HISTORICAL ROW: WESLEYAN’S UNDERGROUND RADIO STATION

Radio station WES Operations Manager Bob Stuart ’42 in a photograph from the 1940 Olla Podrida. Photo:  Special Collections & Archives.

Radio station WES Operations Manager Bob Stuart ’42 in a photograph from the 1940 Olla Podrida. Photo: Special Collections & Archives.

When sophomore Arch Doty moved into room 23 of Clark Hall in September, 1939, he brought with him a radio transmitter he had built at home the previous summer. Using a turntable, 78 rpm records, a microphone, the transmitter, and an antenna wire hanging out of Arch’s window, student-run radio at Wesleyan hit the airwaves. 

It was a modest start. The entire audience that tuned into the evening AM-band broadcasts was limited to Clark residents—the weak signal reached no farther than several hundred feet beyond the antenna. But the broadcasts proved to be very popular, and within weeks, students in other residences wanted to be able to tune in.

The only way to increase listenership was to extend the wire antenna. The Argus reported on October 16, 1939, that three (apparently self-appointed) student managers—Arch as technical director, Robert Stuart ’42 as operations manager, and George Strobridge ’41 as business manager—were seeking administration sanction to create a radio network at Wesleyan inspired by the one-of-a-kind station established by Brown University students in 1936 that used a wired network as a campus-wide antenna. If the board of trustees agreed, “the Cardinal Network of the Wesleyan Broadcasting System will go on the air with a regular series of programs for the undergraduates of this college.” There is no record that the trustees took up the matter, but at Arch’s invitation, President James McConaughy inspected the nascent operation, and on November 2, The Argus announced that he had given his approval. 

To get ready for the station’s upcoming formal debut, the students built a small studio and made technical improvements in a Clark basement space given to them by the administration. Hundreds of feet of wire were run among the existing cabling in the underground steam tunnels that connected Clark through Olin Library to two other buildings—Harriman Hall and North College—that were dorms at the time. As long as a radio was within range of the wire, it would pick up the signal just like that of any other AM station. The student managers funded the entire enterprise out of their own pockets to the tune of $250 (about $4,200 today).

On November 9, 1939, at 8 p.m., radio station WES, as it was called prior to 1949, made its first official broadcast. It hasn’t been recorded what the first words were, but The Argus reported that the program opened with football captain Bob Murray ’40 speaking with cheerleader Dick Landsman ’41 about the upcoming Williams game. Then, football coach Jack Blott provided remarks about the game. President McConaughy followed with a 20-minute welcoming address (“Mr. Station Manager, Mr. Announcer, thank you for this privilege—cordial congratulations and good wishes”). Rounding out the broadcast, the Paint and Powder Club presented two scenes from their current production, Bury the Dead

And with that, WES—now WESU—kicked off what in 2014 is 75 years of alternative programming.

—LEITH JOHNSON, University Archivist (and DJ of “The Light Fandango” on WESU).

In conjunction with the Wesleyan University Archives, WESU is eager to gather documentation, memories of former staff members, and artifacts—particularly audio recordings—relating to the station and its 75-year history. Please contact WESU General Manager Ben Michael (generalmanager@wesufm.org) or Leith Johnson (ljohnson@wesleyan.edu) for more information.

The University Archives welcomes alumni, faculty, students, and visiting scholars researching WESU or any aspect of Wesleyan’s history.