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College Radio Station WABQs first claims. Photo: J. Waits

College Radio Watch: Who’s on First?

On the Radio Survivor Podcast this week, I discussed the concept of “college radio firsts.” Not only am I fascinated with college radio history, but I’m also a stickler about getting the facts right. My high school journalism teacher Nick Ferentinos would have berated me if I had published unsubstantiated claims in our high school newspaper and I try to carry that journalistic rigor with me today.

Trivia is a national obsession and on a daily basis you will probably run across claims that an organization or a person was the first at something. As far as radio goes, there are many categories of firsts with multiple contenders. Although it’s largely assumed that KDKA was the first commercial radio station on the air in 1920, this is not definitively so. Others were broadcasting before that time, including Doc Herrold‘s San Jose station, which had entertainment broadcasts as early as 1910, although to a very limited audience.

Which College Radio Station Was First on the Air?

When thinking of “firsts,” it’s important to have a very specific definition in mind. As far as college radio goes, it’s hard to determine which was the first college radio station on the air, although several have laid claim. Radio experiments were happening on many college campuses at the turn of the 20th century. Beloit College was doing radio experiments by 1907, Grove City College was by 1911, and University of Minnesota was by 1912. St. Joseph’s College was granted the first experimental radio license in the United States in 1912, but didn’t build a broadcast station until 1922.

A professor at Grove City College built a transmitting station in 1914 and after the conclusion of World War I, returned with experimental broadcasts beginning in early 1920, months prior to the launch of 2ADD at Union College in October, 1920. The Union College station may perhaps be one of the first licensed college radio stations, however, and is one of the first built by students. Its radio legacy at Union College continues today with the FM station: WRUC (which calls itself “The First Station in the Nation!”).

I’m not sure if it was the first, but University of Minnesota purportedly broadcast a college football game in 1915 using Morse Code. University of Minnesota was granted an experimental license in 1920 and a broadcast license for WLB in 1922. The call letters were later changed to KUOM and that AM station continues to broadcast today as college radio station Radio K, making it perhaps the oldest continuously operating AM college radio station still in operation.

My alma mater, Haverford College, had an early student-built radio station, WABQ, beginning in 1923. In a December, 1925 article in the student newspaper, it was claimed that it would be the “largest” and “most powerful” college radio station in the country. Lore at the time also indicated that it was the first college radio station in Pennsylvania (which is up for debate). The only thing that I can say for certain is that it was one of the first student-built college radio stations in the United States.

In the book Gas Pipe Networks, the claim is made about the “development of college radio from its very beginning at Brown University in 1936.” We know from earlier reports that college radio began much earlier than 1936, but it’s possible that Brown University’s campus-only network of carrier current stations (the Brown Network) may have been one of the first carrier current college radio stations.

Which Station was the First All-Women’s College Radio Station?

Earlier this year I wrote about this topic and talked about how no fewer than three women’s college radio stations have claimed to be the oldest. Additionally, oldest is not necessarily the same as the first, as there are some women’s college stations from the 1920s that no longer exist.

Which College Radio Station was the First to Stream Online?

Boston University’s college radio station WTBU recently claimed to have been the first U.S. streaming college radio station in 1999. This tidbit prompted our podcast discussion this week about firsts. For me, this was a simple one to refute, as even the college radio station where I DJ (Foothill College station KFJC) was streaming online for several years prior to 1999, launching its stream in 1996 (and apparently that was not without controversy among station staffers). Additionally, college radio station WXYC at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill was streaming even earlier, claiming to be “the first radio station in the world to offer a live Internet simulcast of an off-air signal.” Its stream officially launched on November 7, 1994, the same day that Georgia Tech’s college radio station WREK first streamed online (although it didn’t go “official” until a few months later). University of Kansas’ college radio station KJHK was another early streaming station, purportedly beginning in 1994.

There may be other college radio stations who were streaming even earlier (I’m curious to know streaming dates for college radio stations at tech-oriented schools like WMBR and WRPI, for example) , but it’s notoriously difficult to track this information down unless a station is documenting every little detail about history.

Which Was the First College Radio Group to Visit the White House?

Last year, when a group of college radio participants visited the White House, I got a press release stating that it was the first time that a college radio group had visited the White House. The fact-checker in me went to work, as I didn’t want to report on that specific detail without knowing for sure. I also had an inkling that college radio groups must have visited the White House previously, especially since there were moments in history when college radio groups were lobbying the government for the right to broadcast (I’m especially curious about the late 1940s). I couldn’t find anything for certain last year, but randomly ran across a transcript last week of what’s titled an “Interview With Representatives of College Radio Stations.” The interview took place with President Ronald Reagan in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on September 9, 1985. Questions focused on war in Central America, tax reform, liberal arts education, US-Soviet relations, education and more.

I still need to do more digging to find out who the student interviewers were and which college radio stations (if any) they were from. The interview was apparently organized by the PR firm North American Network, which was to have distributed the interview to college stations in the US and Canada. The “Symposium on the Future: An Interview with President Reagan,” was described as the first college student interview with Reagan and featured three pre-selected student interviewers. So was this in fact interviews with college radio representatives or simply interviews with college students that were later played on college radio? That is yet to be determined.

And, in a timely coincidence, just last week a group of college journalists visiting the White House got an opportunity to interview President Obama. According to the New York Times, the event on April 28 was the “first White House College Reporter Day.” It’s unclear if there were college radio representatives at this event, but it’s interesting that this was also billed as a “first” for student reporters.

Which College Radio Station Did I Tour First?

As I’m getting closer to my 100th radio station field trip report (hopefully you read this week’s report #98 about my visit to Brooklyn College radio station WBCR), I will share a personal “first” from this project. The first college radio station that I officially visited for my Spinning Indie field trip series was WECB at Emerson College in Boston on March 28, 2008.

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2 Responses to College Radio Watch: Who’s on First?

  1. nwis July 11, 2016 at 8:10 pm #

    9XM, now WHA, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has long made a case for first broadcast station at a university. See

  2. Jennifer Waits July 14, 2016 at 5:30 pm #

    Thanks for the reminder about 9XM. I’ve added that to our college radio history section of our “about college radio” page.

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