Music Marathon, WTJU-FM Still Going Strong After 40 Years
By Patrick O'Rourke, UVA '96
Imagine a car radio with only one button.
It seems absurd, but that's all one would have needed on the FM band in Charlottesville until 1968. The town's only FM station was the University radio station 91.3 WTJU-FM. Today, as more than a dozen FM stations beam their signals toward the Grounds, WTJU remains a pillar at the left end of the dial, albeit at 91.1 FM now. The different frequency is one of several changes that have taken place since WTJU bean broadcasting in December 1957.
At its founding, W'TJU operated under the sponsorship of the Department of Speech and Drama and sent out a 10-watt signal. broadcasting nightly programminfg during the school year. The schedule of Mantovani, news and classical music reached as far as Crozet, 11 miles west of Grounds. Today, the station is a University department under the vice president for student affairs. It features classical, folk. jazz, public affairs and rock programming. All day, every day, it send., its signal out over a 50-mile radius.
WTJU owes its start to an extraordinary sacrifice on the part of a newly married U.Va. student. Rodolph Johnson (Engr 'S6, GSBA '60) found a radio station in Washington, D.C., that was leaving the air and selling its transmitter, a World War II surplus item known as the "Gates Wonder." With $450 donated by Kappa Delta Pi, an honorary education fraternity, and the assistance of his ushers, Johnson cut short his honeymoon to bring the transmitter to Charlottesville.
FM radio had come to the University, but it still needed a name. While one can imagine what the new Mrs. Johnson called it, the station's call letters were decided by the Federal Communication Commission. It chose WTJU (Thomas Jefferson's University) from a list of five names drawn up by professor George Wilson of the speech and drama department.
Broadcast hours in the early clays depended on the announcer. The station generally stayed on from about 7:30 to 11:00 every night. However, accorcdinl; to one of the station's first announcers, Rey Barry (who attended U.Va. as Barry Plotnick), "You had a shift and kept it going as long as you could."
It was this can-do attitude that led to the institution of the station's Exam Marathon. During reading week and through the exam period, the station expanded its programming to 24 hours a clay. "Most everybody was up all night preparing for an exam," says Barry, who completed his degree in philosophy froth the College in 1981. "Playing classical music at 3:00 a.m. seemed the natural thing to do."
Barry says his longest on-air marathon stint lasted about 12 hours, but first-year engineering student Matthew Lucas (Com '63, Law '66) set the early record for continuous broadcasting at WTJU. Attempting to sign up for a standard four-hour shift, he accidentally took on an entire day.
Lucas finished his personal marathon weary but happy. He told The Daily Progress, "I couldn't believe it when my roommate came back and told me I'd signed up for a 24hour shift, but a change would have meant trouble for everyone, so I decided I might as well go through with it."
The late Rod Collins (Educ '57) is credited with initiating the Exam Marathons. "Rod probably had every idea WTJU went with," Barry says. "He was very inventive, and WTJU was close to his heart." Collins made his personal library of recordings available to the station, providing much of its on-air material. Although his official role at WTJU ended in the early 1960s, he continued to have input into the station.
"There was an electrical charge to him," says William Tandy Young III (Col '76), who met Collins while working at the station in the early 70's. According to Young, Collins had a "mysterious workshop" in the attic of Old Cabell Hall, the home of the station's lint transmitter. There, Collins rigged a connection for WTJU to broadcast National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," which the station carried for about a year.
By 1962, the University had begun to dismantle the Department of Speech and Drama. Professor Wilson had left, and the mission of WTJU seemed uncertain. "The idea of teaching people to use radio professionally was anathema to U.Va.," says Barry. The station broke loose from the department in 1962 and a year later moved its studio from the radio and recording center in Cabell to the basement of Humphreys dormitory. By then, the station's broadcast day extended from 3:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. while school was in session. Deejays played classical music almost exclusively, although the marathons had opened up to include occasional rock and jazz programs.
With the move to Humphreys came the station's first rise in power, from 10 watts to 250. Unfortunately, the studio was a large dorm room and could hold little more than the barest necessities for a radio station. "It was packed," says Dick Berrong (Col '73). "Everything was wedged in, including the transmitter. It was ungodly hot. Besides, we were all in coats and ties then."
The station soon expanded into the Humphreys chapel and two other rooms. Programming also expanded as rock `n' roll began to wrest some airtime away froth the classical department around 1970. Berrong says that rock programming made its first inroads when rock disc jockeys went on the air at times the station would otherwise have been off the air.
These incursions met with some opposition, and turf wars developed over airtime. "It was all incredibly political," remembers Dave Rogers (Col '69, Educ '81), who has appeared on WTJU for 24 years -- longer than any other announcer. "Whoever got elected to be program director was a key person. Depending on that person's leanings, we would go though a significant schedule revamping every year." He said that establishing détente among the rock, jazz and classical deejays took eight or nine years.
Young had firsthand experience with that power as music director in 1973-74 and program director the following year. The station had one jazz program when he arrived.Soon, everyone played some jazz. "When Iwas program director, it got a little out ofhand," Young admits. "I put on people who played music that I liked, and people got the impression that they had to play jazz toget on the air."
Young's inadvertent pressure did raise the profile of jazz on XWJU. in fact, since1981, the station has organized and broadcast about 115 jazz concerts. Before too long, jazz announcers had their own department, making a tight schedule even tighter.The three departments struck a workable balance, though, which lasted though the1980s and another move.
In 1983 the station relocated to the basement of Peabody Hall. The spacious new studio made some announcers uncomfortable. Rogers did not sit down on the air for a year until he became accustomed to the larger space.
Ten years later, the University embraced WTJU as a department. Chuck Taylor, a long-time announcer, became the station's first full-time paid employee when the University hired him to serve as station manager. Since then, Taylor has tried to bring stability to the airwaves without smothering creativity. "Continuity is the primary thing," he says. "I know the history and therefore the flavor of the station. I believe in the programming."
This emphasis on quality programming has been central to WTJU since its earliest broadcasts. "WTJU's constant theme was 'Don't do a show unless you can do something outstanding,"' says Rey Barry.
Rogers echoes that thought: "The strengthof the station over the time I've been involved is that it's primarily driven by a group of people who just love music." That common interest has built a strong station and strong friendships. "There was a family of radio folks for whom music was incredibly important in their lives," says Harry Sleeper (Engr '81, '83), who instituted the first marathons for the jazz and rock departments. "My best friends, a lot of them are radio folks from WTJU."
In 1993, WTJU-FM moved its antenna from Observatory Hill to Carter's Mountain. The move was necessary, says station manager ChuckTavlor, because WTJU's broadcasts were causing interference with other signals at the observatory.
At the same time the antenna was moved, the station changed its frequency- from 91.3 FM to 91.1 FM. Mike Friend (Grad'94), who was then the station's chief engineer, recommended the change since the new frequency had no interference from nearby radio stations, unlike the old frequency. Not only did the station's broadcast signal becom clearer, but its range doubled.
The increased range has changed WTJU's purpose, says Taylor. Although not purely a community radio station, it was no longer simply a college station either. Taylor has dubbed WTJU "university radio," a hybrid of the two. He says that while the community has always provided volunteers, it now also makes up a large part of the audience. "With our expanded signal, we've made a special point to welcome community members as listeners as well."