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Radio havens for learning and listeners

Sunday, June 09, 2002

By Adrian McCoy

In 1949, a group of engineering students at what was then Carnegie Institute of Technology started an experimental radio station that broadcast to the academic halls and offices on campus for six to 12 hours a day. By 1950, Radio Carnegie Tech (that's what the RCT in WRCT stands for) covered about half the buildings on campus and became a student organization.

In 1974, WRCT moved to 88.3 on the FM dial and began to play a larger role in the community: covering the campus and nearby areas. In 1994, the FCC granted the station a power increase and today, the station's reach extends 12 to 15 miles, and globally by Internet broadcasts.

WPTS is a low-watt station with a transmitter atop the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland that broadcasts in a 30-mile radius. While it was reaching a wider audience through its Web casts, it has suspended them until it's clear what the station's legal responsibilities in terms of royalty payments will be under the new Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which will impose fees for Internet broadcasters.

WPTS went on the air in August 1984. The station evolved out of WPGH (not to be confused with WPGH-TV), an AM station heard only in the Pitt student union and dorms and on the Carlow campus.

One of WPGH's most famous alumni is Adrian Cronauer, the armed forces radio host who was the subject of the movie "Good Morning, Vietnam." Cronauer was among the group of students who launched an effort to put the original WPGH on the air in 1957.

While other local colleges and universities, such as Point Park, have stations, they don't broadcast beyond campus. Although WDUQ-FM is based at Duquesne University, it has evolved into much more than a college station: Students work there and gain experience, but its NPR broadcasts and jazz format make it one of the market's three public radio stations (WYEP and WQED being the others).

The Pitt and Carnegie Mellon stations are very different in format and philosophy -- one is free-form, the other more formatted.

On WRCT, music runs the gamut from techno to rockabilly, sometimes within minutes. The hosts have complete control over the music, with one exception: The station requires that they play three new releases per hour from a selected playlist.

Its eclectic programming has drawn an equally eclectic audience. "The majority of requests are from off-campus," says Eric Wolfson, who's acting program director for the summer. "I'm very proud of the station in that regard. I'm pleased to see shows that delve deeply into all these areas."

WPTS has a format -- primarily indie rock and new music, although it also runs blocks of specialty shows, including metal, hip-hop and reggae. It bills itself as "Pittsburgh's progressive, noncommercial FM station." WPTS has a rotation, like commercial stations. The hosts play about 60 percent playlist music and 40 percent what they program themselves.

WPTS was conceived as a "working classroom," where students could learn the ropes of the broadcasting business and get the experience they needed. That's why they aim for a balance between professional and experimental radio.

"We're looking to place people into the business, to give them a real world experience," says WPTS station manager Bruce Sullivan. "They're able go through a professional program. A number of people would like to be a DJ, and a lot of people would like to get into being music reps. We like to offer them both types of opportunities. We're also looking to be able to expose them to a lot of music they would never have a chance to play."

There are fewer and fewer places for fledgling radio talent to try their wings. Many stations have been gobbled up by large corporations. Even in smaller markets, consolidation has become a force. Automation is taking over the overnight and weekend shifts that used to start careers. In this environment, college radio remains one of the last -- and best -- refuges for radio talent.

Not to mention musically inquisitive listeners.

Adrian McCoy is a freelance writer who covers radio for the Post-Gazette.

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