In writing The Penn State Student Broadcasting Story for The LION 90.7fm’s new historical marker last year, I learned a lot about Penn State’s college radio origins. Here’s what we wrote:
Launched in 1912 on the eve of the First World War, 8XE was, according to The Daily Collegian, “one of the first experimental licenses … granted by the government,” as well as “the first licensed club in the nation” among collegiate peers. By 1921 experimental broadcasts were evolving, and newly-christened station WPSC was again among the first of its collegiate or national peers.
WPSC harnessed both AM and shortwave frequencies to reach a local and international audience. Listeners as distant as England, Egypt, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand could hear programming featuring the first student play-by-play coverage of Penn State football, as well as basketball, wrestling, and boxing. The station also aired weekly chapel services, Glee Club and fraternity orchestra performances, music from the singers and composers of the time, lectures by professors and visitors, and distance learning instruction. It also served as occasional relay carrier for KDKA, the world’s first commercially licensed radio station.
As early as 1920, Penn State employed an undergraduate student general manager in charge of the station’s operations and in 1927 equipped the station with a $2,000 annual budget. But by 1932, wracked by the Great Depression and the prospect of costly new federal broadcast regulations, WPSC ceased operations. However, students kept alive the spirit of WPSC through less-regulated shortwave broadcasts over the course of the next generation.
A friend recently shared a link to Mike Bezilla’s illustrated Penn State history, which contains similar history. It tells the same story, but in what I think is a bit less compelling a manner while leaving out the role of the Senior Gift of the Class of 1912 and 8XE’s experimental period. But Bezilla’s illustrated history does contain two photos of 1920s student radio facilities that I don’t remember seeing before. They’re remarkable:
The most novel medium of communication pressed into service during the campaign was the College’s new radio station. Using transmitting equipment donated by several Pittsburgh area alumni, the station began broadcasting in January 1921, less than a year after the nation’s first commercial station, Pittsburgh’s KDKA, went on the air. The Department of Electrical Engineering supervised operations while a new Department of Public Information handled programming, which typically consisted of agricultural reports, faculty lectures, and musical concerts. Heard throughout Pennsylvania and in many distant states, the station carried call letters WPAB until 1924, when they were changed to WPSC. Unfortunately, a lack of money for technical repairs and improvements caused broadcast schedules to become sporadic, greatly hindering the station’s effectiveness in the building campaign.