On October 19, 2013, Clarkies from across the country descended on the nondescript yellow building on the corner of Hawthorne and Main streets that houses WCUW-FM (91.3) to celebrate a cultural milestone. Forty years earlier, the radio station born on the Clark University campus and shepherded to maturity by generations of students was granted a noncommercial, educational FM license.
The reunion brought together alumni who had once sat behind the microphone and delivered the news of Worcester and the world. They'd hosted forums for citizens to speak their minds, and opened the airwaves to Hispanic voices. They'd spun records — the real kind, big and vinyl — introducing unknown musicians to ears that were ready for something fresh. Bruce Springsteen was just a scruffy kid from New Jersey, but his music found a home at WCUW.
The station served as as a training ground-cum launch pad into media careers for many Clarkies, and its origins can be traced to the fertile intellectual soil of Clark University, the radio mania of the 1920s, and a humble physicist who became one of the most influential people in history.
The Radio Club at Clark was initiated through the Physics Department possibly as early as 1914 to experiment with the budding technology that would eventually allow people in isolated rural areas or urban hubs to listen to concerts from Chicago, election results, or speeches by the president in real time. In 1921 the club broadcast the first Radio Glee Club Concert in New England. Received in towns surrounding Worcester, the program also included an address by physics professor and club adviser Robert Goddard, A.M. 1910, Ph.D. 1911, on "The Significance of Radiophone Development." Goddard knew something about significant developments: he would go on to invent modern-day rocketry and usher in the Space Age. The radio waves he used to control rockets could also transmit information.
An unidentified Radio Club member reflected on the potentially transformative power of the new medium in a broadcast to amateur radio operators in Worcester:
"With the radiophone, there is an uncanny feeling when the speaker realizes that he cannot guess as to the size or even the location of his audience, and that a million might easily be listening to what he has to say. It gives one the feeling of having command of a new power."
Like Goddard's rockets, audio broadcasting at Clark underwent several incarnations over the decades. University archives contain a number of applications for experimental, limited commercial, and amateur radio licenses during the 1920s and early 1930s, approved by two predecessors of today's Federal Communications Commission — the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Navy Radio Service and later the Federal Radio Commission. Included were two successive three-month licenses for call sign WCUW, issued in 1925.
Another Clark call sign, WCN, licensed on March 21, 1922, is one of only five collegiate stations included in a list of the first 100 radio stations in the United States published at oldradio.com. With its music programs, weather, and market reports, WCN's impact on local listeners was unquestionable. That same year, one Worcester resident, a disabled veteran, sent a neatly typed letter to the Radio Club:
"Just a few lines to inform you that your daily concerts by radio are very pleasing to me," he wrote. "[I] have to stay around the house, and your concerts surely make the time fly."
Another man told how his mother "always thought that radio was not good, but now she has changed her mind" after listening to the Clark station.
While the Radio Club, mentored at various times by Goddard and physics professor Percy M. Roope, appears to have disbanded and ceased broadcasting in the early 1930s, interest in a campus radio station experienced a brief revival following World War II. Early in 1952, The Scarlet announced the formation of the Clark University Radio Broadcasting Association Club and campus radio station WCUR. From 7 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, in a studio in Jonas Clark Hall, students played records donated by Worcester radio stations. As an AM carrier-current station, its signal was transmitted to staff and students via the electrical wiring of campus buildings.
By April 1954, the station had changed its name to WCUB, acquired its own stationery and was making plans to boost its power and extend transmission to the fraternity houses. Despite this optimism, one year later The Scarlet announced the shutdown of WCUB due to "insufferable technical difficulties." Apparently, an electronics field expert, after surveying the station's set-up, determined the station was "violating no less than fifteen regulations of the Federal Communications Commission." The expense of correcting the violations required funds that WCUB didn't have, and a decision was made to disband the station.
Back on the air
Barely a decade later, in 1964, Clarkies initiated on campus broadcasts again, this time from the fourth floor of Estabrook Hall, using the call sign WCUW. The station was essentially free of administrative control, and there was no lack of student interest.
"What was really amazing about the station was that every year you'd see a whole new cast of characters," remembers Ken David '67, who responded to a notice on the Student Union bulletin board looking for students to start a campus radio station. "It was such an exciting concept at the time, and so many kids wanted to be involved, that we literally had to take turns. The station would be on maybe 10 hours a day all through the week, and everyone wanted to be on the air or to run the control board, or they wanted to be an engineer."
During a visit to local CBS affiliate WNEB to scrounge equipment, David was asked by the program director to read aloud some wire copy. He did, and was told, "Kid, you've got a job." David was hired part time, and post-graduation became operations manager and program director at local station WSRS.
Student enthusiasm was such that by the early 1970s, WCUW had transformed itself into a station with a mission. What with the Civil Rights movement and Black Power; women's liberation, the Pill, and Roe v. Wade; the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty; the country in general — and its college students in particular — was in ferment.
Under the leadership of John Levin '72, in 1973 WCUW applied for an FCC license and transitioned to FM status — along with permission to broadcast off-campus.
"People didn't want to listen to AM anymore," Levin explains. "They wanted to listen to FM, to good-sounding music. That was the impetus." But he also envisioned a nonprofit station for and about the local community.
Levin characterizes his years at WCUW as a time of "a huge re-evaluation of social and political structure. There was the sense that my generation was going to change things."
He found his roadmap for change in "Sex and Broadcasting: A Handbook on Starting a Radio Station for the Community," published in 1972. Levin describes the book as "a combination of diatribe about the broadcasting industry, political rabble-rousing, and instructions about how to get a license."
"Basically," he says, "I followed the instructions."
In a conversation with Dean of Students William Topkin, Levin broached his idea of a station that, while physically located on the Clark campus, would serve the city. Topkin and President Mortimer Appley supported his vision.
According to Levin, that enlightened attitude on the part of Clark's administration was unique.
"Clark could have done what every other college in the country did, which is say, 'You want to do this, that's fine. But you're going to do it our way,'" Levin says. "[Clark's administration] understood there was a need to let the station become what it was going to become."
A broadcasting bullhorn
Walter Henritze '74 uses the word "radical" to describe the change in the station after its switch to FM.
"There was a huge ferment in media at the time, and a movement across the country to put the community on the air," he says. "That was really the driving force at WCUW-FM — to give voice to those who had none. We had community coordinators and the benefit of the radio bullhorn. You could get on the air and ask for volunteers, and people would come out of the woodwork."
For Harriet Baskas '77, who worked as a community organizer for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group during her college summers, the opportunity to take part in WCUW's rebirth as an FM community station struck a chord.
"It was a college station, but the goal was to get local people involved," she says. "WCUW not only got me connected with people on the campus, but in the community."
Baskas, who would go on to help establish community stations in Washington state and is now a writer and awardwinning radio producer based in Seattle, remembers during orientation weekend hearing about a radio station in the basement of Sanford Hall.
"I was one of those high school kids who stayed up all night listening to FM radio when it was just starting to be a cool thing. I wanted to check the station out," she recalls. "And the fact that it was in the basement of the freshmen boys' dormitory was a bonus!"
Baskas would volunteer at WCUW throughout her four years at Clark, and continued to work at the station for a time after graduation. She describes "passionate discussions, arguments that people would have over how this radio station was to grow." Baskas also organized a national community-radio conference that was hosted on the Clark campus, and she became a driving force in providing content targeted to a female audience.
"As alternative as the station was," she recalls, "women's programming was the way for girls to get involved."
Other public affairs programs covered a wide range of topics, like the effect of oil spills on the state's marine environment, child pornography and prison reform; the latter issues were explored on a 13-week series titled "Behind the Badge." Worcester City Council and School Committee meetings also were broadcast regularly.
One of the most significant of WCUW's efforts was the introduction in 1977 of public affairs programming for Worcester's Hispanic community. According to Levin, the Worcester Telegram funded a Spanish-language teletype machine at the urging of then Clark Trustee Alice C. Higgins. WCUW also carried the United Press International news dispatches from South America. In time, the station was broadcasting about 20 hours of Hispanic programming each week.
Levin, who ran the station for several years after graduating, recalls how Spanish filled the air in the neighborhood around Clark.
"I remember driving down Main Street in the summer with the windows of my Chevy Nova rolled down, and I could hear WCUW from Webster Square all the way to downtown because it was just pouring out of people's houses during the Spanish-language programming. It was a simple connect-the-dots in terms of the audience, but nobody else was doing it."
Farewell to the comfort zone
Musically, WCUW-FM has long offered its listeners a healthy dose of the unexpected — everything from punk rock to Polish folk tunes.
Jazz enthusiast Alan West '74, now director of administration at WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston, got his start in radio deejaying at WCUW. Prompted to join by a friend who worked at the station, West recognized an opportunity to sink himself into music "in a deeper way," and came to value the creative freedom that WCUW afforded. He sought to create programs that required the listener to expand his or her musical comfort zone, or abandon it altogether.
West created two shows, "Music of the Whole Earth" and "Creative Lineage," the latter a history of improvised jazz. He also started the WCUW jazz festival, an annual event from 1978 to 1990 that sponsored concerts by cuttingedge instrumentalists such as percussionist Max Roach, saxophonist Evan Parker, and vibraphonist Walt Dickerson. (Many of the festival recordings have been archived and can be heard online.)
"[Volunteering at WCUW] almost became an ethnomusicology course for me," he says. "I would spend sometimes as long as forty hours preparing for a one hour show, just pulling together as much music as I could, whether lullabies from around the world or harvest songs. It took a lot of research."
Ross Reynolds '75, currently senior host/producer for "The Conversation" at Seattle's KUOW, was also drawn to WCUW by his interest in music, and joined the station the summer before his senior year. He hosted a 6 to 9 a.m. show five days a week called "The Alternative Alarm Clock," and relished the opportunity programming gave him to learn and experiment.
Reynolds grew to realize that the station's music programmers were a special breed.
"We had a music director pushing us to stay away from what was safe and what was commercial and check out some of the new music that was going on. There was a lot of interesting music coming down the pike; at the radio station we were very much on top of that."
Reynolds' volunteer status at WCUW segued into a paid position as the station's public affairs director, putting together a weekly half-hour program called "Worcester Outlook," which consisted of interviews and stories about what was going on in the city. He also started a program called "The Conservative Outlook," providing a forum for emerging conservative figures, one of whom was Ed King, later governor of Massachusetts.
"We were very much inspired by the community radio movement of the early 1970s, and by the Pacifica radio stations, which began in the 40s," Reynolds says. "Those stations were designed to provide access to the airways to people who didn't have access before. Our whole working philosophy was that people in the community should be able to use the airways to talk about issues that were important to them. A lot of us were very idealistic about that."
The beat goes on
As WCUW flourished, the station outgrew its quarters in the basement of Sanford Hall. In 1980 it relocated offcampus to its Main Street location, and Clark student participation in the station declined to the occasional internship. While WCUW continues in the same spirit to serve the neighborhood and city, the current campus-based station, ROCU (Radio of Clark University), harnesses the 21st century's broadcast marvel — online streaming.
Reynolds and Baskas (now husband and wife), along with West, Levin, Henritze and other former volunteers and employees gathered to celebrate WCUW's 40th anniversary as an FM station the weekend of October 19-20, 2013.
"As we went around the room that Sunday morning at the reunion," Reynolds recalls, "people were talking about what a great opportunity the radio station had afforded them, the kind of freedom and the ability to experiment and make their own rules. Even people who didn't go on in radio talked about how it had influenced their careers. There was a lot of heart in that room. It was a real important time for all of us."
For Levin, "the connection between what Clark facilitated at WCUW and what Clark is doing now is an important thing. The vision of the administration at that time was the kind of vision that keeps the University unique. When Clark adopted its slogan Challenge Convention, Change Our World, I thought, 'That's the Clark I know. That DNA persists.'"
This story was originally published in CLARK Magazine, spring 2014.