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College Radio Survivor: Revealing History of St. Joseph’s Pioneering College Radio Station

College radio history is largely undocumented, with much lore locked away in the memories of its participants. Glimpses of the past can be found by digging into the archives of student publications, particularly yearbooks and newspapers, where radio activities were often chronicled. Luckily for college radio history buffs like myself, it’s getting easier and easier to research college radio’s past, now that many more resources are getting digitized.

I’ve been actively researching the history of radio at Haverford College for the past few years and have learned so much by talking to station alumni, several of whom are now in their 80s and 90s. Right now I’m in the midst of helping to plan a number of radio reunion events on campus (near Philadelphia) during Alumni Weekend in late May. In addition to an exhibit of radio artifacts, there will be a walking tour of old radio station sites at Haverford and a panel discussion with student radio alumni and with current Haverford radio participants.

As I’ve been delving into Haverford’s lengthy radio history, I’ve also discovered that several other colleges near Philadelphia have intriguing radio histories as well. Over the past few weeks I’ve spent some time going down the rabbit hole in various university archives in order to get a clearer picture of the early days of college radio in the Philadelphia area. This week’s College Radio Survivor will focus mainly on some highlights from that research, looking at the history of radio at St. Joseph’s University (formerly St. Joseph’s College) in Philadelphia. I’ll also do a quick recap of the latest college radio news.

Here’s the story of radio at St. Joseph’s College:

St. Joseph’s College Receives First Experimental Radio License in 1912

Early wireless experiments were conducted by the physics department at St. Joseph’s College and the school received the first experimental radio license, under the call letters 3XJ, issued by the United States Department of Commerce in 1912. A beautifully written account of the station appeared in the Church & College Society Bulletin in January, 1913. According to the blurb, “…the College Wireless has been brought to a perfection that is unrivalled by any station in the city which is not purely commercial. The graceful mahogany cabinet containing the new set of eighteen-jar condensers has proved a fitting complement to the transformer, while the new white marble switch-board, with its neat meters, polished switches and starter have evoked the admiration of all visitors to the station.”

During World War I, the station was briefly designated a “special receiving station” and helped the government by monitoring the airwaves in search of spy stations. After a few months, it was shut down for the duration of the war (along with other amateur stations) and then resumed activity in 1920.

St. Joseph’s College Launches (and Disbands) Broadcast Station WPJ in 1922

In 1922, St. Joseph’s built broadcast station WPJ. Its lifetime was short, with its license granted in April, 1922 and expiring in November, 1922. The call sign was deleted in January, 1923. Amateur experimental station 3XJ continued operations until 1924.

Student Radio Returns to St. Joseph’s in 1967-1968 School Year with WSJR

Although amateur radio resumed on campus by the 1950s, it seems that there wasn’t another broadcast station until the late 1960s. Initial plans for the station, as it was being built in 1967, indicated that call letters would be WSJC and that broadcasts would be over both 640 AM and 89.5FM. By January, 1968, the station- called WSJR- was broadcasting over 540 AM carrier current from 7am to 12 midnight on weekdays.  By 1999 (perhaps earlier) the station was broadcasting over 89.5 FM on campus and after upping its power beyond the allotted range allowed for unlicensed broadcasters, it was shut down by the FCC in late 2001. I need to do more research to find out what happened to the station after that point, but WSJR relaunched as an online-only station in 2010 and is now operating under the name Radio 1851.

Meanwhile… at Haverford College Radio Begins with WABQ in 1923

While investigating the history of radio at nearby St. Joseph’s College, I was surprised that I didn’t run across any reports of interactions between radio practitioners at Haverford. Since both schools had early, active wireless stations, I would assume that they would have been in touch, particularly during the very early years of WABQ at Haverford. Launched at the beginning of the academic year in 1923, broadcast station WABQ was built and operated by undergraduate students. In existence until 1927, the commercial AM station was one of the most powerful stations in Pennyslvania at the time.

Student radio continued on campus with AM carrier current radio stations initially launching in the early 1940s (WHAV, later renamed WHRC) and continuing until the end of the century. By the beginning of the 2000s, the carrier current system was in bad shape and broadcasting moved to the Internet, where it has existed in various forms through today.

*****

College Radio News This Week:

WESU to Mark 75 Years of Radio at Wesleyan

Speaking of college radio history, Wesleyan University radio station WESU is about to launch of series of events in honor of the station’s 75th anniversary this year. In addition to special programming, plans are in the works for “physical and virtual exhibits of WESU artifacts and audio,” fundraising events, and a hoped-for documentary about the history of WESU.

More College-Based LPFMS Granted

A few new LPFM applications submitted by colleges and universities were granted this week, including licenses for University of Wisconsin and University of Sedona, both profiled in my piece about new high school and college LPFMs. Additionally, Garrett College (McHenry, Maryland) and College of the Ouachitas (Malvern, Arkansas) were granted their applications. Garrett College doesn’t provide much information in its application about plans for the station, although the 2-year college does indicate that the station will provide “experiential learning through credit, adult education, and continuing education courses.” Additionally, the station will air music, talk shows, and important local news updates. The application states that the campus is “…in a very rural area with severe inclement weather making communication difficult” and plans to “…use the station to coordinate with County government and other organizations to consolidate communications, especially in the event of an emergency.” Similarly, College of the Ouachitas (also a 2-year college) hopes to “integrate the station into its curriculum” in order to “teach its students communication, management, and technical skills,” according to its application.

College Radio Gets the Nod as “Curated Playlists” Attract Notice Again

Earlier this week, Paul Riismandel kicked the tires of the new Beats Music service, which purports to offer a more customized listening experience via its human-curated playlists. Another reviewer, Eliot Van Buzkirk makes a direct comparison to college radio (and to my former employer Uplister!), pointing out that he’d like to see Beats Music give more attention to the real-live humans behind the playlists. He writes,

“But if curation and personality are the big differentiators here, why not give these folks some prominence, the way Epitonic, Uplister, and other services have done when employing this concept — or why not even go all the way, and put these curators ‘on the air,’ so they can share more of their wisdom beyond just picking songs that sound the same as the ones on the other services? Many of the Beats Music curators come from the radio world anyway.

Then you’d have something like this 1992 recording of the best show at my college radio station. If what people really want from an on-demand music service is DJs with personality and expertise, this comes closer to delivering it than playlists created by people without names or voices.”

I couldn’t agree more…This is exactly why I still feel like college radio stations with real live DJs, curating their own shows, provides a much more interesting music experience than a station run on automation. It will be interesting to see if the curators at Beats become more visible as the service grows.

Update on WVKC after Knox College station goes Digital

A story this week provides  a glimpse into the revamped WVKC, which you may recall shifted from traditional FM to online/digital after the school made a deal with a local public radio group. While there are now fewer calls from the community, the DJs point out that not many students on campus own radios.

 

We cover the culture of college radio every Friday in our College Radio Survivor feature. If you have college radio news to share, please drop us a note at EDITORS at RADIOSURVIVOR dot COM.


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