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Radio Matters: Pete Simon on “My Passion for Radio and Starting WXDR”

Radio Matters is a new feature on Radio Survivor in which guest authors share their thoughts on the relevance of radio. In this post, radio veteran Pete Simon writes about his passion for radio and his role in the development of college radio station WXDR at University of Delaware and reflects on the future of the station (now known as WVUD). – Jennifer Waits, College Radio & Culture Editor, Radio Survivor

I have always carried with me a deep passion for all kinds of music, storytelling, and politics that started when I became hooked on the first radio program I remember, twenty years before WXDR signed-on the air on October 4, 1976. It was the nightly show on WILM with Mitch Thomas, one of the first African-American DJs in the country. “The Big MT” gave me a much-needed education in the world of rhythm and blues, blues, and jazz recordings. It is where I first heard Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Louis Jordan, The Coasters, Etta James, Jimmy Smith, Clifford Brown, and other musical greats of the genre.

The music fired my imagination, along with Mitch’s live reading of advertisements for places like Madame Dora’s, the fortune teller down on Route 40. Who was she? What did her place look like? What did she wear when she was advising her clients?   It was the first time that radio created pictures for my mind. Musically, Mitch’s offerings were a joy, but also an essential first step toward developing a love and appreciation for game-changing modal jazz introduced by Miles Davis and John Coltrane just a few years later.

It was a form of music that became a standard form for jazz greats, and served as a basic building block for the most adventurous rock musicians of the day, including groups like The Byrds, Grateful Dead, and Allman Brothers. The problem was, when adventurous souls emerged in 1965-66, rock did not have a platform to display the headier material on the radio. That was about to change.

University of Delaware’s WXDR came out of what I call the second wave of the progressive FM revolution. The first one started in 1967 at KSAN-FM in San Francisco by Tom Donahue and spread to other “Metro-Media” stations around the country (WMMR, Philadelphia; WNEW-FM, New York; WMMS-FM, Cleveland; and KMET-FM, Los Angeles).

In my humble opinion, Dave Herman’s “The Marconi Experiment” on WMMR (started in spring 1968) remains the most revolutionary-sounding program to ever hit the airwaves in the Delaware Valley. It was during the Vietnam protests and protester harassment. He would dissect events and tie them to song lyrics, such as Tom Paxton’s “Mr. Blue,” before playing a very provocative version of the song by the group Clear Light. It paints a very clear and dark picture of the scene, and it gives you an idea of how intense Herman was, as he hosted his show just a few floors above Rittenhouse Square, where hippies were often harassed by Philly police. Herman took chances like that and it worked. There is no way to overstate the importance of his show hitting the airwaves when it did.

Along with WBCN-FM in Boston, the five stations mentioned above set the pace for progressive radio in the late 60s. The only station to top them all, in terms of presenting cutting edge music with a “take no prisoners” attitude (including well-produced funny and provocative fake commercials), and doing it all in a very conservative radio market was KDKB in Phoenix. KDKB was started in 1971 by Bill Compton, an amazing radio visionary who had a great run until his untimely passing in 1976. His departure came at a time when all commercial FM radio had been drifting into a serious decline.

Enter the under-funded and under-staffed (no full-time professionals) college stations like University of Delaware’s WXDR, which have done their best to keep the flame alive.

RADIO-FREE NEWARK

Newark, Delaware is located on the signal fringes of Philadelphia and Baltimore radio and TV. Couple that with the Iron Hill “mystique” playing with radio waves, and you have the makings of the Radio-Free Newark theme which existed in Newark into the 70s, when FM broadcast technologies became more sophisticated, and students living in dormitories could finally receive FM signals without running antenna wire up on the roof.

Still, those of us trying to convince the University of Delaware administration to allow students to have an FM station used the old Radio-Free Newark moniker as part of our sales pitch to them. But we had plenty of help from other sources to finally get WXDR on the air. There are many people who passed through the University of Delaware before me who, in their own indirect-but-significant ways, are responsible for getting WXDR on the air. I happened to be there in the mid-1970s, following a procession of events at the school which led to the beginnings of an FM radio station — at a school where the administration had been so steadfast against the idea for about ten years.

Looking back for a moment, the administration allowed a radio club to start in the mid-60s. WHEN-AM, started in part by fellow Brandywine High alum Greer Firestone, was a closed circuit/carrier-current station whose signal could only reach the dormitories. Several efforts to go FM were batted down by the administration. Initially, efforts came during the Vietnam and ROTC protests of the mid-60s, coupled with radical student government activities. The last thing the administration wanted was a student mouthpiece over the public’s airwaves.

Enter the 1970s.

The University administration hit a rough public relations streak to make the 60s protests seem tame in comparison. By 1974-75, those of us involved in campus radio just happened to be there when a once rigid UD administration was most vulnerable. First, there was the suspension of American Studies students after they camped out on the Mall to protest the loss of tenure for Arnold Gordenstein, a very popular Professor. Then, there was the visit by author Ken Kesey, which turned into a “be-in” with a canister of laughing gas on the stage at Mitchell Hall, instead of an expected scholarly discussion about his writing. We also had the firing of Drama/Theater Professor Richard Aumiller, because he was Gay. Additionally, there was the Deer Park streak, which gave the University a black eye, and sent a loud and clear message that radical anti-war sentiment had been unseated by a prominent drinking and partying culture. And, last-but-not-least, the tuition-by-credit-hour blow-up which disgusted both students and faculty.

With all of this baggage, University President Edward Arthur Trabant made his comment at a public gala that a great university should “be open to a marketplace of ideas,” when he introduced Sam Ervin, the chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee. This quote was later used to convince the administration to let us have an FM radio station. We were paying attention, taking notes, and acted in accordance with the conditions which existed.

The administration finally relented.

I was part of a small group of students involved with this push for a radio station, the one who was a Vietnam-era Veteran, and one with prior job experience at a commercial radio station. I became the station’s first Program Director. But what I think put the administration most at ease was the experience brought by WXDR’s first Station Manager Ron Krauss, who was instrumental in getting WMPH-FM on the air at Mount Pleasant High School in 1971. We also had Ron’s friend from WMPH, Engineering Major Tony Pione, and Business Major Bill Lee on our staff. We had dozens of people chomping at the bit to get on the air, but I think from the administration’s standpoint they wanted to see a management team they could live with, and they said okay.

ENTER THE COMPUTER NERD

With the University of Delaware administration on our side there was one last hurdle to overcome, which required a trip to Trenton. The State of New Jersey had filed applications for a number of stations for a proposed state-wide educational FM radio network. One of the applications was for a station at 91.3 FM in Bridgeton. The engineering consultant we hired was Ed Perry from Boston, who was convinced that with a few minor adjustments to its plan, the state of New Jersey would not need the Bridgeton station to cover that part of the state; and WXDR could have the 91.3 frequency.

I drove Ron Krauss, our Faculty Advisor Douglas Boyd (who was very instrumental in getting Faculty Senate support for the FM station), and Assistant Dean of Students Rick Sline, first to the Trenton Amtrak station to pick-up Ed Perry, then to New Jersey Public Broadcasting headquarters. The fate of WXDR was in the balance, and it all came down to a pocket-sized calculator Ed Perry carried in his briefcase. It was no ordinary calculator and Perry was no ordinary radio engineer. Perry had programmed his device to perform numerous calculations involving radio signals, which in today’s tech world are commonplace for a device that size. But 40 years ago, what Perry carried with him was way ahead of the curve.

Perry was the stereotypical computer nerd-for-radio, best compared to the character Harold Finch, played by Michael Emerson on the CBS TV show Person of Interest. With his device, Perry had an answer for any question involving radio frequency coverage patterns or related interference issues for non-commercial stations up and down the eastern seaboard and he was ready to show the boys from New Jersey how they could do without their 91.3 signal and still cover all of South Jersey. The meeting was cordial, with New Jersey officials discussing their two year plan to blanket the state with a public radio signal.

When Ed Perry began speaking, with the help of his specially-programmed calculator, it took all of about 5 minutes to settle any concerns the New Jersey people had. They agreed to drop their application for their 91.3 signal, and we were free and clear to proceed with our plans for WXDR. Perry may have been an engineering and computer nerd, but he was also a shrewd businessman. On the way back to Newark, we gave Perry a lift to Chester, Pennsylvania, where we dropped him off at Widener College. He was also working there with students and staff to start an FM station for them (Editor’s Note: Widener turned its license back to the FCC earlier this month).

There are so many people I want to thank who moved us along, including Doug Boyd and Elliot Schrieber in the Communications Department, students Linda Berryhill, Rob Stewart, Robyn Bryson, Albert Engberg, Mike Donnelly, Doug Barton, Tim Burke, Marie Caron, Paul Campbell, the late Jim Godwin, and many others who were there at our humble beginnings in ’76. But the two people I have to call out are Ron Krauss and George Stewart. Stewart, the “Crazy College” guy who has been involved in UD radio since it was WHEN-AM, is still with WVUD. George Stewart is one of a kind. Both he and Ron Krauss deserve a seat in the Delaware Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because they both have/had (Ron has passed on) this trailblazing spirit.

Ron blazed the trail with WMPH (albeit with a high school administration that was far easier to work with than the University to get an FM station started). In the late 1970s, George single-handedly blew every radio station in a four state area (at least 4 states) out of the water when it came to the emerging punk scene. He kept tabs on Delaware folk (including the band Television) who were making inroads at CBGBs in New York and other places. The only thing we needed then were better studio facilities for live broadcasts and music recordings, but this is no reflection on the knowledge and drive of people like George and others who have passed thru the walls of WXDR, and now WVUD.

LOOKING FORWARD: Danger up ahead

The trick today is making sure the University of Delaware administration does not scale back the concept of presenting a “marketplace of ideas” on WVUD, a higher-powered station than WXDR was in 1976. I hope that WVUD does not suffer the fate of many student stations across the country, like the ones at Vanderbilt in Nashville or Georgia State University in Atlanta, where they recently were taken over by larger (less adventurous) Public Radio entities. As with commercial Progressive FM which waned in the late 1970s, the more established public radio family of stations became more conservative in approach in the 1980s when funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting became severely threatened, then scaled-back.

Smaller community-based stations (with shoe string budgets) in the system are the ones still carrying the flame of progressive approaches to programming, diversity, and inclusion; keeping “the marketplace of ideas” alive.  Larger stations, on the other hand, have often developed a nasty habit of expanding their reach by acquiring smaller stations, and quite often that means acquiring student-operated or student-community-based stations. This is why it is up to all of us to keep reminding those in positions of power at the University (not only on the administrative level, but those in the Communications, Political Science, History, American Studies, and other related fields) of the importance of keeping WVUD as a unique platform, and a viable community asset; and not sign it over to become a repeater for a larger, distant radio empire which still calls itself a “public” entity.  Can WVUD be a better platform for a “marketplace of ideas”? I’m the first one to say, absolutely. But don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

Pete Simon worked in commercial, public, college, and community radio professionally from 1973 to 1998 at stations in Delaware, Philadelphia, and across Colorado.  Since 1998, he has been a volunteer Jazz announcer and Producer with KUVO, Denver.  He served as a Station Manager, Program Director, and Reporter-Producer, earning more than a dozen feature reporting awards from the Colorado Associated Press, and awards for spot news coverage while working for WHYY-FM, Philadelphia.     

Radio Matters is a new, semi-regular feature on Radio Survivor in which a wide range of radio enthusiasts, critics, scholars, professionals and fans will share their perspectives about the current state of radio. If you’d like to contribute, email EDITORS at RADIOSURVIVOR dot com.


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One Response to Radio Matters: Pete Simon on “My Passion for Radio and Starting WXDR”

  1. marcy denham (lucas) June 2, 2015 at 11:02 pm #

    Pete, My name is Marcy Denham (formerly Lucas) and I worked with you at WXDR both on air and in the office. I was a good friend of Ron’s, and I am so sorry to hear of his passing. I just wanted to connect with you after all these years, I remember my time at WXDR with extreme fondness. It was a special time, and I remember everyone connected with the station with love.

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