FROM THE BASEMENT TO THE ATTIC –
"We were experimenters, practicing a craft we'd heard for many years and only slightly understood how to duplicate." - Don Mellema
Throughout the Depression and World War II, radio as an institution lay dormant on the Beloit College campus. All that was left of WEBW, standing just to the left of Pearsons, was the mammoth tower, remaining at its post a full decade after its last broadcast. "President Maurer requested that the old radio tower which is such an eyesore, be torn down. This was authorized" was the only mention of radio in the Trustees minutes during this period - not that there wasn't any general involvement in radio. Periodically the college collaborated with a nearby station, such as when WCLO (owned by the Janesville Daily Gazette) broadcast football games and the Vespers service for a brief period in 1936 or when WROK in Rockford broadcast "The Beloit College Hour," a Wednesday afternoon variety program, running from 1940 to 1941. But there was no station the college could again call its own - until the late 40's.
Forty years after Dr. Charles Culver first began his work on the campus, the Beloit Daily News built WBNB, unusual in that it was an FM station, a fairly recent phenomena. By mid-November of 1947 the station was broadcasting recitals from the college and on December 6, the first home basketball game of the season from the newly built Field House. Early in January, Speech 223 was introduced as a radio course in which students would set-up and produce radio plays, conduct interviews and other programs for broadcast over the newspaper's station. But the resurgence of interest in radio inspired much more. Reminiscent of an article from the days of WEBW, the January 9th, 1948 Round Table stated: "It is the hope of the department to have its own broadcasting studio in the basement of Scoville Hall; in fact, plans have been made and a contract is going to be let to make this idea a reality. This will be a great addition to the department and an important aid to this course which takes inexperienced students in radio and trains them in the fine, and perhaps lucrative, profession." That the Speech (later Theater) department and not the Physics department would oversee any radio-related activities illustrated the changes that had occurred since the college's first station.
Whereas the first twenty years of the century was the era of radio's greatest experimentation and the 20's the time of radio's most dramatic growth, by the late 1940's radio had long since matured. Now television was the somewhat-young upstart in the communications world. In fact, historians agree that the "Golden Age of Radio" which began approximately at the time of WEBW's demise, was now ending with television snagging most of the type of programming once the domain of radio. The dramas, variety shows, and comedies that now appeared on television slowly forced the radio business to focus on music and news. The era of the "disc jockey" was just starting to rise.
College radio, which had suffered greatly during the crackdown on radio in the late 20's and early 30's, had risen again, when in 1936 two Brown University undergraduates, George Abrahams and David Borst, proved that any institution of higher education (and later, high schools) could set up an inexpensive station limited to on-campus communication. These stations utilized a "wired-wireless" system that directly connected campus buildings with wires via air-vents or heating pipes. A college or university could, using only about 1 to 10 watts, successfully transmit to any area that the wires reached. Although nowhere near the strength of its 1920's counterparts, the wired-wireless system nonetheless saved college radio from virtual extinction.
At about the time that WBNB went on the air, students and war veterans Roger Brook, '49, and Bob Penticoff, '49, took the initiative to set up Beloit College's own Wired-Wireless, or Carrier Current station. Brook was enlisted in the radio division of the Beloit Naval Reserve Unit, which existed adjacent to where WEBW was once located in Pearsons Hall. Unofficially begun in late October of 1947, the Unit soon folded after its first broadcasts in mid-February of the following year, leaving behind some war surplus radio equipment. Employing this, as well as other acquired/purchased apparatus, Penticoff and Brook, along with the combined help of the Speech and Physics departments, and a number of fellow students, received the go ahead from the General Board, the Executive board of the Associated Students (the student government at that time) the Board of Trustees and the Faculty to construct the station. Part of the studio and transmitting facilities were already set up in the Speech department's studio, originally created for broadcasts on WBNB.
During this time, students formed the Beloit Radio Players, which broadcast plays over WBNB in the manner of the commercial radio dramas then fading after their heyday of the 1930's and early 1940's. Robert C. Kepner, class of '48, recalls his involvement with WBNB: "At that time I wrote and directed a half hour radio drama which we put on the air over our FM station. (I remember that my parents went out and bought an FM radio in order that they could listen to that particular broadcast!) The drama was entitled 'The Man Who Got His Wish."' The Sunday Vespers service and College sports events continued their run on WBNB as well.
Bob Penticoff became acting station manager and Roger Brook, Chief Engineer, while the new College station (to be called WBCR) progressed. A radio board consisting of three faculty, one administrator and three students, was set up to govern the activities of the station and by early December of 1948, the first student board of directors was appointed.
On December 14th, 1948 at 7 pm WBCR broadcast its "Inaugural Program," on 540 khz (bumped up another 10 khz by March of 1949). The first program consisted of speeches by some of the faculty, Mason Dobson (president of WBNB), "as well as music by the 'Eight Notes and a Key,' and a general preview of the daily round-the-clock broadcasts to be presented, featuring music, news, weather reports, sports, comedy, and drama." (RT 12/17/48) President Croneis gave the keynote address that evening: "...Any college radio station has grave responsibilities as well as broad rights. This is obviously true because a radio outlet may become an agency for evil as well as a force of good. Our own Beloit station has adopted a well-framed code, which, if adhered to, should be a guarantee that the Radio Governing Board and the station staff propose to make this communications resource a helpful rather than a harmful adjunct to Beloit College and its students. Believing - indeed, confidently expecting - that this is actually the case, the Faculty joins with me in wishing every success to the new Beloit College Carrier Current Radio Station and to those students who are primarily responsible for its establishment and operation." WBCR had to change its call letters to WBWR (W Beloit Wired Radio) a few months later. - Due to the use of identical call letters by another radio station.
WBWR's equipment and habitat were more of the "adopted and home-made" brand, as described by Ruane Hill, '48, faculty advisor to WBWR from 1952 to 1955: "Studios and control room facilities were in the basement, of Scoville Hall, subject to occasional flooding, no cooling (and uncertain heating), no acoustic preparations for studio walls or floors (beyond a donated and perpetually damp carpet). Control room facilities were largely jury-rigged, with two mismatched turntables, no more than two microphone inputs, World War II vintage microphones, and a record library distinguished by the numbers of voluntary contributors (dj's supplied their own software)." Richard Dillon, '50, who was an engineer for WBWR, recalls "...a pair of Rek-O-Cut turntables, a Webcor tape recorder, and some most excellent Western Electric microphones. The studio console had been designed and built by members of the Physics department."
Nord Holte, '54, remembers this yearly ritual: "Before 'firing up' the transmitter in the fall, it was necessary to remove some of its components and place them in the sunshine for a period of time to dry them out." WBWR's carrier current system, according to Bill Korst, '50 (a disc jockey and Station Manager at WBWR), "...was really mickey mouse...we ran lines all over the campus, and the RF from the radio transmitter was fed into the power wiring in the dormitories. We also discovered that if you had a couple of loose wires around they would radiate a little bit; it was only 5 Watts but at least you could get a little coverage that way too...it was terrible to try and maintain those lines. A good ice storm and the lines would be down and you'd have to go chase around and put them back up...I can remember when I was manager my senior year, we got up to school a couple of weeks early just to put the lines back up - the tree trimmers had cut them down."
The station broadcast on weekdays from 7 to 8 am, 12:25 to 1 pm, and from 6:50 to 1 am and the same on Saturdays, excluding the mid-day broadcast. Announcements by campus organizations were broadcast as well as home games, and a variety of news and music shows, one of the latter a popular Jazz show by Bill Korst called "Jazz Seminar," on Thursday and Saturday nights, which started in mid-February of 1949. William Hohmann, '50 (sports editor and "occasional engineer and DJ"), relates this story: "Korst and I (as engineer) did a request show, ie., call in and dedicate your favorite song to your girl/boy friend. While I had cued-up the National Anthem to go off the air, Korst dedicated the next number to my girl friend. She married me anyhow but still reminds me that I dedicated the National Anthem to her (how romantic)." Bud Heckler, '50 remembers "Listening to Bill Korst and his creation of "KORST-0-BOP." He would use two pick-up arms on the same record and produce a sort of echo effect. (it really didn't sound that good, but was creative and drew listeners.)"
WBWR's next prominent broadcast was of the election results for the Presidency of the Associated Sudents in March of 1949. The Classical shows were fairly popular, as were the morning shows: "You will be hearing the voices of fellow students about 7 a.m. In between the weather and time reports...you would have heard some of the following record arrangements on last Tuesday moming's program: a BeBop selection of "God Child" with Miles Davis on the trumpet, then Billie Holiday and "Lover Man," a Decca recording; a piano rendition of "Blue Skies" by Andre Previn - a shot in the arm so early in the morning; then a Jazz classic with Dizzy Gillespie playing "All the Things You Are" and Lionel Hampton's record of "I'm in the Mood for Swing" (RT 4/29/49).
Jerry Alan Donley, '51, who was a Disc Jockey at WBWR, gives his impression of the station attitude: "We had a lot of fun and were very serious about the quality of our programming. The educational aspects of learning radio were exceptional though I suspect our listening audience was small." Heckler recalls "The time we broadcast a full morning show but forgot to turn on the transmitter (and nobody called us)" but that "A lot of people - myself included - cut their teeth on Beloit College radio and worked hard to make it succeed." "The atmosphere was rather loose," explains Holimmm, "We knew we didn't have a lot of listeners so we didn't take ourselves too seriously. It was a learning experience and a lot of fun."
WBNB, however, was not as popular as the Beloit Daily News had hoped it would be, as Korst (who was also briefly involved with WBNB) explains: "After World War II, everybody told newspapers that money was in FM radio, and to put an FM radio station on the air - west of town you can still see the building and I think it's off Liberty Avenue...out in the corn fields somewhere is the old transmitter studio building of WBNB - so they went on [the air] with lots of hoopla and immediately after the first 6 months of red ink, cut back to the minimum. In those days you could keep a license with 6 hours a day and they broadcast from 3pm to 9pm. Well, the only thing they had that they could sell commercially was Beloit College basketball, which was quite popular. The problem was that there were no FM Radios...you could buy a converter but it still had to be installed on your AM radio. If you wanted to listen to Beloit College away games that was the only way, and of course in those days Beloit College basketball was a big thing...so after a couple of years of taking a bath on that FM station, the Beloit Daily News sold it very reasonably to Beloit College."
The newspaper offered to sell WBNB to the college, who used it a great deal anyway, at the modest sum of $2,500. Without too much hesitation the station was purchased late that September. Beloit College became one of the few colleges in the country at that time to own both a commercial FM station, and a second Carrier Current station (WBWR).
"Programming for WBNB has been designed with particular emphasis on programs for college students. Along with vesper services, dramatic programs and classical music will also be featured. Under college sponsorship, WBNB will work...on a possible Beloit Community College of the air. Special events and speakers will also be heard over the station. All Beloit College athletics will be broadcast exclusively over WBNB." (RT 9/23/49). Both stations were operated from the basement studios of Scoville Hall (now the site of Scoville Apartments). WBNB's transmitter and antenna remained in the corn fields, however.
WBWR stuck to its programming, with a few minor shifts here and there: "Bill Korst's Jazz Seminar provides morning entertainment. Popular platters selected by Raleigh Fish are heard during the noon hour. In the evening, purely instrumental classical music to enhance study is presented. A half-hour program by the Beloit Players will also be a regular feature soon." (RT 10/15/49) An 11 pm to midnight program was added, as were broadcasts of home football games. WBNB broadcast all of the Basketball games, home and away. By the end of the year, however, both stations had run into trouble.
In Mid-November a report came out from the I.B.S. (Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, a network of college radio stations started at Brown University) that the F.C.C. might ban all Carrier Current stations in mid December "The purpose...would be to prevent interference by those stations with regularly-scheduled radio broadcasts. Presumably the broadcast signal is so strong in carrier current wires that they cut out regular reception in radios near them. This does not happen to be the case with WBWR, except possibly in isolated cases..." (RT 11/16/49). There was truth to the latter claim, since WBWR did get complaints from time to time that its broadcast would "stray" and block out local stations, as Dillon explains: "...the transmitter itself was a 'war-surplus' unit modified by members of the Physics department for the station, and due to whatever combination of circumstances, stability of operation was not its middle name. We often got calls complaining that our signal was interfering with WTMJ out of Milwaukee or WMAQ from Chicago." But this was nothing new: that carrier current broadcasts were unpredictable was known since the late 1930's, when "one station was heard miles away because its programs were somehow radiating from city telephone wires" (A History of Broadcasting...Vol III p 114). Still, the ban was not definite, and WBWR stayed on the air. WBNB, on the other hand, was not as fortunate.
Although from the beginning the college had only intended for the station to break even, it quickly ran into the same financial difficulties that its former owners had had with it. The minutes of the January 17, 1950 Trustees meeting determined that "the expenses chargeable to Auxiliary Enterprises and Activities...show a projected increase of more than $47,000, of which amount $10,000 is presently accounted for in anticipated expenses which will be involved if we continue to operate Radio Station WBNB until July 1, 1950." Since "the operation of our radio station has proven even more costly and difficult than we had anticipated," WBNB ceased broadcasting on January 31, 1950. The station and most of its equipment (including the tower and transmitter) was sold to WTMJ in Milwaukee. "Thus, in spite of all our difficulties, this project should eventually yield the College a very respectable profit." (Trustees minutes, 4/18/50)
Since January 1, when the FCC would supposedly eliminate all Carrier Current stations, had passed without it occurring, WBWR was still on the air, acquiring the rest of WBNB's equipment "...including," Korst explains, "some very fine microphones and an old Brush Sound Mirror tape recorder...this was in the early days of tape recording. This thing was a monster...it took two men and a small boy to carry it around - that was the first tape recorder we had, the first way we had of recording. Otherwise it was all live..."
A Jazz concert was held March 25 in the auditorium above the station, bi-weekly student senate reports were started the next month, and over the summer a new studio was added to the facilities in the Scoville basement. Local stations, WGEZ, WBEL (both Beloit stations which had started broadcasting in 1948) and WCLO had taken over the basketball broadcasts and other programs left behind by WBNB. In 1951 a summer radio workshop was set up. The campus was rewired that September, and the station broadcast over thirty hours a week, compared to nineteen hours a few years before. Although previously, WBWR had received a small quantity of records, the first prominent record servicing began in April of 1952 with new releases from Capitol Records coming in every month.
Another "traditional" aspect of Beloit College radio arose earlier that March: the issue of funds, or lack thereof. One definite similarity between WBWR and WEBW (and later, WBCR) was always the lack of money needed to keep the station operating, as Dillon explains: "Funding for the campus station was, as far as I know, nearly non-existent. Much if not most of the non-structured programming was accomplished more through the ingenuity of the participants than anything. Creative use of what was available and free was pretty much the order of the day. One example - it was discovered that the men's room (right across the hall from the studios) made a wonderful echo chamber - built as it was with concrete walls and floors. Some of the more inventive minds also discovered that the manipulation of the plumbing fixtures inherent in such a facility could produce a very wide variety of 'sound effects' around which several original 'dramas' were constructed, rehearsed and broadcast. We did get a few calls about those - mostly about the grossness of college humor!" In early 1952 WBWR made a budget proposal to the student senate that was much larger than before. The Round Table voiced its support in an extensive editorial on March 21: "...Due to the lack in funds, and the resulting lack in adequate equipment, the radio station is under repair a good bit of the time, and the transmitting wires are many times broken down by some of our local storms; thus many of the dorms are at times unable to receive the station..." Money was also needed to pay for the Capitol Records subscription, the dues for full I.B.S. (Intercollegiate Broadcasting System) membership which "...would cost the station very little in comparison to what they would get out of it," and other important items. Fortunately, the senate agreed and the station was able to make the necessary improvements. Still, by May of 1953 it became evident that bigger steps were needed.
In late April of 1953, "shortly after we received a card from a listener in Tennessee," Holte explains, "an investigator from the Federal Communications Commission showed up with a field strength meter and ordered us off the air for radiating too much power..." Apparently WBWR had broadcast 16 to 17 times over its power. Hill describes what happened when the F.C.C. dropped by that fateful day: "The ancient transmitter suffered strange ailments and chewing-gum-and-scotchtape-repairs that led to a memorable visit by a F.C.C. field monitor. As I was leaving for class, he asked me to put on a long-playing record on the system for his signal-testing exercise. As I returned from class, I was informed that our signal strength exceeded the maximum by a factor of at least five, and I was given the choice of taking the station off the air (to make specified repairs) or face a fine and possible imprisonment. I chose the former venue."
The wiring to the campus continued to be a problem as well: "During the past few years fluorescent lighting has come into wide use here, and it is this that sometimes blocks us out completely. One other fact might be taken into consideration. When we wire into a dorm, we try to connect our lines to the main electrical circuit. However, it may be that there is more than just one circuit and these extra circuits might not be connected to one another. Therefore we are kept from entering every room in the dorm...The administration then took the signal and informed us that in the very near future we would be broadcasting over FM [non-commercial] radio. We would not only be broadcasting to the campus but the entire town as well. Of course this would entail a whole new set-up for us but would be a boon to the campus." (RT 5/8/53)
After a great deal of discussion and debate, it became apparent that, although the Round Table polls showed a great deal of public support, the funding necessary for a new FM station was not made available, even after the repeated appeals of Faculty Advisor Ruane Hill. Meanwhile, the FCC kept WBWR off the air until other arrangements were made. Then the station was dealt another blow. In December of 1953 WBWR suffered major equipment losses in the infamous Chapel Fire. Eaton Chapel, which stored remote equipment during WBWR's hiatus with the FCC, was set on fire by an unstable student, destroying a large portion of the building and: "A brand new two hundred dollar microphone was totally destroyed. Two less expensive microphones were damaged but are still in usable condition. The costly cable and earphones used with the tape recorder were damaged. Most distressing of all was the more than six hundred dollar damage done to the Magnecord tape recorder. The machine is being repaired. None of the equipment lost or damaged was covered by insurance." Not that the station could afford insurance in the first place: "...recent happenings in the Student Senate foreshadow a meager fund for its new operations." (RT 1/15/54) Chances for "a new station" were now in serious doubt.