Radio celebrates 75 years at GW

WRGW has evolved over the last 75 years from an unorganized group of students to a team of reporters broadcasting a variety of shows on high-tech machinery.

Three students founded the Radio Club on Feb. 16, 1929, to explore their fascination with the new mass medium, said graduate student Brett Kaplan, WRGW’s general manager. The first radio broadcast in the United States had taken place nine years earlier.

“You have to think about the timeframe – 1929 – public radio stations, private radio stations were just getting underway,” Kaplan said with an expression of awe.

Kaplan, who has worked at the radio station since his freshman year, helped organize a 75th anniversary celebration last weekend. The band Something Corporate gave a concert, and alumni and students attended a gala and “Jazz Brunch” while recalling fond memories of the station.

GW alumnus Marc Leepson, who attended some of this weekend’s festivities, helped revive WRGW in the early 1960s. Broadcasting had completely stopped on campus until Leepson helped bring back the station.

Responding to a Hatchet advertisement calling for help to rebuild the station, Leepson said he arrived at the first meeting interested in sports. Leepson, a freshman at the time with no radio experience, was immediately promoted to sports director.

A crew of about 20 reinvigorated a studio of “antiquated equipment” in Lisner Auditorium in November 1964, said Leepson, now a gray-haired freelance writer.

“Even if it was rudimentary equipment, it was still fun,” he said. “And we didn’t have to try out or anything like that. It was ‘You’re good, come on.'”

The history of the University’s student-run radio station is filled with several ups and downs.

In March 1931, the Radio Club tested GW’s first broadcasting system under the call letters W3ACY at “Humor Night,” a party with “wild electric displays” and “trick apparatus,” according to a Hatchet article.

During the mid-1930s, the Radio Club developed into the Radio Workshop, a weekly discussion group, Kaplan said.

The workshop then evolved into the Radio Players, a group of drama students writing and acting out their own radio skits for Washington stations. The first student radio program was called “The Man Who Built a World,” which aired on WMAL on Dec. 18, 1934, The Hatchet reported.

“It is an art form to be able to broadcast something without people being able to see it,” said Michael Freedman, vice president for communications, who calls himself a hands-off observer and adviser to today’s station.

Freedman, who worked as general manager of CBS Radio Network news for several years, teaches a “Radio News: History and Practice” class in the School of Media and Public Affairs.

The 1940s brought experimentation with sports and weekly broadcasts. In October 1946, GW Sports Publicity Director Bob Duncan broadcasted a Colonials football game to a crowd of 500 who gathered on Lisner Auditorium’s terrace. A Hatchet article read, “Never has a football game seemed so exciting!”

By the late 1950s, students working under the call letters WWGW tussled with administration officials over the station’s blueprint for operations and development, The Hatchet reported. The station, which included 100 students, finally changed to WRGW on May 12, 1959, after the University approved the fourth revision of the students’ plan.

“Going back and seeing the history, you see how many times we tried a plan, and it failed,” Kaplan said. “We tried another plan, it failed. And then, 10 years later, they tried the same plan with different modifications.”

Leepson, the 1960s sports director, said his sports co-host was Mike Patrick, WRGW’s most distinguished alumnus. Patrick, who first learned how to broadcast at GW, has called Sunday night football play-by-play for ESPN since 1982.

“I honestly have no idea whatsoever what I would be doing with my life if it wasn’t for this radio station,” Patrick said.

The station broadcasted to the University’s seven residence halls from noon to midnight five days a week in the 1960s. WRGW was programmed for “The Concert Hour,” a venture into symphony, and “GW Night Sounds,” an array of popular music.

Patrick said he was unfamiliar with radio at the time but said it did not matter because there were few listeners.

“That was the beauty of WRGW – we got to make our mistakes, one after the other after the other,” he said. “And nobody heard it.”

Between 1967 and 1984 the station was run by the Radio and Television Division of the University, according to Hatchet articles. WRGW is currently student-run, receiving funding from the Student Association.

“It’s because of love. It’s because of passion,” said Matt Stoker, WRGW’s station manager. “That’s why we do what we do – because we really, really love it. That’s true for me, that’s true for all the students.”

During the 1970s the station broadcast from a Hippodrome-like setting known as the “Rat Scalar,” Kaplan said. Because the drinking age was 18 then, the campus would gather for 10-cent drinks and lively disco music.

The 1980s were wrought with clashes between WRGW and the University over allocation of funds and who was in charge, Kaplan said. As a result, the station went silent from 1984 to 1986.

In 1999 WRGW moved into its ground-floor studio in the Marvin Center. It now broadcasts over the Internet at http://www.gwradio.com, on cable channel 22 and within the Marvin and Health and Wellness centers.

Kaplan said the WRGW Web site had nearly 70,000 hits last year.

He said the goal for the future is continuing to grow while holding to tradition. Vice President Freedman said he wants to see the University acquire a high-power radio station but said that not many stations are for sale and that the asking price is “astronomical.”

Freedman added, “Maybe the day will come when everyone in Washington will be able to hear WRGW.”

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