It’s hard to recall a time when word traveled by homing pigeon, and music was only consumed by those within eyesight of the instrument.
Yet thanks to Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, pigeons were relegated to roam the city streets when he revolutionized the use of electromagnetic waves to transmit sound. At the very end of the 19th century, Marconi stunned citizens when he broadcast the results of a yacht race from a ship in the Atlantic Ocean to the land-based New York Herald.
After steady advances in radio science and a healthy dose of commercialism, the decades between 1920 and 1950 became known as “The Golden Age of Radio.” Certainly Rockwell-esque images come to mind, with families gathered ’round the living room radio to enjoy after-dinner entertainment in the form of variety shows, music, comedy bits and drama. The most well-known, perhaps, was Orson Welles’ famous theatrical interpretation of H.G. Wells’ novel, “The War of the Worlds” on Halloween’s eve, 1938. The power, influence and potential of radio quickly became unavoidable.
Radio allowed for the President of the United States to speak in living rooms and brought the front lines of World War II into American homes. Ham radio engrossed curious minds in basements and garages everywhere. Drive-time radio helped make local disc jockeys celebrities.
College radio … well, it’s still the place where introverts go to be heard and not seen, to be among like-minded cool people, to immerse themselves in new music and share personal favorites with thousands of scholarly peers.
Virginia Tech’s FCC-licensed, non-commercial, non-profit, student-run station, WUVT, celebrated its 75th anniversary this spring. More than 100 alumni returned for the festivities from as far away as the Pacific Northwest. The station relies on the monetary support of these alumni, along with community donations and local business underwriting – plus the passion of whoever is behind the microphone at this moment.
“I like radio because it’s super accessible. If you are driving, you can tune to a station, it’s always on. It’s in the moment. You never know what you’re going to get listening to the radio. There’s that exploration aspect of it,” offers Michael Haddad, a civil engineering major and current general manager of WUVT.
Virginia Tech’s station is on the air 7 a.m.- 4 a.m. every day, with a rotating medley of 92 DJs, a mix of students, faculty, staff and community members (if you are reading this, you too can be a DJ!). DJs aren’t told what to play, but each hour of the day generally sticks to a genre and, true to the spirit of education, should include something from the new music bin. WUVT’s mission statement on its website: “Our goal to provide diverse, eclectic and educational programming makes us a truly unique organization.”
Cornerstone program, Local Zone, incepted in 1988, airs weekly and aims to elevate local talent specifically, often broadcasting live shows from area venues.
Perhaps expected in alignment with the cool factor of college radio (yet, unexpected in the overwhelming world of digital media), WUVT still prefers to play physical media – records and CDs – and has an entire room, with floor to ceiling shelving, dedicated to such archives.
Across the river, Radford University’s Highlanders are running their own show. WVRU began broadcasting in October of 1978 (under call letters, WRRC) with studio soundproofing courtesy of wall-mounted shag carpeting. Classical music was broadcast four hours a day and was part of the music department’s curriculum. Today WVRU is a proud affiliate of Public Radio International (PRI) and a member of Virginia Public Radio (VPR).
The shag carpet has been replaced by shiny new studio space in Hemphill Hall, managed by two full-time and 10 student staff members all mirroring professional radio station jobs. Their two main formats are jazz and “Triple A,” which is best described as singer-songwriters, “college indy” and music from independent labels.
“There is a movement in public radio nationwide to find programming that appeals to a younger demographic. We’re supposed to have goals to educate our listeners but because we’re on a university campus, we have a dual goal to educate our students, too. The Triple A format is a great way to bring those sides together,” states Ashlee Cloud, WVRU general manager.
Other shows include Jazz Cafe, Extensions (student-run programming), Radioland (“a theme-park for your imagination”), and The Music Store (new tunes, old favorites and everything in between).
Justin Little, student operations manager, relates: “I appreciate the tradition. I love being able to do the same thing they were doing 100 years ago. It’s just you and the microphone. There is an intimacy to it.”
Connect and Listen
Radio provides a connection; an invisible, somewhat anonymous, affiliation from speaker to listener. As mentioned before, the power, influence and potential of radio – despite Brobdingnagian strides in video – continues to be unavoidable. And due to ever-regenerating college radio advocates, it’s also continuously relevant.
“The reality is podcasts and audio books are more popular now than they’ve ever been. Those are different formats, but the same sort of industry,” Little adds.
It’s an industry built around the idea of closing our eyes and opening our imagination. These days, it’s a rare opportunity to let our own thoughts round out the story, to complete the audio by creating our own video. This may not be the best execution when it comes to alien invasions but it’s a pretty cool talent, nonetheless. All we have to do is listen.
WUVT – Virginia Tech
Listen: 90.7 FM
WVRU – Radford University
Listen: 89.9 FM
WUVT LiveShow Photo By Snead 1961
Record Group 31/17/4, Radio Station WUVT, Special Collections and University Archives, University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Text by Nancy S. Moseley
Nancy S. Moseley is freelance writer from Blacksburg and during these interviews found it took great restraint not to bring up Christian Slater’s cult classic movie, “Pump Up the Volume.” She thinks – though she’s OK with being wrong in this case – it most definitely would not have been cool.