Penn State student broadcasting marks its 105th year

When I visited Penn State at the start of this fall semester, I sat in on The LION 90.7fm’s first all-staff meeting of the academic year. Ross Michael, the station’s president and general manager, mentioned that they would be celebrating the station’s 23rd birthday sometime in October, as the present incarnation of the larger Penn State student broadcasting experience. I just got an email that the celebration will be happening October 29th from 1-3pm in the HUB-Robeson Center, and will probably be streamed live by the station.

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There’s a historical marker in The LION 90.7fm’s facilities called the “Penn State Student Broadcasting Story,” which covers the 100+ years of this Penn State tradition. Here’s its coverage of The LION 90.7fm (WKPS)’s era:

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.

This is the history and spirit that will be celebrated later this month as Penn State student broadcasting celebrates its 105th year and as The LION 90.7fm marks its 23rd year as present standard bearer of that tradition.

Reaching The LION 90.7fm’s year-end goal

I wrote earlier this year soliciting audio, memories, items, etc. from Penn State’s student broadcasting alumni for a growing permanent archive, and more recently on the news of Penn State’s “Student Broadcasting” historical marker placed in from of Pattee/Paterno Library just before the start of the fall semester. I also visited the old WDFM headquarters in Sparks Building and made a short video of the Student Broadcasting marker for those who can’t visit it in person.

Why do I think Penn State student broadcasting still matters in a world where content can be created and consumed instantaneously? Why does The LION 90.7fm—the heir to WPSC, WDFM, and WPSU—still matter for Penn State students?

For the reason I shared with Penn State News earlier this year: “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.”

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What The LION 90.7fm does, and what its predecessors we honor did in years past, is provide a specific place where young people and community members can come together and truly learn from each other. It provides a place where the human voice can be fine tuned, where a Penn Stater can learn how to speak in a way that’s compelling and to earn the attention of a potentially indifferent audience. It provides an extracurricular sort of classroom for learning about how to be a positive public citizen along with a few dozen other Penn Staters. And it provides a place for students to share great music, the news and life of the community, and the spirit of each class with anyone who might want to hear. It’s a place that reminds us that what we say, and the things we create, matter to a whole community and can change lives, careers, and influence others in all sorts of unexpected and unplanned, positive ways.

We’ve wanted to support Penn State student broadcasters for a long time. It always amazed me that, despite a history dating to the Senior Gift of the Class of 1912 that enabled the first student radio experiments, there has never been a formal scholarship to support students involved with student broadcasting.

That changed when Mike Walsh, an alumnus of The LION 90.7fm, came to me not long ago and committed $25,000 toward a necessary $50,000 to create the first permanent annual scholarship for Penn State student broadcasters. Thanks to Mike’s gift, I signed the paperwork committing the Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group to raise that remaining $25,000 no later than June 30, 2019. I’ve been confident that alumni will step up with contributions of all sizes to help us reach this goal, and I’m writing now to ask if you’ll be one who steps up and makes a gift before the end of this year.

cropped-psaa_ma_rgb_2c1.pngWe’ve already raised ~$7,500 of the remaining $25,000, and we’re aiming to raise a final ~$2,000 by December 31st. Next year, we’re aiming to raise ~$8,500. That would leave ~$7,500 to raise in 2019 and ensure we reach our $50,000 goal to make this scholarship permanent.

Even better, Penn State will double match the annual scholarship available to members of The LION 90.7fm, which means that by helping us reach this $50,000 goal, an annual ~$7,200 in scholarship assistance will be available for Penn State student broadcasters going forward, every year.

I only write to appeal for gifts like this once per year, and now is that time for this year. Will you make a gift today (or later this month) to help us raise our remaining $2,000 goal before December 31st?

Make a one time, tax deductible gift here, or consider signing up as a recurring scholarship donor directly through Penn State.

As alums of WPSC, WDFM, WPSU, WKPS, or any of the old residence hall stations, I think we have some duty to the students of today who’ve followed in our footsteps to make life better for them than it was for us. To make Penn State just a little bit better by building up student broadcasters and making it better than we found it.

That’s ultimately what I’m asking you to consider, if you’re in a position to make a gift.

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.

‘History of Penn State’ course

A few years ago a number of students and alumni came together with a vision for a new course at Penn State—specifically a course on Penn State itself. After years of friendly pushing and relationship-building the course is almost here, and Penn State News has spotlighted the course:

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A course examining the history of Penn State from its founding as the Farmers’ High School in 1855 to its evolution as one of the nation’s leading research universities will be offered for the first time this fall.

History 197, “The History of Penn State,” will chronicle and evaluate changes that have taken place at Penn State over the past 160 years and explore them in the context of larger historical and socio-economic developments in American higher education during that time. In particular, the course will study the conduct, leadership, and educational vision of notable Penn State presidents, faculty, alumni and coaches; dimensions of student life (including student protest); race and gender relations; athletics; and the challenges of University life, research and admissions in the post-World War II era.

“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.”

I hope to sit in on this course this fall. I hope it becomes one of the great courses at Penn State. I hope it stays a part of the available curricula for generations.

The first class offering has 49 seats, and as of today roughly half those seats have been registered. Here’s how it appears in Penn State’s registration system:

The course description reads:

This course examines in a selective fashion the history of Penn State. The time period extends from mid-19th century origins as the Farmers’ High School to the multi-faceted, modern research university of the early 21st century. The course will study the conduct, leadership and educational visions of notable Presidents and faculty; dimensions of student life (including student protest); race and gender relations; athletics; and the challenges of university life, research, and admissions in the post-World War II era. The Penn State experience will be examined in the context of larger historical developments in American higher education, student life and attitudes.

The course will take a distinctly historical angle: with emphasis placed on chronicling and evaluating change over time and thoughtful consideration of a diversity of voices and perspectives. A wide variety of primary and secondary readings will be assigned, and students will write several papers (including a short research paper). Undergraduates of all majors are welcome.

Soliciting audio, memories, items, etc.

At the start of the new year I’m writing to alumni and supporters of Penn State student radio broadcasting with an appeal to share your experiences.

In life we measure generations in roughly twenty year spans, but on the college campus every generation can almost be measured by the year—each with its own distinctive character and flavor.

Since Penn Staters first began broadcasting through experimental shortwave radio around 1908, through the establishment of WPSC in the 1920s as the first recognizably modern radio station, so many generations have come and gone. Each writes its own chapter in the unfolding history of student radio, but rarely have those chapters been conserved, let alone assembled into a coherent story.

I’m not proposing that we literally write a book, but I am asking that you consider spending a few minutes to email me with any memories, reminiscences, anecdotes, or experiences from your time with Penn State student radio, whether that was with WDFM, WPSU, one of the dorm stations like WEHR or WHR, or The LION 90.7fm.

Even a hundred words of memories is appreciated! Whatever you’re willing to share will be something that can be shared with each new year’s students to better understand who came before them. We’ll eventually print and donate these recollections to the Penn State Libraries for their permanent archives. For perspective, check out two examples of things alums have shared with us in the past from Steve Warren and Steven M. Weisberg. Rodger Curnow even shared late 1960s WDFM audio.

(Last year, we wrote a roughly ~2,000 word history called The Penn State Student Broadcasting Story, which now hangs in the HUB facilities of The LION 90.7fm on campus. It tells the story from 1912 through today. We were able to write this mostly thanks to The Daily Collegian’s archives, and you should check it out if you haven’t seen it. But we need your more personal stories, too.)

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Finally, if you have audio from your time on the radio station, I would be incredible grateful if you could send it my way. It, too, will go to the libraries and will be added to our budding Audio Archives. We’ve got virtually no WDFM audio, and relatively little of everything else, frankly.

That’s it for now. We’ll probably do a small open house in the HUB over Blue/White weekend in April. I’ll write more when we have specifics.

Penn State’s first history

Chris Buchignani, friend and leader of The Nittany Valley Society, writes in Town & Gown about our experience publishing Erwin Runkle’s “The Pennsylvania State College 1853-1932: Interpretation and Record:”

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Over its 161 years, Penn State has twice sanctioned books chronicling the university’s history, once in the 1940s and again with an updated version in the 1980s.

While history professor and Penn State historian Wayland Dunaway’s 1946 “History of The Pennsylvania State College” was the first official account of Old State’s history to be published, it was not the first to be written. More than a decade prior to the creation of Dunaway’s text, Erwin W. Runkle, Penn State’s librarian from 1904 to 1924 and Dunaway’s predecessor as the school’s first official historian (you may recognize the name from Runkle Hall), compiled a complete record of the institution from founding to the present day. …

I initially encountered “The Pennsylvania State College 1853 – 1932: Interpretation and Record” amidst the emotionally raw days of Fall 2012. I found rare comfort in Runkle’s meticulously constructed account of Penn State’s turbulent first 50 years, which included a true existential crisis over Pennsylvania’s allocation of Land Grant Act funding. Knowing that Penn State had survived and thrived, despite teetering more than once on the brink of total dissolution, gave me confidence that the University could survive what no longer felt, at least not indisputably, like the worst period in its history. Speaking to me from the past, Runkle’s gifts were context and perspective.

For a select group of Penn Staters with certain tastes and interests (namely, a high tolerance for heavy reading), Runkle’s book will provide a similarly edifying experience. Many others will buy it simply to display on their bookshelves, and that’s fine too – I don’t blame them; the cover art is gorgeous.

Our monthly Town & Gown columns are great. They’re one of the things that Chris has spearheaded that I like most about The Nittany Valley Society, and the way it’s “fostering a spirit across time.”