A Brief, Informal, Probably Incomplete History of WESU
- Mischievous Beginnings
- DIY Radio
- Independence and FM
- Arista Boycott
- Demise of the WBA
- The Move
- The License
- General Manager and NPR
- 2005 – Present
During the negotiations regarding NPR programming, it became obvious to the board of WESU that the station was dangerously unaware of its own history. The attempts to pinpoint legal facts such as the ownership of the license and the transmitter unearthed the rich history of the country’s second oldest college radio station, a history of which even the board was unaware. The reconstruction of WESU’s archives has since become a major priority of the board in an attempt to revive the unique and eclectic identity that has defined the “ESU” call letters for over 60 years. To be a part of the WESU legacy is to be a part of college and independent radio history, and, to that end, this brief document is intended to convey WESU’s history as we best know it.
One last note before I begin: the reconstruction of the WESU archives is an ongoing process. There are still hundreds of pages of records that need to be organized, and still several records and documents that have not yet been found. As such, this history is not yet complete. Some of the stories contained within are anecdotal, and I will try to indicate which stories those are. Also, this document is by no means comprehensive. There are many more stories that, for one reason or another, were not crucial to this document, and are not included. So if you’re still interested, go and request the WESU file at Special Collections in Olin Library, or come track me down and get me talking. This radio station has always been a creative, experimental, outspoken place.
So, welcome to WESU.
WESU began its life as a mischievous idea in the minds of our founders, two young men living in Clark Hall in 1939. Inspired by the first college radio station in the nation (which, anecdotally, was at Brown University, though this hasn’t been confirmed), they hooked a small transmitter up to a phonograph. In order to broadcast to the whole of Clark Hall, the two broke into Wesleyan University’s maintenance tunnels through the Clark Basement, and hooked the transmitter up to the water pipes. The old dormitory effectively became an antenna for their 2-4 hour broadcast day. The transmission range was small, the weak AM signal just barely escaping Clark. But the station quickly became more and more popular, and the two men met the demand by illicitly running wires to more and more sections of the maintenance tunnels.
By 1941, they were in negotiations with the fraternity houses across High Street, who wanted the signal for their parties. But the frat houses weren’t on the university’s utility grid, so this would require running wires over High Street. Which would require negotiating with Middletown, which would, in turn, require official recognition by Wesleyan University.
The young men approached the president of the university, and explained the whole endeavor, from the tunnel transmissions to the frat houses. The president, who could not have been unaware of the stations existence (his office, after all, was now a part of its antenna), granted them official recognition, and the station that would become WESU was born. (Middletown, by the way, denied the station permission to run wires over High Street.)
This official recognition led, at some point, to official status with the FCC, and the call letters “WES”.
Now, the following is anecdotal, but I feel it captures the attitude of the station fairly well: at some point in this early history, WES got bold and hooked their transmitter up to the Middletown water grid. Seeing as the Middletown grid is not isolated from that of other cities, and seeing as how most utility grids have evolved over time, have sections no longer in use, etc., stories would be told of people picking up WES whose neighbors could not. Listeners miles away elsewhere in the Connecticut River valley would get a radio station that no one else for miles around could pick up. After ten years of operation like this, WES decided to have their transmitter maintained. The engineer working on the transmitter discovered that, by a fluke of technology, their transmitter was pushing a shortwave signal at 30 watts—a power at which shortwave should be audible all the way in Australia.
Once the station was officially recognized, it quickly became a popular student group. The early radio pioneers began construction of a legitimate studio in the basement of Clark Hall. Paying mostly out of pocket, the early members of WES purchased studio equipment piece by piece, slowly constructing an elaborate headquarters. Soon after the anecdotal story above, the station switched to a more powerful broadcast with an aerial antenna. This antenna was located on the top of the Wesleyan Science building, connected to the station by wires running through the maintenance tunnels.
In 1950, revision of the FCC’s rules necessitated four letter callsigns, and WES became WESU.
In the period of time after the construction of the Clark studios, WESU became popular with the surrounding community. They broadcast high school football games, and the news department covered the Middletown mayoral elections. WESU was quickly establishing itself as a community voice and resource, in addition to gaining popularity on campus. In the late 60’s, the new technology of FM broadcast became a possibility for WESU. At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission was establishing new rules for college radio stations. In light of these things, the board of WESU decided to reevaluate the station as a whole. They decided to adopt FM broadcast, and to begin negotiations with the Wesleyan Board of Trustees to privately incorporate and maintain control of the station. Both of these initiatives succeeded, and in 1967, the Wesleyan Broadcast Association (WBA) was created as a 501c3 non-profit incorporation. It’s board consisted of students and one dean—the latter had only advisory powers and no vote with regard to the station’s decisions. By 1968, the Section 10 educational FM license (at 88.1mhz), as well as all equipment and funds related to the station, was transferred to the WBA. The WBA was also exempt from all rent for the Clark Hall property. The Section 10 FM license necessitated that the station be non-profit, so for the first time in its history, the station could not allow advertisement on its airwaves. Funding thus became dependent on the Wesleyan student government.
By the late 70’s, WESU had established itself as a home of eclectic music and the enemy of the Top 40. For those of you new to radio, it’s common practice for record labels to give free promotional copies of their newest releases to radio stations in return for airplay (this is mediated by your friendly Music Director). In 1980, Arista Records responded to financial trouble in the record industry by revoking its free subscription service to any college radio station. WESU was enraged, and then-Music-Director Alex Crippen declared a boycott of Arista Records. The announcement was published in a few college radio journals, and soon, many other stations around the country joined it. The boycott lasted for a year, until Arista started threatening legal action against larger, university-controlled stations, claiming that calls-to-action regarding the boycott, broadcast over the airwaves, were illegal. The validity of these claims was never tested, as the universities behind these larger stations urged the broadcasters to back out. The WESU inspired resistance was thus short-lived.
The 80’s and 90’s were a time of great freedom on WESU. Eclectic music became more and more a part of the station’s identity; community members became a more important part of the station, filling DJ positions and eventually certain positions on the board; and in 1988, block programming was dropped in favor of Free Form programming, after the model of stations like WFMU in New Jersey. More people than ever were free to be a part of WESU, and there were fewer restrictions on the kind of shows they could produce. But at the same time, the organizational side of the station was beginning to unravel. The position of the faculty advisor had long ago passed into obscurity, and though the station had managed quite well on its own, a series of events put the station in a tenuous financial position. In 1986, the transmitter unexpectedly began to falter, and quickly became too unreliable for constant use. The Wesleyan Administration loaned the station money for a new transmitter, but at a high rate of interest. The Student Government, sympathizing with the station, absorbed most of this interest, but the cost to the station was still about $30,000 spread out over several years—more than its full annual operating budget at the time. In 1990, for reasons that are still uncertain, the WBA went under, and the station was no longer independent. WESU was plunged into organizational turmoil as it tried to rebuild its financial base.
The board, however, being primarily a student board, had a four-year turnover of its membership. Thus by 1995, the station was completely unaware of its tenuous organizational status.
In 1999, Wesleyan University decided to commence its long-overdue renovation of Clark Hall. For about a decade, it had been in communication with WESU, trying to locate another comparable space for the station’s studios, but all of these conversations had been inconclusive. In the spring of 2000, the university gave the station all of ten days notice that it was being moved to its present location at 45 Broad Street, to a studio half the size of the Clark Hall location. The move was hasty, and the station lost a good deal of music and a lot of its archived records and documents. The station is still recovering from the move as I write. The archival project is but one facet thereof.
In 2003, President Doug Bennet of Wesleyan University entered into negotiations with WESU’s board to acquire the license to 88.1. The reasoning was that the university was a far more stable institution financially, and could ensure greater safety for the license.
In 2004, the board decided that the best way to solidify its organizational structure was to attend to the four-year turnover. This would require the creation of a salaried General Manager position, a person who could make a long-term commitment to stay with the station, and serve as a resource for the board, conveying experience and station history from year to year, as well as attending to the daily workings of the station. The university was approached to financially assist the station in creating this position, and in 2005, the university, as license holder, decided that the best way to do this was through simulcasting the shows of nearby NPR affiliate WSHU, thus receiving a cut of WSHU’s fundraising. The university, in return for facilitating the General Manager position, necessitated that the board of directors become all-student.
The community members who were thus removed from the board created a 501c3 non-profit organization called the Friends of WESU, which serves as a community run fundraising body, as well as the station’s summertime board of directors. The student board, for its part, was reorganized to include archival and fundraising positions.
WESU has grown a lot in the past year. We held our first substantial on-air pledge drive last year and instituted a successful underwriting program making a very substantial step towards financial stability and independence. Through negotiations with the university, we have won the right to once again have Community Volunteers serve on our Board, a board that has again been reorganized to better handle the new systems and needs that have come about with our relationship to WSHU and our attempts at financial and organizational stability and independence.
WESU continues to move forward with over 100 student and community volunteers currently on air. Volunteers broadcast during the evenings and on weekends in addition to the robust public affairs programming WESU offers during the days M-F.
WESU become an official affiliate to Pacifica Radio, the nation’s oldest public radio network. Through this affiliation WESU has access to Pacifica’s renowned public radio archives and many other high quality public affairs programming.
In December 2006 WESU raised almost $20,000 in listener pledges during the 2nd Annual Winter Holiday Pledge Drive. For the second Year in a row according to the Hartford Advocates Readers Poll WESU is the 3rd most listened to College radio station in the Hartford area.
By the end of the 2006 Fiscal year WESU managed to negotiate funding from the University for a new, part time “production assistant” to help the GM. This position will relieve the GM of some of the day to day production responsibilities enabling the GM to focus more on the development of WESU (and take a vacation). The position should be in place by the beginning of the Fall 2007 academic year.
WESU says goodbye to Wesleyan’s 15th President, Doug Bennet. Bennet’s interest in WESU has been controversial to say the least. Many resented the change he encouraged with the implementation of NPR programming in 2004 while others applaud the quality and consistency in programming that resulted from this new relationship.
As WESU continues to grow, several important initiatives have been undertaken to ensure the development of the station as we approach our 70th anniversary. For our 2007 pledge drive, WESU raised over $20,000 in listener support, a first for the station. We have also expanded programming to include more programs that connect WESU to the Wesleyan experience more intimately. Training has been expanded and improved and now accomodates more than forty students and community volunteers per semester. Programs such as Indigenous Politics and The Wesleyan Report–which features interviews, lectures and Wesleyan Argus stories on the airwaves–are connecting WESU more than ever with the faculty and student community on campus, providing a valuable resource for the University and the central Connecticut region, as well as our online listeners. The Middletown Youth Radio Project now runs daily workshops for Middletown youth itching to try their hands at every element that goes into producing a radio program. These initiatives and others mark the active and vibrant community that is WESU today.
As we eye our 70th anniversary (2009), we are making steady progress on a potential transmitter upgrade that would boost our signal from 1500 watts ERP to 6000 watts ERP. This increase in power would effectively double our potential listening population in CT to close to one million.
At this point we have accomplished much of the preliminary work to bring this power increase to fruition. In April 2008 WESU was granted a construction permit by the FCC to carry out this project and our partner stattion WSHU, in Fairfield CT , recently donated a 1960s analog Gates transmitter capable of boosting our power to 6,000 watts ERP. The completion of this project will become a reality when we can raise roughly the fifteen – twenty thousand dollars above our annual operating budget to cover the design, purchase, and installation of a new antenna to cary our signal.
On the eve of our 70th Anniversary, nothing would be more fitting to mark the storied birth of our station than to move us forward by reaching more listeners in the central Connecticut region. It is our goal to complete this power upgrade in early 2009.
WESU is currently planning a number of public events in celebration of our 70th year for 2009 and we hope to initiate a capital campaign to raise enogh money to participate in a Corporation for Public Broadcasting matching grant program to purchase and install a brand new stat of the art digital transmitter.