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History: Station of the Month

Intro | Timelines | Histories | Interviews | Photos

WTJU-FM:June's Station of the Month
By Chuck Taylor, Station Manager & Patrick O'Rourke, Volunteer Announcer

You all know how much work there is to keep your radio station broadcasting, solvent, entertaining and on time. And you all know what it's like when you throw an extra project into the mix. Well listen to what 1996-97 has been and continues to be for WTJU in Charlottesville, Virginia. On top of normal operations, we upgraded our on air studio, moved our antenna once, to a temporary site... and again next month to a more permanent location on a tower under construction! And finally, we organized a party to celebrate 40 years of broadcasting in Charlottesville: researched the history, found thirteen hundred alums and established some form of contact with about 750! No, they're not all coming. But those who are will include announcers from the late 50's to the present. Considering some of the stories respondents have contributed, it should be quite a reunion.

What was WTJU like in 1957?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 91.3, WTJU-FM broadcasting from the University of Virginia. Today, as more than two-dozen FM stations beam their signals toward Charlottesville, WTJU remains a pillar at the left end of the dial, albeit at 91.1 FM now. The different frequency is one of many changes that have taken place since WTJU began broadcasting forty years ago in 1957.

At its founding, WTJU operated under the sponsorship of the Department of Speech and Drama and sent out a 10-watt signal broadcasting nightly programming during the school year. The schedule of national news and classical music reached about eleven miles into the mostly rural community surrounding Charlottesville. Today the station is a department of the University of Virginia and features classical, folk, jazz, rock, blues, world and other music programming, and several public affairs programs, 24/365 reaching listeners sixty miles into the surrounding countryside.

WTJU owes its start to an extraordinary sacrifice of a newly married UVA student, Rowland Johnson, who in 1957 found a radio station in Washington, DC, which was leaving the air and selling its transmitter, a World War 11 surplus item known as the "Gates Wonder." With 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, WTJU (Thomas Jefferson's University) were decided by the FCC from a list of five potential names.

Broadcast hours in the early days depended on the announcer. The station generally stayed on from about 7:30 to 11:00 every night. However, according to Rey Barry, one of the station's first announcers, "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. In the first two years, programming was hit-or-miss. During UVA's 1959 exam period it was expanded to 24 hours a day to provide time and light classical music for students to study by. Jazz was allowed to air only from 1-5am! The marathon ran for 264 hours, a record for continuous broadcasting in the Charlottesville area. Radio stations familiar with WTJU's eccentric but effective fundraising can trace the origin of our methods to these Exam Marathons. More on that soon.

WTJU became a 250 watt "open air" station in 1963 and increased to 750 watts in 1967. Anyone who has been involved with a University radio station knows that funds (ours coming occasionally from Student Council fees from 1963-1993) are rarely enough to operate. In 1972 WTJU had its first on-air fund drive to purchase a new air board. This fund drive was organized by the jazz staff and raised $3700 toward the new consoled quickly discovered to be a lemon. To replace it quickly, the Chief Engineer built a custom board from scratch... it had a built-in calculator, flashing WTJU letters, and a cigarette lighter!

From that first fund drive in 1972, WTJU has continued to raise money for operations and equipment. From 1960 until 1993, WTJU, then a student organization, was eligible for student funds. The station was frequently denied needed funds but by the 80s, WTJU's on-air fund drives were successful enough to create a buffer against lean times. WTJU has had four fund drives a year for about five years. Before dial there were FIVE! per year all the way back to the early 80s. Each music department (classical, jazz, folk, rock)has its own fund drive and loosely features the music of that department during the entire fund drive. How did we arrive at such a strange method off fundraising? Look back to the description of the early classical marathons: there were two a year, during each exam period. The classical department was already featuring all classical music at exam periods, so requests for funds occurred then. The rest of the departments scheduled fund drives at other times, to elicit audience support for their programming.

Because we have been doing the drives this way for so long, we have accustomed the audience to "music marathons" of folk, jazz, rock or classical. The fundraising occurs during these "marathons." The audience believes the marathons to be a treat and have not been open to changing to more conventional public radio methods.

There have been many changes in programming over the years. Here are a few of the highpoints: Around 1968-69 the mongrel hordes of rock and jazz announcers began a takeover of programming from the classical staff. Some chroniclers of the time report actual physical confrontations between the rock and classical staffs! The good news was that the station went from eight to eighteen hours a day of programming, the staff grew from 30 to 80 people and a news staff was formed. By 1973 programming included a balance of rock, jazz, classical and news, public affairs and an occasional folk or bluegrass program. Today, the balance still exists, with the following exceptions: rock also has the 1-6 am slots beyond its daytime hours, and folk and related programming have in-creased considerably and are bringing in a significant amount of dollars even with fewer hours than any other department Also of interests with strong personnel in our jazz department in the early 80s, the presentation of an occasional jazz concert developed into a nationally recognized series. WTJU has now presented about 118 jazz concerts featuring some amazing performers. For further information on our schedule, jazz concert series, personnel or other, please consult our web page.

All of the above mentioned departments are made up of volunteers, but since 1993 WTJU has had two full-time employees, Station Manager and Business Manager. We have 2 part-time production engineers and a contracted engineer shared with another radio station. Now to put aside the history and talk about the big news for W-IJU this year- In addition to the antenna moves and the 40th anniversary celebration, we upgraded our on air studio. In 1995, a local newspaper approached us with a proposition, if they did 211 the work to create a CD by local musicians, would it be all right if they donated all the proceeds to WTJU? Radio/CD projects do not typically raise much money for the makers or their benefactors, but as luck would have it, the Dave Matthews Band is from Charlottesville and contributed a previously unreleased song for the compilation. To date, the CD has made WTJU $10,500 after expenses! The only requirement the producer had was that we purchase a new console and make other improvements to our on-air sound with the money.

It had been over thirteen years since the studios were built and nothing had been done to improve the facilities other than a new rug and some equipment. Our idea was to make some simple improvements when we installed the new air console. That idea changed when a small local architecture firm approached WTJU about designing the studio upgrade for us.

We agreed to listen to their proposal. They would provide design expertise, drawings, and act as project coordinators for the upgrade. This sounded like a good idea to us and we asked them for drawings. They then helped WTJU in choosing other companies to perform the details of the work. Ultimately, ten contractors including the designers were involved in the upgrade. Ten companies or individuals donated all or most of their labor to this project. Final accounting is not complete, but estimates indicate that WTJU has a new air board all new equipment (CD players, DAT, Cassette decks, amps, etc.) and wiring, demolition of existing studio, gorgeous custom cabinetry, custom counter tops, new ceiling tiles, new carpeting, related materials and more -- all installed by local companies for less than $22,000! This includes engineering and all related expenses. The estimated value of our new studio furnishings is$60,000. And remember that we received a $10,500 donation specifically for this project. Other stations interested in our procedures in getting the contractors to agree to donate (underwriting, tax write-offs, pictures in the local press and national magazines, etc.), may contact Chuck Taylor at WTJU. In conclusion, the most important aspect of WTJU to the community is best expressed by Dave Rogers, who has appeared on WTJU for 24 years, longer than any other announcer by far. "The strength of the station over the time I've been involved is that its primarily driven by a group of people who just love music." Add our public affairs shows to that mix and you have a recipe for great community radio.

WTJU is owned and operated by the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia.
The opinions expressed by announcers or guests on WTJU are not necessarily the opinions of WTJU or the University of Virginia.