Spring 2011 Michigan Tech Magazine

Radio Tech

By Dennis Walikainen

WMTU's long and winding road

Tech students have long been able to spin their own tunes over the airwaves, or at least through the electrical outlets. Beginning in 1956, the residents of Wadsworth Hall were privy to WVRW, as in "The Voice of Radio, Wadsworth," a "carrier-current" AM station just for Wads. Plug your transistor radio into the wall and pull up your bobby sox. The outlets were the transmitters, no FCC license required.

When WVRW went airborne, it changed its call letters to WRS (Wadsworth Radio Service) and broadcast to all the residence halls. It was located in a small room opposite the old Wads mailroom.

Don Robinson '63 recalls "cueing" records.

"Put on headphones, twist [cue] the record to the beginning of the song, and then let her rip," Robinson says. "I played rock and roll and jazz; pretty much free form and whatever felt good at the moment. Great times and a great experience."

Jerry Myers '68 remembers bringing his own 45s to his rock/folk/chatter show in 1963–64.

"The station had one record that I really liked," he says. "‘Flamingo Express' by the Royaltones of Detroit. It was a Michigan-only hit, and I made it my sign-on and sign-off theme."

Myers says there were no engineers on duty; the DJs did it all, and more. "I did homework during the records," he says.

Becky Christianson '74 was one of the few female DJs.

"The ratio was nine guys to one gal," she recalls. "The guys who managed the station and the DJs were great to work with. The managers moved me to Sunday mornings from my night shift because it meant fewer suggestive phone calls. Even then, I wasn't allowed to talk because I'd get these heavy-breathing callers. It was hilarious. I remember we also had George Carlin LPs with Xs through various tracks, since he said words we couldn't air."

WMTU (WRS got new call letters again in 1975) attempted news and sports, according to Russ Kerlin '80. "I would go to the [campus public radio station] WGGL studio and tear newswire stories that sounded interesting off the teletype printer," he says. "The daily news broadcasts lasted ten to fifteen minutes, and I helped create and record commercials."

Kerlin also helped "broadcast" hockey games.

"Tech had a license with a local station, so we weren't allowed to do play-by-play. We did summaries between periods and at the end of the game. I don't know if anyone got value out of them, but it was fun being up in the press box with the ‘real' sports journalists and radio personalities. We had an excellent view and, best of all, there were free hot dogs."

Being a WMTU DJ wasn't always that exciting, according to Matt Leipnitz '90 '94. "I would often ask for people to call in to request songs for a hint that someone was actually listening," he says. "One early Wednesday, around 5:00 am, I was particularly frustrated with the lack of a single caller. I was tired and stressed about upcoming tests, so I announced, ‘If you're listening, call in to let me know, or I just may leave the station to get some sleep.' The phone rang within a minute, and the voice on the other end said two words that kept me going and lifted my spirits: ‘I'm listening,' is all she said. Then she hung up."

Together alone

WMTU and its predecessors weren't alone on the air. There was another student station, WDHH, as far back as 1957–58, according to one of its creators. Like the Voice of Radio Wadsworth, it was a carrier-current station. Unlike WVRW, it sometimes infiltrated radios beyond Tech's borders, a quality that proved to be its undoing.

"I built the electronics with a bunch of guys," says Pete Rankin '59, an electrical engineering major. "Don Korb, John Taylor, Frank Swenk, Ora Flanningam …

We strung the transmitter output cable through the attic to a basement power box supplied to us by dorm maintenance, where it was capacitor coupled to the dorm power system. Although it was pretty low power, the signal did jump the dorm power transformer and travel downtown along the power lines all the way to the bridge. We picked the signal up in a car during testing."

William Gates '66 recalls working at WDHH "in a closet with two turntables and an adequate library of albums. It was a good place to study or play cribbage or pinochle. My show was titled Wee Willy with the Sounds of Song and ran about three hours on Tuesday and Thursday nights."

"The ten-watt carrier-current rig was a constant source of problems," John Baker '71 says. "With all the electrical engineering majors hanging around, someone rigged a half-dipole antenna in the attic. Thus we were ‘broadcasting' a fairly decent signal within a ten- or twenty-mile radius. Remember, this was before [campus public radio station] WGGL went on the air in 1968, so this sort of made us the de facto Michigan Tech radio station."

Until . . .

"Someone either was not aware of the fact that the signal was reaching more than a few hundred students inside the building or perhaps knew exactly what they were doing: they played Rusty Warren records," he says.

In 1960s Keweenaw, not everyone found the risqué comedienne amusing.

"Unfortunately, some little old lady up in Calumet heard what was going out over the airwaves and called the school to complain, and that was the end of that," Baker says, "I think it stayed off the air for at least a few years until someone rebuilt the carrier-current rig, bringing it back up to FCC regulations."

The FCC pulled the plug on WDHH in 1977 for reasons unknown, but WMTU has survived unscathed, for the most part, since the days of Elvis and Sinatra.

The station went cable FM in 1977, over-the-air FM in 1994, and on the web via RealAudio in 1998. WMTU has also become one of the largest student groups on campus, with one hundred–plus students kicking out the jams.

Taking care of business

But there's more to be done, according to co-advisor Darrell Radson, dean of business and economics and jazz deejay.

In other words, less dead air and more professional shows, fewer insider jokes and more relevant information. Automation is one solution, Radson says, and moving music from all those CDs onto a server makes that one step closer.

More online possibilities abound, Radson says, and co-advisor Andrew Grohowski, a Michigan Tech staffer, agrees.

"I'd like to see more online streaming of events," Grohowski says. "Concerts are an obvious choice, but I'd like to see students go out and do the MLK rally, gauging the vibe and then reporting on the air."

Both Radson and Grohowski cited news and sports as potential growth areas.

"News that is relevant to students," Grohowski adds. "And arts in the Rozsa Center, for example, a broader presentation of news, arts, and events at Tech."

For example, the Lode Sports Talk Show has aired on Saturday mornings for five semesters, with a distinctive student slant. It's getting noticed. Fifth-year scientific and technical communication major Stephen Anderson is co-host and enjoys the challenge.

"Interviewing players, coaches, and administrators live on the air is a whole new ball game," he says. "I hope that more students will take advantage of the opportunity to break out of their shell and try something new in front of a potentially worldwide audience."

Grohowski notes that students do their jobs, on the air and behind the scenes, for free. "And working with the students amazes me," Radson says. "They are intelligent and funny, and, through their music, they bring such diversity to the local offerings. We have students that play old R&B, and hip-hop, and metal, and on and on."

Corey Abate, a fourth-year undergraduate from Saginaw, was working solo in the studio, mixing genres and proving Radson's point.

"Punk, alt [alternative], and more," he said to describe his show this Tuesday afternoon. "I'm playing REM now. I'd love a morning show, but not like the 4:00 to 6:00 am Sunday that I had to take first."

While airing the 1980s and 1990s alternative rock icons, the mechanical and electrical engineering major appreciates the freedom the station affords him.

"It's cool to have so few restrictions," he says. "I like that we can play whatever we want."

Well, almost. Woe betide the DJ who breaks out those old George Carlin tracks.