Penn State News on ‘Student Broadcasting’ historical marker

I shared the news last week that Penn State had placed an historical marker on campus for “Student Broadcasting.” Penn State News has an official feature up on the marker’s placement, along with a short video overview of student broadcasting’s 1912-present history:

Historical Marker-Student Broadcasting_2

New historical marker celebrates ‘Student Broadcasting’
John Patishnock
August 14, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK — For more than a century, Penn State has pioneered broadcasting college radio, and now there’s a new historical marker to share that story with the many visitors, students, faculty and staff on the University Park campus.

Located outside of Sparks Building along Pattee Mall, the newly installed “Student Broadcasting” historical marker touts that “Penn State has been a leader in broadcasting college radio since the Class Gift of 1912 enabled early national experiments.”

Originally called WPSC, the University’s on-campus student radio station has changed names several times, with generations of students making an impact. Currently, The LION 90.7 FM (WKPS) is headquartered inside the HUB-Robeson Center and boasts new studio space that was part of the building’s expansion a few years ago.

The Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group — one of more than 300 Alumni Association affiliate groups — spearheaded having the marker installed and plans to follow up with a ceremony during Homecoming on Nov. 11.

“It’s an honor that fresh generations of Penn Staters will be able to encounter the spirit of past times through this historical marker,” said Tom Shakely, president of the Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group. “Penn Staters were broadcasting experimentally before the world wars that defined the 20th century, and they were covering Nittany Lion football games as early as the Hugo Bezdek years.

“Later, Penn Staters broadcast Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 speech in Rec Hall. On Sept. 11, 2001, Penn Staters broadcast live from Ground Zero. These are just a few vignettes from an incredible history. While it’s a fact that student broadcasting has always been made possible by technology, its true power has always been in empowering the human voice.”

‘History of Penn State’ course fills up

I wrote in May about Penn State’s “HIST 197- History of Penn State” course that debuts this fall semester. Penn State News featured the course’s creation at that time:

“The History of Penn State” grew out of discussions with several Penn State alumni who serve on the board of the Nittany Valley Society (NVS), which works to “cultivate appreciation for the history, customs, and spirit of the Nittany Valley.”  NVS Board member Steve Garguilo, 2009 alumnus in information sciences and technology, provided financial support for the course through the Stephen D. Garguilo Nittany Valley Society University History Endowment.

“This course has been a long time coming,” notes Michael Milligan, Penn State senior lecturer in history, who created and will be teaching the course. “Using Penn State as the backdrop, I want students to be able to analyze and interpret significant developments not only in American higher education, but in American history as well.”

Back in May, more than half of the course’s 49 seats were still open. Sometime in July, the course filled up. Now, there’s a wait list with 10 students on it. I expect that waitlist to grow. Here’s a screenshot from Penn State’s course catalogue:

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I’m not sure when, but I’m still planning to sit in on a class at some point in September. I hope the popularity of this first-time offering results not only in it becoming a permanent part of Penn State’s course catalogue, but that it means more sections will be offered in the future.

Penn State Student Broadcasting campus historical marker

I’m thrilled to share that Penn State has placed a new campus historical marker, recognizing Student Broadcasting as a significant part of Penn State tradition:

Student Broadcasting

“Penn State has been a leader in broadcasting college radio since the class gift of 1912 enabled early national experiments. By 1923, WPSC students were among the first college broadcasters in the nation. Since then, students have learned the craft while fulfilling their public mission to the campus and listening community. While station names and technology change, campus radio continues to enrich student learning and campus life.”

This historical marker is a reality thanks to Paul Clifford of the Penn State Alumni Association, who advocated for it internally, as well as Jackie Esposito of the Penn State Libraries, and Laura Waldhier of the Office of Strategic Communications who oversees the Penn State Historical Markers program. If you’re not familiar with Penn State’s Historical Markers program, some context:

Colleges and universities are rarely aware of their own history until chronological landmarks approach. These landmarks—anniversaries of institutional events or facilities, for example—often trigger nostalgic reminiscences. At Penn State, the historical markers program has been one way of keeping history in the public forefront without depending on special occasions. By telling the story of the University’s rich tradition of achievement in such a public manner, the marker program helps to sustain Penn State’s reputation as one of the nation’s foremost public institutions of higher education. The blue-and-white historical markers dotting the campus landscape demonstrate that Penn State has a long and diverse intellectual heritage. These markers remind visitors to the campus, as well as students, faculty, and other members of the Penn State community, of major figures and accomplishments from the University’s past. The markers stand as tangible evidence that Penn State recognizes and appreciates its heritage. They are intended to be read by pedestrians and are situated accordingly.

When I proposed this historical marker years ago, I never really expected it to go anywhere. There are an incredible number of worthy Penn State achievements worth recognizing, and these historical markers are only placed for exceptional causes—at University Park there are fewer than 65 markers, and many Commonwealth campuses have none. For these reasons and more, I’m so grateful to see the spirit and grit of generations of Penn Staters commemorated in a tangible way through this historical marker.

It’s a small but powerful symbol, and seeing it on campus calls to the imagination each of the countless thousands over the past century who have shaped Penn State through the distinctive medium of public communications. In standing beneath this marker for the first time, I felt like I could practically speak with the earliest student-pioneers, and that they could whisper to me. I hope that a century from now, whatever student broadcasting looks like at that point, that someone else will be able to feel the same way. In the meantime, I hope that students from student broadcasting today in the form of The LION 90.7fm in the HUB-Robeson Center, CommRadio at Innovation Park, and other public communicators feel every bit as honored by this historical marker as the generations that have come and gone.

You can visit this historical marker for yourself the next time you’re in Happy Valley. It’s located on the Mall in front of Pattee/Paterno Libraries, specifically on the lawn of the Sparks Building. It makes for a good place to take a photo and share with friends and alumni, especially because Sparks was home to WDFM, the longest incarnation of Penn State student broadcasting to date.

And in the spirit of sharing the larger story, and the more complete inspiration for this historical marker, I’m including below two historical markers that the Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group placed in the facilities of The LION 90.7fm in the HUB-Robeson Center in 2015. The first is a small circular plaque that essentially was the “first draft” of what is now the official Penn State Historical Marker:

And the second covers in detail the remarkable story of Penn State student broadcasting:

The Penn State Student Broadcasting Story


Born out of a vision for enhancing campus life, student broadcasting promised a new and very real expansion upon the classical idea of the student body as the heart and soul of the living university. To accomplish this, the Senior Gift of the Class of 1912 equipped The Pennsylvania State College with one of America’s first student-operated radio stations.

WPSC

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.

WDFM

By the late 1940s, fresh from American victory in World War II and in a booming economy, Penn State was ready for a new chapter. The Senior Gift of the Class of 1951 returned student radio to the airwaves as WDFM in 1953, perpetuating the spirit of pioneering student broadcasters. Located in 304 Sparks, WDFM was one of the area’s first FM stations.

In its earliest days, WDFM aired classical music, lectures, Greek and Shakespearean plays, and radio dramas like The Adventures of Ludlow and Myrtle. Like WPSC, WDFM welcomed students of any academic major, as well as alumni and townspeople. Featuring programming from “Bach to rock,” WDFM was also said to stand for “We Dig Fine Music.”

Sandy Greenspun Thomas, a board operator in the 1950s, later reflected in The Penn Stater: “The fact that I was allowed to broadcast on the air was unusual. In those days, you wouldn’t hear women on commercial stations or national stations. … I loved it. It was the most rewarding, energizing, confidence-building experience.”

Robert K. Zimmerman, another alumnus from the early era, recalled: “I did a request show, which turned into a rock ‘n’ roll show, because in 1958, what did everyone want to hear? I was the first at the station to play rock ‘n’ roll. Dr. Nelson [our advisor] called me and gave me hell for playing “Hound Dog.” I said, “Well, someone requested it.” Of course, I’d stacked the requests, had my friends call in.”

As a campus and community voice for Penn State throughout the Cold War, WDFM and its student broadcasters frequently found themselves at the center of historic events, narrating along with their professional counterparts the stories of the American century. “I was standing in the studio,” recalled Dick Harris, “the afternoon that the news of the assassination of President Kennedy came across the teletype machine.” When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Penn State in January 1965, WDFM broadcast his speech for those not able to join the more than 8,000 who had packed Rec Hall. MLK spoke of his “faith in America,” the Greek concepts of love in eros, phileo, and agape, his struggle for voting rights in Selma, and the necessity of the “struggle to secure moral ends through moral means.”

WDFM evolved in the 1960s and ‘70s, reflecting the evolution of American culture. Student broadcasters diversified their programming, including weekly USG press conferences, more than 50 weekly five-minute newscasts, dramatic literary readings, and live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera from Lincoln Center in Manhattan alongside “middle of the road music” like jazz and folk. University Chapel services continued to be broadcast each Sunday into the 1970s to an edgier student body.

“We were very into playing ‘deep cuts’ on an album,” one student of the time reflected, “not the popular songs.” WDFM  programs like “Highlight” fostered public opinion conversation, while students pushed the boundaries of their listenership with antics like the “first male stripease on radio.” At other times, student broadcasters embraced the 24/7 demands of their medium. One student recalled of his show and timeslot: “One of the themes of the show was ‘It’s Saturday night. If you’re listening, you’re a loser.’”

By the late 1970s, WDFM celebrated more than 25 years and a litany of successful graduates who were shaping the explosion of American popular media over the airwaves, behind the scenes, and in the boardroom; leaders in fields like journalism, broadcasting, and advertising, their professional fortunes rising with the rising influence of radio and television at places as varied as NBC, Westinghouse, HBO, Showtime, and NASA.

(Meanwhile WDFM inspired others. In 1963, West Halls Radio emerged as WHR, and by 1972 was joined by WEHR in East Halls, and WSHR in South Halls. These sister stations harnessed a unique “carrier current” approach to broadcasting in their respective residence halls, using power lines to transmit broadcasts directly to the dormitories. These stations functioned independently, with their own staffs and broadcast schedules. WHR and WSHR faded in relevance over time and were largely defunct by the late 1980s. WEHR continued to operate until the mid-2000s.)

A changing media landscape came to impact student life in the 1980s. One student captured the growing tension in an April 1980 Daily Collegian article, explaining that some professors and administrators believed student broadcasting belonged “in the hands of professionals” rather than with young people. An October 1981 editorial cites Senior Vice President for Administration Richard E. Grubb’s promise that administrative goals for professional broadcasting would be “carefully designed to have no effect on WDFM. WDFM has a rich history, a long tradition and a strong loyalty which should not be disturbed…” Lisa Posvar Rossi, WDFM’s 1981-82 general manager, later reflected: “We felt threatened … I remember setting up meetings at which we said we wanted to maintain independence. We did end up stalling the conversion to a public radio station, for a little while at least.” Yet by 1985, WDFM’s call letters were changed to WPSU and with this change came greater faculty influence, the loss of student general manager authority, and a shift in mission away from original content produced by students and toward NPR syndication.

By the late 1980s, WPSU had been absorbed by Penn State Public Broadcasting, leading Penn State Trustee Ben Novak to lament: “No doubt WPSU will be better and more professional according to some abstract national standard. But it will no longer be the voice of Penn State students.”

WKPS

Determined to restore that voice and resurrect a unique and powerful Penn State tradition, students in the early 1990s once again championed the cause of student broadcasting. The Board of Trustees petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for a new license, to be operated independently by and for the students, and on October 31, 1995 the airwaves welcomed WKPS and the rebirth of student radio.

Located in Downtown State College, this third generation station experienced its share of growing pains, learning to excel not through an academic department or college, but for the first time as an independent student organization. Eventually WKPS found an identity in “The LION” and, in 2003, a home in the HUB-Robeson Center. Creating a station both innovative and well-programmed, students restored many of their earliest traditions, including Nittany Lion athletics broadcasts, coverage and fundraising for the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, and service as a platform and voice for a growing student body. Diverse programs such as the Jazz Spectrum,  Jam 91, State Your Face, Latin Mix, and Radio Free Penn State echoed earlier incarnations from the WDFM era.

Students continued to narrate the stories of their time, notably during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, during which Mike Walsh covered the attacks through John Raynar, who was working one block from the World Trade Center. “We were the only media outlet in State College who had someone on the scene that day,” recalled Walsh. “That was the high point of our professionalism.”

While breaking new technical ground, student broadcasters also learned to redefine their value in light of a more connected culture, pioneering internet streaming ahead of peer stations, establishing an automated broadcast schedule, partnering with Movin’ On and The State Theatre to welcome acts large and small, and connecting major industry labels to independent and avant garde artists. In a tangible way, student broadcasters created a home for peers, professors, townspeople, and friends to put into practice the ideal of “a liberal and practical education,” embodying the principles of a free society through concern for speech in all its forms, as well as artistic and musical expression, and a cross-generational experience of a community in time which valued sense of place.

Forging their own identity in the context of the larger history of student broadcasting, students fused an often fierce commitment to principle with an evergreen mission of enhancing university and community life.

Principles

The historic and challenging lessons of time shaped the cultural and institutional character of Penn State student broadcasting, which has been defined since The LION’s founding by three bedrock principles. First, to be independently programmed and operated, led by an elected student president and general manager. Second, to honor a mission of public service to the Penn State and Central Pennsylvania communities, realized through open membership to students of any academic major as well as community members. Third, to pursue institutional support through technical, professional, financial, and legal assistance that respect freedom of thought and expression as imperatives for authentic public service.

These principles have defined student broadcasting since WPSC’s earliest days and continue to enable students to be adaptive, innovative, and confident in their mission. A tradition for more than a century, student broadcasting continues to contribute to the culture of Penn State and the wider listening community while providing students with a relevant media voice and an outlet to pursue excellence.

Arts Fest Mount Nittany hike

It was a beautiful Arts Fest weekend, probably my favorite in more than a decade of visiting. I don’t make it back to Happy Valley every Arts Fest, but when I do I try to make the most of it. This year that meant a hike up Mount Nittany with family.

The view from the Mike Lynch Overlook over downtown State College and Penn State’s campus is simply incredible. I snapped the photo above as we took a breather after the hike up. And I snapped the photo below as we walked along Mount Nittany’s ridge.

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Finding sand crunch with the soil and debris of the Mountain as you walk along is a strange thing. I never remember the sandy soil of Mount Nittany, and so am always surprised by it. Growing up with the sandy shores of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and Ocean City, New Jersey conditioned me to expect this sort of terrain at the ocean’s edge. It’s fun to find it in such an unexpected place.

Willow, weep for me

It’s Arts Fest at Penn State, and I’m enjoying it. I had to miss it last year for a conference, so it’s especially good to be back this year and see friends and return to hallowed places. One of those places it the site of Old Willow, Penn State’s earliest symbol and tradition—more on that below.

In the warm weather I like to make time to sit or splay myself out beneath the branches of Old Willow and take in the atmosphere. It’s still possible in this place to be totally at peace in the midst of the campus and near the heart of downtown State College, which is something like miraculous given how enormously the place has grown since Professor Waring planted the first generation of this tree in the 1859.

A great song to get transport you in mind, if not body, is Ella Fitzgerald’s “Willow, Weep for Me” from her 1959 “Hello Love” album. Here’s Ella’s rendition, and here’s Louis Armstrong’s.

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“Old Willow”

For decades, freshmen bowed to Old Willow as Penn State’s oldest living tradition. Legend claims that when Penn State’s first president, Evan Pugh, returned from a six-year sojourn in Europe, he brought back an off-shoot of a willow from the famous garden and grotto of English poet Alexander Pope. This sapling was planted on the Allen Street Mall, near Sackett Building, by Professor William Waring in 1859. Waring was the first superintendent of farms and grounds and was charged with the layout of roads, buildings, orchards, and landscaping. After wind felled the tree in 1923, an off-shoot of this tree grew until the late 1970s, when this third-generation tree was planted.

Honoring Evan Pugh at Homecoming

Evan Pugh, Penn State’s first president, lies just miles north of Penn State’s campus in historic Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. He’s buried with his wife, Rebecca Valentine, in her family’s remarkable plot in Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery. George Atherton, another great Penn State president, is buried on campus and is well honored and remembered as a result of his physical presence. But Penn Staters have forgotten Evan Pugh. If we want to remember who we are we should remember where we came from.

I discovered Evan and Rebecca’s gravesite many years ago thanks to an old Penn Stater. I vividly remember the feeling of first being present at their graves as if it were just moments ago that I was standing there in the cold of an autumn night. Our young founder Evan, bold and visionary, and his lovely wife Rebecca, strong and faithful, in this idyllic resting place nestled in the Central Pennsylvania mountains.

Yet time threatens to rob Penn Staters not only of the memory of their resting place, but also of the dignity of this tranquil place. Rebecca Valentine grew up in Bellefonte, and her family figured prominently in this place, but the Valentines there have left the stage. With their departure the dignity of Evan and Rebecca’s gravesite is at risk:

  • the once stately wrought iron fencing is corroding and in serious need of cleaning and painting;
  • in certain places the fencing has disappeared entirely (a significant section is missing, and the gate itself was wholly removed from its hinges at some point) due to a combination of age and vandalism, and much of the fencing’s decorative finials have been forcibly snapped off and stolen;
  • despite some initial volunteer cleaning of Rebecca’s marker, most of the markers in the Valentine plot are terribly filthy, evidenced by the stark difference between the recently cleaned stone of Bond Valentine versus that of Mattie, his wife;
  • the ground on which the visitor treads near their graves is unkempt and overgrown with weeds of all varieties, and the soil itself pocked and uneven;
  • the stones are weathered with the the light filth of seasons and time;
  • and the stone foundation of Evan’s marker itself is cracked from front to back, which will lead to the eventual collapse of his grave marker;
  • no flowers of any kind, let alone perennials, blossom near Evan and Rebecca’s graves to witness the love of those who remember both of them.

pugh_grave-autumn_fog.jpgPenn Staters celebrate a “Founders Day” each February, but what do Penn State students, professors, alumni, and others do to tangibly honor their founders? There are many words, but no obvious deeds of remembrance for Evan and Rebecca.

We should restore the memory of Evan and Rebecca, and incorporate honoring them into Penn State’s Homecoming celebrations when tens of thousands of students and alumni come together to remember who they are, and recommit themselves to the ideals of the university. The mangy scene of Evan and Rebecca’s graves that I captured in the film above this spring can change, and during Homecoming (and after restoration) it would even better and far more magical than it did in this photo taken decades ago, before neglect and damage left their mark.

A simple plan of action looks something like this:

  1. Who legally owns/controls Evan & Rebecca Valentine’s resting place? Can Penn Staters earn the right to conserve this special place?
  2. Who is able and willing to restore the stately fencing, recreating its missing sections, repairing its finials, and cleaning and restoring it in its entirety?
  3. Who is able and willing to check the stability of Evan Pugh’s grave marker, and restore or replace its base as necessary?
  4. Who is able and willing to regrade the soil and repair or replace the grass?
  5. Who is willing to plant appropriate perennial flowers to bloom in remembrance?
  6. Who is willing to clean each of the grave stones to restore them to their original luster?
  7. Is Penn State willing to incorporate perpetual conservation/restoration of both Evan and Rebecca’s grave sites and the entire Valentine family plot into the tasks of one of its departments, either the Office of Physical Plant or other appropriate department?
  8. Is the Penn State Alumni Association willing to incorporate an annual ceremony of remembrance in Bellefonte (including public remarks and Bellefonte reception) during the Thursday of Homecoming each year?
  9. Are local media outlets willing to make coverage of this remembrance a tradition in and of itself, particularly The Penn Stater, Town & Gown, Centre County Gazette, State College Magazine, Onward State, The Daily Collegian, and others?
  10. Is the Penn State historical marker commission willing to refresh its Evan Pugh historical marker to incorporate mention of Evan and Rebecca’s Union Cemetery resting place, with a photo to ensure every student knows how to pay their respects to our founders?

It’s my dream that even in the far distant future, students and family and townspeople and friendly visitors will be able to marvel at the way Penn Staters celebrate Evan and Rebecca and honor the dignity of their resting place, saying “Look at the love Penn Staters carry with them!” and wondering how they can imitate that love and bring it into their own lives and homes.

In that way, we’ll be honoring Evan and Rebecca twice, by cultivating a better people, too.

We can never talk credibly about there being a “Penn State family” as long as we neglect and dishonor Penn State’s patriarch and matriarch through this forgetfulness.

Let’s restore their resting place and honor them.

Let’s put in the work.