Monday, September 15, 2008

Where Was the First College Radio Station in the U.S.?

The history of college radio has always been a bit confusing to me, since its early days were marked by DIY experiments that weren't regulated or necessarily documented. Today I saw a post by someone trying to track down the identity of the very first college radio station in the U.S. and this post reminded me that I have heard conflicting reports about who claims this distinction.

On his Times-Union blog Class Conflict, grad student Brandon Mendelson writes:

"I’m attempting to figure out if: 1) Union College does indeed have the first college radio station. Wikipedia confirms this, as does the motto for their station, “The First Station in The Nation”... 2) If the FCC does differentiate between wireless and broadcast transmissions. I think it does, but if it doesn’t, that opens up the question as to whether or not UAlbany’s wireless transmissions from the physics department would qualify the station for being older than Unions."

I'd heard about Union College's claims before, but recently I also learned about another contender that had never been on my radar before: St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. According to St. Joseph's University radio station WSJR's website, "WSJR has always been a pioneer; it opened the first college radio station on AM in 1922. In the 80's, it moved to FM radio. Following a hiatus, WSJR now broadcasts exclusively on the Internet."

The National Radio Club website also has the following radio tidbits (excerpted from 1981's Famous First Facts by Joseph Nathan Kane):

"In the United States, the first. . .

EXPERIMENTAL RADIO LICENSE issued by the Department of Commerce following the International Radio Convention and Radio Act of 1912 (37 stat. l. 302), August 13, 1912, was serial number 1, granted St. Joseph's College, Philadelphia, Pa. (3XJ, 2 kilowatts)...

COLLEGE RADIO STATION was WRUC, Union College, Schenectady, N. Y., which went on the air October 14, 1920. It instituted a series of weekly programs on October 15, 1920, consisting of vocal and instrumental phonograph records. The programs were broadcast from 8 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. with a three-minute interval. They were initially heard within a 50-mile radius; this increased under favorable weather conditions. A 5 50-watt U-2 transmitter was used. Frederick L. Ganter was President of the Radio Club of Union College; Wendell W. Key, the chief engineer, and Francis J. Candle, the chief operator. The station was owned by the trustees of the college.

EDUCATIONAL RADIO STATION LICENSED was WOI, Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, which received the call letters 9Y1 (375 meters frequency, using 100 watts) on November 21, 1921. On April 28, 1922, the station was granted a license to broadcast on 360 meters (834 kc.) using 1000 watts...."

So, clearly there are many different ways for college radio stations to be "first" on the scene. We've covered Union College and St. Joseph's University, so here's a bit more about the history of radio at Iowa State. According to the WOI website history section:

"The history of broadcasting at Iowa State University dates back to 1911. That is when physics professor Dad Hoffman rigged a transmission line from the campus water tower to Engineering Hall and asked for money to establish a wireless telegraph station. In 1914 the electrical engineering department of Iowa State College installed and began operation of a small transmitter under the call letters 9YI. Newspaper reports from 1913 indicate station 9YI was regularly sending and receiving weather reports by Morse code. In 1915 the engineers took the show on the road and took the amazing technology to the Iowa State Fair."

Additionally, Louis M. Bloch, the author of "The Gas Pipe Networks: A History of College Radio 1936-1946," argues that Brown University was one of the originators of college radio. The RadioActivity blog provides a nice summary of this claim in a post from January 2008 (scroll down to catch it). Indeed, Brown University has done a nice job documenting their radio history, as I wrote about earlier this year in my post "From Gas Pipes to Websites: College Radio History Project at Brown."

So, what do you think...which of these is the REAL first college radio station? Definitely hard to say.

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