Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ups and Downs of Haverford College Radio

WABQ in the 1920s
Photo courtesy of
Haverford College Archives, HCHC photographs

My college reunion is next month, so of course I'm starting to get excited about visiting my former radio station WHRC at Haverford College. I've been working with WHRC staff and the alumni office to organize a get-together so that alums and staff can swap stories about WHRC past and present and learn about the "state of the station." I just got word that this gathering will be happening on Saturday, May 30th (10-11am) at Haverford. I can hardly wait!

The last time I visited (2004), I really enjoyed meeting some of the station staff and getting a tour of the place. But I was also super freaked out about some of the things that had transpired over the years. It seemed like they were in a good place in 2004. They were broadcasting online and trying to build up their music library. But they also told me about years of decline, periods when the station had been off the air, and some dark days when the vinyl collection was sold off to fund a concert.

Well, WHRC seems to be transitioning yet again. Last year they suffered a series of setbacks, including a hacker attack that led to them shutting down the station in April 2008. The current plan is for the station to take an entirely new form, made up of podcasts submitted by volunteer DJs. They may not even use the old WHRC space.

1920s Chess Match at WABQ
Photo Courtesy of Haverford College Archives, HCHC photographs

It seems like every 5-10 years radio is reborn at Haverford and it may surprise people to realize that Haverford College was actually home to some of the earliest college radio experiments, including inter-continental chess matches and quizzes in the 1920s and 1940s. The initial station, WABQ, dates back to the 1920s and is rumored to be the first college radio station on the east coast. In December 1924, Haverford College and Oxford University had the first international chess match by amateur radio. In 1926, they again held a chess match by radio, this time with students from the University of Paris.

Haverford College was also an early member of the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System (IBS), a network of college radio stations from all over the country. According to an article in the New York Times, in 1945 the Haverford College station (the article gives the call letters as WHAV) joined up with the Bryn Mawr College radio station (I didn't realize they had one! Its call letters were WBMC according to the article) and Swarthmore College station (WSRN) to create "the first intercollegiate network in the history of radio." Another article in the New York Times adds that University of Pennsylvania was also involved in this network, which was designed to share programming among the stations, including lectures, debates, music and sports.

Over the years the station has been a licensed AM station (at once point covering a 50-mile radius), campus-only AM carrier current station, Internet-only station, and will soon be moving to podcast shows.

WHRC March 20, 1947
Inter-oceanic Quiz
Photo Courtesy of
Haverford College Archives, HCHC photographs

I obviously love college radio and WHRC has a special place in my heart since that's where it all began for me. I joined as a freshman in 1985 and absolutely loved doing a radio show. Within a year or two, my pal Alex and I were recruited to be the Music Directors and we took on the job with gusto. We talked up the station, downplaying our AM carrier current status in the hopes of getting cool records for our DJs to play. Eventually records starting coming in the mail and I was there when we added the first CDs to the station (the first add was a CMJ "Certain Damage" compilation).

WHRC Studio in 1987

But, I also remember how difficult it was to get people to volunteer at the station and do extra work beyond their shows. I did a team show and my partner eventually stopped showing up. That was kind of indicative of the trouble we often had in getting people to take time from studying and social activities to keep the station afloat. Since the station was solely made up of Haverford and Bryn Mawr students, the staff changed from year to year. With a lack of consistency in staff and very little institutional history, I guess it's incredible that the station has survived from year to year.

WHRC Record Library in 1987
(Yes, that's me!)

I'm on a bit of a mission now to try to find and document the history of radio at Haverford. It was amazing to find these photos from the 1920s and 1940s from the Haverford College Library. Thanks so much to Diana Peterson from the library's "Special Collections" for allowing me to reproduce these images on Spinning Indie.

WHRC Studio in 2004

I've also tracked down WHRC alums from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s and am starting to capture their stories. It will be great to meet up with some of the current WHRC staff and connect with WHRC alums during my Alumni Weekend to continue this project.

WHRC Studio in 2004

A September 2008 article in the Bi-College News discusses the state of WHRC as of last semester. According to the piece:

"After the release of the preliminary budget, WHRC was given less than half the sum they requested...The Board discussed the possibility of perhaps raising money based on sales of unused equipment and the CD collection...

'The main goal this semester is to move the station. In order to achieve this and other goals, we have decided to cancel broadcasting for the semester,' said [Duncan] Cooper, member of FUCS [Fords' United Concert Series]. This way, the board can 'devote one-hundred-perfect of [their] energies to retooling the station.'

The retooling process involves two main steps: moving WHRC from the basement of the Dining Center to a more visible spot and redesigning the method of broadcast..."

I will have much more to report next month after my visit to Haverford. If you're an alum of the station, please get in touch to share your stories or join us at the reunion on Saturday, May 30th.


Elsa said...

I appreciate reading the history of student radio at Haverford. I think you're right that a lot of students say they want to "start a radio station" with no idea how expensive it is to broadcast. Thank goodness for podcasting! The cost of getting your ideas and music out there keeps dropping.

Jennifer Waits said...

Thanks so much for the comment.

In the case of the Haverford station, I didn't actually talk about the expense of running the station (except to note in a quote that funding had recently been reduced).

All methods of broadcast have advantages and disadvantages. Podcasting certainly has its benefits (cheap, as you point out)for some "stations," but it's also a tricky venture (particularly for FCC licensed stations) with all the copyright concerns. Likewise, webcasting, FM and AM have their pros and cons as well.

It seems to me that one of the main struggles at WHRC over the years has been the lack of consistency in the staff, something not uncommon at stations that are 100% students.

The station has gone through cycles of ebb and flow based on the energy level/commitment of the students on staff at the time. I'm pretty sure that right before I joined in 1986 there had been one of the many "rebirths" of the station. It saddens me that a place with so much rich history has been through so many ups and downs over the years.