A HISTORY OF THE CORNELL RADIO GUILD --
WVBR and WVBR-FM
Michael L. Rothstein
January 1, 1962
English III --- Section B
"A large staff, a policy of complete independence from University supervision and the best FM radio signal in Ithaca belong to student radio station WVBR and WVBR-FM." These were the words of The Cornell Daily Sun in November, 1959. Today,WVBR-FM has even more reason to be proud, for it is the only student station in the country to be a member of a major network -- specifically, the QXR network.
Things were not always so golden, however. The present status of Cornell's student radio station is the result of over twenty-five years of growth, development, and expansion.
To trace the student station's development from its origin, we must first briefly explore the early history of the Cornell University radio station, now known as WHCU. The University station began broadcasting on August 15, 1929 with the call letters WEAI. In 1932, to fulfill Federal Radio Commission requirements of minimum broadcast hours, the University leased surplus time to the Elmira Star Gazette. At that time, the call letters were changed to WESG. The Elmira Star Gazette set up studios in the Mark Twain Hotel in Elmira, and shortly thereafter, in February, 1933, the University equipped its own new studios in a remodeled "model schoolhouse" near Bailey Hall.
It was in these very studios that the Cornell Radio Guild made its first broadcast, shortly before the end of the 1935 spring term.
"In the spring of 1935, a student from the College of Arts and Sciences, working in the radio office of the Extension Service, under the National Youth Administration project, became interested in radio and its educational possibilities; and ... suggested ... that a Cornell Radio Guild be created among the student organizations ..."
The Radio Guild was organized during May, 1935, and shortly before the end of the school year, the members presented a short variety program on WESG to acquaint the campus with the purposes of the Guild.
The following fall term, the Guild began its first full year of operation. The Cornell Daily Sun publicized the new organization, and in the October 2, 1935 issue, students learned that "Plans of the guild for its first year's broadcasting activity are rapidly taking shape and include the presentation of all-guild productions of a variety nature once each week, supplemented at intervals by the nominal sponsorship of other campus groups and talented individuals."
An editorial in the same issue of the Sun carried these prophetic words: "The plans to extend the membership and activities of the recently-formed Cornell Radio Guild may prove to be the inauspicious beginnings of a new field for Cornell leadership."
The first in a series of six broadcasts for the 1935-36 season was presented on Monday, October 21, 1935. The fifteen-minute program included two Radio Guild Orchestra selections, comedy by a dialectician, songs by two female singers, and a brief talk on "Cornell’s new era in athletics" by James Lynah '05, then director of athletics and physical education. It is interesting to note that, "in response to many requests, the soda bar in Willard Straight his installed a radio so that patrons may hear this special event." Later broadcasts were a series of half-hour programs which were included in the Sunday evening schedule of WESG.
Members of the Radio Guild continued with the weekly programs on WESG for several years, but the urge for independent operation grew steadily. In the fall of 1939, several members of the Radio Guild conceived the idea of a Cornell wired radio network. They obtained permission from the University Board of Trustees to proceed with the idea, and during the spring of 1940, G. Emerson Cole ’41 and J. R. Meachem ’41 organized the wired network station CRG. In the original prospectus for the radio station, Meachem stated the two primary purposes of the proposed operation: "1. To present programs of special interest to a college community audience but not desired by the general listening audience of a radio station. 2. To offer extensive experience in radio programming, business, operations, and engineering"
The Guild borrowed between four and five thousand dollars, and during the summer and early fall of 1940, CRG studios were set up in Willard Straight Hall (room 16). Meachem constructed most of the technical equipment; Cole and R. Donald Ross '41 built the original studios.[7A]
The wired network is a technically-simple system. From the studios in Willard Straight Hall, programs were sent out over leased telephone lines to various buildings throughout the campus, including the men's and women's dormitories, sororities, and fraternities. In each of these buildings there was a small oscillator unit which served as a miniature radio transmitter. Radios in these buildings picked up the signals from these oscillators as if they were sent out by an actual radio station.
The new station,CRG, made its first broadcast on November 1, 1940. The fifteen-minute show was a program of "recorded dance favorites" which were broadcast to Cascadilla Hall from the Willard Straight Hall studios and control room.
About a month-and-a-half later, on December 12,CRG began its commercial schedule of four hours a day. The station aired spots from local merchants. National advertising began early in 1941. These national contracts were secured by the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, a national association of college radio stations, of which CRG was a member. Since CRG was now a commercial operation, the Cornell Radio Guild incorporated as a non-profit organization on September 22, 1941.
In the spring of 1943, the individual oscillators were abandoned and a new transmitter in Rand Hall (then a building of the School of Electrical Engineering) fed a 640 kilocycle signal into the high voltage University power lines. The power lines, which traversed the campus, carried the CRG signal throughout the University, so that the electric wires in each building on campus "broadcast" the CRG programs.[10A]
Programming steadily increased, until by 1946, CRG was on the air for thirteen hours a day. Reviewing this expansion, 1947-48 C. R. G. President Alan M. Strout said, "The motivating factor for expansion has always been the urge to give Cornellians entertainment at any hour they wanted it and with maximum quality. Afternoon programs were instituted to provide 'music to study by'. The station went on the air late Saturday nights for after-date music."
This continual pattern of growth led to the statement in The Cornell Daily Sun that "the Cornell Radio Guild is now [February 1946] rated as one of the top campus stations by the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System." CRG continued to expand its facilities. Later in 1946, the station obtained an Associated Press teletype. With this addition, CRG was able to carry more comprehensive newscasts, with up-to-the-minute news. Previously, the station had depended upon the Cornell Daily Sun for its news.
On October 16, 1946, CRG changed its official title to WVBR, the Voice of the Big Red. Perhaps this change in title indicated that the Cornell Radio Guild station was no longer just the means by which members received training in actual broadcast operational procedures; WVBR was a service to the members of the Cornell community, and it was the radio voice of that community.
As WVBR's importance grew, campus interest in its operation increased. This interest turned up in the form of severe criticism during November, 1947. In a letter to the Cornell Daily Sun, a WVBR listener expressed this opinion: "I have thought for some time that the caliber of WVBR is so far below any normal standard which could be set that the whole haphazard setup would fall into more competent hands soon. But no such luck! They continue with that idiotic nonsense they call broadcasting ...."
Another listener had this to say in a letter to the Sun: "I do not believe in indulging in generalities, but let me -- in this case -- establish a precedent by saving that never have I listened to a station which was less deserving of an FCC license than WVBR.
A WVBR Board of Governors meeting on November 14 discussed these criticisms, as well as the members' own ideas for the improvement of WVBR's radio standards. As a result of this meeting, broadcasting hours were reduced to six hours a day, Monday through Friday. Alan M. Strout, President of the Cornell Radio Guild, Inc., explained the reasons for the cut in air time: "By doing this the Board feels that more time will be devoted to fewer and better programs, that more capable persons may be employed on these programs, and that more off-the-air time will be available for vitally needed rehearsal and training."
Along with the curtailed broadcasting schedule came a general tightening up of station procedure. The caliber of programming improved, and WVBR was again on its way to becoming a quality radio station.
In April, 1948, the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System established the "Empire Network", consisting of New York State I. B.S. members. In the network-opening presentation on April 19, WVBR broadcast three programs direct to Rochester University. On May 10, 1948, the "Empire Network", the first wired intercollegiate radio network in the country, expanded its membership to seven stations. Besides the original members, Cornell, Sampson, and Rochester, the "Empire Network" now comprised St. Lawrence, Union, Rensselaer Polytechnic, and Clarkson.
1948 was an important year for WVBR for another reason. During the 1949-49 school year, the radio station moved into new studios in the Straight. This expansion program involved an expense of close to two thousand dollars. At this time, WVBR was not yet financially independent, and a majority of the required capital was supplied by the Student Activity Fee Committee. In a May, 1949 report to this committee, C.R.G. President John D.Morris explained in detail his request for a grant of $1160. This amount included $350 for completion of the new studios ($560 had been granted the previous year) and $810 for needed technical equipment. Morris said,
It was on this note of continued expansion and improvement of facilities that WVBR entered the decade of the fifties. The ten-year period from 1950 through 1959 included many changes and developments in the WVBR organization. In 1951, WVBR was admitted as a full member to the Ivy Network, an association of college broadcasters formed in February, 1948 by members of Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale. The two primary purposes of the network are "to sell to National sponsors, something that individual stations can not do, and also to provide a forum for exchange of ideas in running a radio station." Each spring, members of the stations come together for the Ivy Network Convention, where they discuss "common problems, ideas, and solutions for problems in all phases of radio broadcasting."[17A] In the past, WVBR's association with the Ivy Network has been very successful; income from national advertising has amounted to several thousand dollars per year.
One of WVBR's greatest traditions, the musical marathon, got its start in January, 1952, This program of 'round-the-clock music-to-study-by throughout the entire exam period is a campus favorite. For example, during the June, 1953 marathon, "97.3% of those persons listening to the radio were tuned to WVBR".
The year 1952 has its unpleasant remembrances, too. During the June musical marathon, a group of masked senior men broke into the station and tied up the station personnel. They put on news reports that Russian planes were spotted over Greenland, headed for the United States, and they ordered all R.O.T.C. students to report to Barton Hall. For a while, because of this "joke", University officials seriously considered the abolishment of WVBR; fortunately, they decided to permit the station to continue operations.
The "invasion" had other serious results, however. Publicity of the event drew the attention of the Federal Communications Commission to WVBR's operations. The F.C.C. found that WVBR broadcasts over high-tension wires covered an illegally large area for a non-licensed station. As a result,WVBR was forced to discontinue this method of signal transmission. WVBR engineers built several smaller transmitters which were located in the dormitory areas. By April, 1954, there were five of these transmitters in operation, including units in Sage Dormitory for Women, in Sheldon Court (in Collegetown), and in the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity house. An article in the November, 1953 WVBR Radio Gram discussed the new transmitters: "In addition to reaching a greater audience, the new transmitters are so designed as to decrease the 'beat', or rumbling, that sometimes sneaks into the programs to provide a rather unpleasant background sound. As the new transmitters begin operation, and as older transmitters are modified, the 'beat' will become nonexistent."
Although WVBR was steadily improving the technical aspects of its operation, the station had personnel problems. Student interest in WVBR decreased, and membership dropped. With fewer people on its staff, WVBR became less able to continue its role as a complete campus station. Coverage of lectures and special events diminished; more and more time was devoted to disk jockey shows such as "Requestfully Yours", "Honor Roll of Hits", "Saturday Jukebox", "Rock and Roll Party", and others. (These were all shows listed in the January, 1956 issue of the WVBR Radio-Gram, volume four, number two.)
In April, 1957, Stanley Fishman was elected General Manager of WVBR. Unfortunately, it turned out that C.R.G. members had made a poor choice, for Fishman seemed to lack the interest in the station which its general manager must have. He came down to the studios less and less frequently, and when he did visit, he stayed for short periods of time.
This situation displeased many of the Guild members, among them, Michael J. Henry, the Program Director. Together with John A. Jensen, Chief Announcer, and Stephen G. Crane, Henry led a revolution which resulted in the February, 1956 recall of Fishman.
Robert Stein, Business Manager at the time, was selected as the General Manager for the interim period until the next election. At the April, 1955 elections, Mike Henry was elected to the post of General Manager.
With the election of Mike Henry, the recent history of the Cornell Radio Guild began. For in June, 1958, WVBR began broadcasting under a commercial FM license. For several years, WVBR had been looking for a way to expand its operation. Due to overcrowding, no night-time channels were available to Ithaca on the AM broadcast band. The only possible way to expand was to inaugurate FM operation. In the spring of 1956 Guild members began preparing the involved F.C.C. application for permission to construct a new FM station. The Guild originally requested a frequency of 101.7 megacycles. Because of the possibility of interference with another station, the Guild requested, and was granted, permission to operate instead at a frequency of 93.5 megacycles.
Since F.C.C. requirements concerning transmitter stability and freedom from distortion are strict, it was necessary to obtain a commercially-built transmitter. Previously, practically all station equipment, including the dormitory AM transmitters, had been build by station personnel. Fortunately, the Guild was able to locate a second-hand 250-watt General Electric FM transmitter in good condition, and they purchased it at a "considerable saving".
The transmitter was installed atop Phillips Hall by permission of the School of Electrical Engineering. A fifty-foot antenna tower was erected on the roof of the building. The F.C.G. granted permission to WVBR-FM to operate its transmitter by remote control (from the studios in Willard Straight Hall), and also allowed the station to suspend operation during the summer, Christmas and spring Cornell vacation periods.
WVBR-FM has become a quality radio station. Although programming includes a large amount of classical and semi-classical music, WVBR programs are, as Michael Henry said in 1959, "mood-matched", also including background music, music from Broadway shows, and jazz.
Operating an FM radio station has involved a major change in Guild outlook. WVBR-FM is not a campus station; in reality, it is a station of the Central Finger Lakes region. John Jensen, 1959-60 General Manager explained it this way: "Our audience is the people in the area, not just the students. The majority of listeners are non-students." In 1959, for the first time in its history, WVBR stayed on the air all summer with its FM operation to serve this new audience. Late in 1959, the station purchased a 1,000-watt Western Electric FM transmitter which quadrupled the output of the station.
Along with the establishment of its FM facilities, WVBR has continued to improve the quality of its AM dormitory equipment. At present, there are five dormitory transmitters, located in Ballet, Risley, Dickson, Sage, and Lyon Halls. The Lyon Hall transmitter also feeds signal to antennas in the ground-floor storerooms of the six University Hall dormitories. Plans are now in progress for a transmitter for the new Donlon Hall.
When FM operation began, WVBR programs were broadcast simultaneously on AM and FM. Last spring, 1960-61 Program Director Ted Hlavac instituted some split programming, i.e., different programs on AM and FM.
This past summer, under the leadership of the present General Manager, Frank Hawkins, Jr.,WVBR-FM became the QXR Network station in Ithaca. The station began carrying network programs on October 1, 1961. Split programming is in effect during all network time. The majority of non-network time is still simulcast, however.
The station applied for, and just (December, 1961) received permission from the F.C.C. to change transmitter location. Construction has been started at the new site (atop Hungerford Hill, about one-and-a-half miles southeast of the present location) on a building to house the two transmitters, and actual moving will take place early in February, 1962. This location, with the new 150-foot antenna tower to be erected, will increase WVBR-FM's effective radiated power from its present 700 watts to over 900 watts; it will about triple the potential listening audience to an estimated 750,000 persons.
All of these recent events are but steps in the progress of WVBR towards its ultimate goal,"to present the highest quality broadcasting, which will be of service to its audience -- both the Cornell community of faculty, staff, and students, and the ... people in the Central Finger Lakes Region of New York State. This it attempts to do through its daily programs of culture, education, information, and entertainment."
It will be obvious to even the casual observer that WVBR-FM, with ever-increasing coverage of lectures and special events, with constant improvement of its technical facilities, and with membership in the QXR Network, is well on its way towards this noble goal.