location in the basement of Scoville Hall. From WBCWs first broadcasts until the demise of the building itself, Scoville had a particularly odd feel for a radio station. James L. DeYoung '59, remembers the physical atmosphere of WBCR's first home: "It was quite isolated and relatively private. There was always a musty smell. We had a control room, a low ceilinged dark studio, a small office area, and a dank storage area, which we outfitted with an old couch and a black and white TV set." The building reminded Albright of a particular 60's TV show: "Scoville Hall was already an old building at the time we were using it. It was at the far end of campus - you had to truck all the way down to that end of campus and then go down in the basement. The stairs creaked, and it had a kind of musty feeling - like you were going down into a vault - like the Addams Family. When we came in, we had a very primitive facility in the basement of Scoville Hall. It consisted of: one main control room, a studio where a group could come in or it could be used as a secondary production studio, but just one glass wall between the two of them; and then a record library area with some facility for doing auditioning of records or tapes, and the office of the faculty advisor."
"Radio station WBCR, broadcasting at a frequency of 600 kilocycles on a closed circuit, began test broadcasts this week. The station will inaugurate its regular broadcast schedule Tuesday at 7:00 pm with a three hour program featuring flashbacks from shows of previous years"(RT 11/2/56).
In January 1957 WBCR finally hit the air with 6 hours of nightly broadcasting each weekday. The broadcast evening began with a 15 minute summary of national and international news. "There was trouble filling the broadcast time," explains Don Mellema, class of 1959. "Not everyone rushed to be part of the radio station, so we 'filled' with some transcriptions. As I recall they were 15 minute programs recorded and provided by military branches such as the Air Force.
"Much of the rest of the programming consisted of music. Anyone with an idea and a record collection was encourage to join our group. Atmosphere? Loose, clubby - If there was tension, it was how to fill the hours, how to schedule people without tripping over personalities." A budget proposal of $393.00 was made to the Student Senate in April of 1957. A Round Table editorial from May 3 called for morning programs to be instated and "...[that] the Student Senate and the administration of the College must view the station more realistically. No student service organization...does an adequate job without adequate funds. WBCR is no different. Quality merchandise is not purchased at bargain basement prices. All radio station allocations and proposed allocations to date have been ridiculously small. The success of WBCR is contingent upon changes in programming...and upon increased financial responsibility by the student body and the administration." WBCR received approximately $400 for the next academic year, which saw the arrival of one who would advise the station for most of the next 37 years.
"Who controlled the station? The students controlled it. Carl made certain of that. From the beginning he made it clear he was an advisor - a coach as it were. If the thing succeeded or failed, it would be the students who did it." - Don Mellema
Fresh from Syracuse University with a master's degree in radio and TV, Carl G. Balson was hired as an instructor in Speech and the Dramatic Arts and as the new Faculty Advisor to WBCR in the Fall of 1957. Carl's method, a mostly hands-off approach as far as management of the station is concerned, and a hands-on approach with the electronic/technical side, has set the tone for student control of the station which lasts to this day. "He said, when you're at a big school there really is little opportunity to work on the air," remembers Mellema. "In a small school, like Beloit, there would be opportunities for everyone. It was later we learned that 'opportunities for everyone' would mean difficulty filling the broadcast day."
Carl felt that students wouldn't learn as much if they didn't have a greater scope of responsibility; to do rather than to watch, to decide rather than to be ordered. As Carl himself explains, "I'm a teacher in a liberal arts institution. Running a radio station is not for me an ego-trip. I want to offer to the students here at Beloit College an opportunity for them to have the joys and have the heartaches, to make mistakes but to get it right, and the way to do that as far as I'm concerned, the best way to do it is to DO IT. Not have someone breathing over your shoulder half the time or telling you how to do it - you don't learn from that - you learn from your own mistakes and your own joys." He did, however, keep an eye on the budget and matters concerning the FCC, such as license requirements, and made sure the equipment was running, in spite of the primitive circumstances.
With a new advisor and a new spot on the dial (595) WBCR periodically held workshops for engineering and announcing, and by November 1957 was on five nights a week, 7pm to midnight, struggling to stay on the air with a meager budget and even more meager apparatus. "The equipment I recall - a Magnecorder tape recorder that used reel-to-reel tapes. CT's or carts still were in the future. To this day I can thread a magnecorder in my sleep," remembers Mellema. "Early board and turntable combos were crude and clunky. The board was home made, if memory serves; and the tables were less than what you'd want for any professional application. But they served. The microphones consisted of a floor stand boom mike - a cardioid mike with a heart shaped pickup pattern and a ribbon mike with a two-sided pattern, favored by at least one of our early programmers because it took his high-pitched voice and added the bass response he could not. The ribbon mike was the classic '30's mike that from the side had the shape of a diamond. They're worth a small fortune now..."
In May of 1958 WBCR was moved again, this time to 655 kilocycles to improve the reception. On-air discussions and debates were held, with topics ranging from segregation to the pros and cons of the Greek system. With, once again, strong support from The Round Table, WBCR requested funds in early 1959 for a new transmitter "...the key to the station's future, added power being necessary to guarantee adequate reception in all the college buildings" (RT 1/9/59). The funds were received, but the transmitter (boosting power by 4 times) would not arrive until May.
In the meantime, new programs were added to the broadcasting roster: a Monday through Thursday 7-8 pm campus and international news show, "off-beat" and "personality shows" from 8-9pm, Jazz from 9-10, "mood" music for studying the next hour, and until midnight, Classical music, which was featured on Sunday nights as well, followed by "Songs From a Lusty World," a folk show. In late February, the station developed an even more innovative program: "Every Sunday night from 7:30 to 8:00 a show titled, "Songs of the World," will feature music and information from a different country each week. The show, produced by the United Students Club, will be narrated by a different foreign student each week, and will be on the homeland of that student" (RT 2/27/59). However, even with all of the new shows, "...popular rock and roll will not be completely ignored." (RT 2/12/59). Chris Albright recalls the morning show he programmed: "Peter Gibson and myself instituted a 6:30 to 9 am program - It was the only thing on in the morning. We did sort of a wake-up service for people. We would actually get people to tell us what time they wanted to be awakened. We would prod them - yell their name several times within a 10 or 15 minute period and make sure they got up to go to class and play their favorite music. People could also do dedications or have music played for special purposes. Some of the faculty that lived on the street that adjoined the campus could also pick us up so some of them were fans in the morning as well. We did wake up calls for them too, including Les Hendricks, who was in the Speech Department. He and his wife lived pretty close by. We would always play, 'Maria' (the song from 'West Side Story') because that was his wife's name. It would be heard at least once a week to wake her up - dedicated by him."
Albright also remembers one especially unique programmer: "There was one fellow who was totally blind who was an amazing man. He played trombone in the orchestra, sang in the chorus and did a classical radio program. He would bring in a stack of records that he had memorized, and by using the rotary pots and touching the marks on the dials he could set the levels and do a perfect program."
It wasn't unusual for programmers to bring in their own records, as Albright explains: "Mostly, people would bring their own materials in depending on what their interest was. Almost everybody has their own collection that suits their own taste...The station's record collection was maybe a couple of thousand albums. We did begin to build up a little...library, but because we weren't actually broadcasting to a very large audience it wasn't very appealing to record companies at that point to give us service."
According to Albright, news programming during the late fifties was highly dependent on outside help: "Without the cooperation of the local stations, we wouldn't have had any (news). What we would do was send a runner down and get their old AP wire service news and bring it up to campus..it wasn't that far a run actually from Scoville to WGEZ. We didn't really have a news department as such." Mellema agrees: "The copy was culled from the files, make that wastebaskets, of WGEZ where we had developed friends. I read those newscasts for about a year."
"I used to work for WGEZ part time and that may have helped," Carl Balson explains, "but they [WGEZ] were not bothered by it. They decided not to make a fuss and they knew we weren't going to make a fuss. Maybe we were living on the edge, but we couldn't see how we were going to be found out [by Associated Press]...and it was a way to get us over the hump."
Albright recalls that the program schedule was difficult to fill during the mid-day hours: "I think we put just some taped music on during the day and didn't come on with another announcer until later in the afternoon again, as everybody was kind of tied up in class."
"It kept us on for a while when we were building interest with the students." explains Balson. "We would have these great gaps when we just couldn't get anyone to come over and program. So, we would turn on the machine and away it would go. We had a slow motion tape recorder. We would have 10 1/2" reels moving at about 3 3/4 IPS (it might have been slower than that). We would have kids come and load music onto this thing during their off period of time. Then we would have periods when there was no one around so we just hit that button and on it went. It just crept along - it was really slow motion. With this huge reel it ran close to 8 hours without changing reels. It was probably not terribly legal because we were operating a station without an operator there. It was close to where I was so that I could sort of keep track of things; but you're supposed to have a licensed operator at your station all the time. It's funny because a lot of stations have now come full circle and are doing exactly that: either piping it in from a satellite or preprogrammed tapes."
While the new transmitter was installed and tested, a new antenna system was also set up: "The antenna is designed to give interference free reception to all listeners...Stated simply, the antenna system works on a closed circuit. This is accomplished by the use of a small metal box that will be wired into each dormitory and fraternity house, as well as the sorority houses, through a regular wall plug. This enables the wiring circuit of the house to become part of the antenna from WBCR's new transmitter.
"In order to receive the College station, one simply plugs a radio into a regular wall socket, and then dials the station call letters. Because of its nature, portable and car radios will not be able to pick up WBCR as they are not hooked into the system."(RT 10/2/59). A setup to broadcast incoming calls was also installed the next month. But no sooner were the transmitter and most of the new antenna system up and running than WBCR entered what The Round Table described as a "Time of Trial."
"Because of a breakdown in WBCR's transmitter, the campus radio station has been forced to use its older transmitter with resulting poor quality in the signal." The part ordered to make the repairs was on its way. "Part of the difficulty in operating a radio station like WBCR stems from its being an experimental station. Slight miscalculations can cause breakdowns, such as the present transmitter problem." (RT 12/4/59). But the station was undaunted, and as the next decade opened the new transmitter was back in use.