WLTI/WJUL/WUML Station History
In 1985 WJUL member Brian Wirzbicki wrote an extremely thorough sixty-five page history of WLTI and WJUL. For the first time we are providing the story of our station online for the world to enjoy and to see how WUML has become one of the top non-commercial stations in the country from our humble beginnings in one students dorm room. First and foremost it is necessary to thank Brian for writing such an important historical document. Additionally it is important to thank Tony J and our founder Ed Bonacci for providing the photographs that have been added to the story, and also a thank you to Pos for combining it all and finally getting it on the internet for the world to enjoy.
It must be noted however that Brian’s history is now almost twenty years old and much has happened in the time since he wrote his history. Our current WUML staff is hard at work, picking up where Brian left off, and we hope to have written an update covering at least 1985-1990 by the fall of 2004.
Therefore it is important for the reader to keep in mind that when the history refers to people and events being contemporary and current, it is in fact referring to 1985. Due to the value of Brian’s work however, it does not seem appropriate to edit his work. With that in mind, read on! It’s a great story!
This history of WLTI/WJUL is the first comprehensive work that exists today. Information on the subject was based on oral interviews of people closely associated with the radio station in addition to documents provided by the Business Office of WJUL. I would like to thank all the people who gave me their memories and valuable time in producing this piece of work. I would also like to apologize to those individuals who were also instrumental in the development of the radio station, but due to lack of time, I was unable to interview. I would also like to thank the DIGITAL Rainbow computer system, the WPS word-processing software, and the agile fingers of Mr. Alan Damon whose time and effort was most valuable.
-Brian W. Wirzbicki
The history of WLTI/WJUL spans over thirty-two years of broadcasting during which the station has grown and expanded to serve the students, campus, and Lowell community in general. The station is entirely student-run, and the only incentive or reward is the pleasure of listening to music, working on-air or making the technical quality of the station sound as professional as possible. The station has grown from a tiny 10 watt AM carrier current operation to a 1700 watt FM stereo station, serving the Merrimack Valley and in particular the Lowell community. It is one of the best technically equipped stations in New England and that includes some of the FM/AM commercial stations. Its alternative style of music of not playing the popular hits is unique. Its educational programming has expanded and is now more consciously concerned with the college activities. Its sports broadcasting, the “Chief Voice of U-Lowell Sports,” covers basketball, football, hockey, and baseball.
This paper attempts to accomplish several things. First, to trace the development of the station from its humble beginnings in 1952 to its rise as one of the top college stations in New England in 1985. Second, to relive the moments in the history of the station through interviews with some of its participants. Third, to see the influences the operation had on these students involved in running the station and the success stories of some of them who went on to a career in radio, even if they had no intention of pursuing a career in that field.
The radio station started in the spring of 1952. The school at this time was Lowell Textile Institute and its principle studies included leather, chemical, plastics, and textile technology. There were no communications programs or any electrical engineering courses being offered by the institute. The station was not begun by the school, but by a student who didn’t even realize he was broadcasting music live on-air. The student, Ed Bonacci, was a sophomore in 1952, majoring in textile engineering, and living in the dorms. And as Ed remembers, “I had a home-built audio-amplifier that had an oscillation, that was being nicely modulated by the audio output of the amplifier.” To simplify, Ed’s amplifier was sending a signal that was being picked up on some of the students’ AM radios and was therefore being broadcast over the air. Instead of charging in threatening to put out his audio-amplifier permanently, they urged him to continue the music he was playing. Realizing the amount of interest, he proceeded to go through the standard procedures to form a club. In the spring on 1952, Ed, with the assistance of some other students, created the Lowell Textile Institute Broadcasting Society. So the radio station started through a combination of luck, technical ingenuity of one student and, most importantly, the encouragement of his peers.
The new club needed additional equipment for a radio station. Immediately two problems presented themselves. One was money; the other, related to the first, was the question of what kind of station the club would have. The LTI was not going to give the club funds to apply for an educational FM/AM license; it was just too expensive. So Ed looked around to see what other colleges had for stations. Most of them were carrier current. A carrier current station is a station which sends its signal through the electrical light circuits of a building. Therefore, the transmitter or power source does not need an antenna to send the signal. Instead you can pick up the signal by simply plugging into any outlet in the building that the signal is being sent through.*
*In this case the buildings that were connected to the signal were Eames and Smith Hall, both male dorms. The other building was the old library, now known as Alumni Library. All three of these buildings are located on the University’s North Campus*
There were advantages and disadvantages to this system. The advantages were that it did not require a lot of money because the transmitter was only going to be a 5-10 watt transmitter. This meant that WLTI would not come under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communication Commission, the regulatory agency for all licensed radio stations in the United States.
The disadvantage was WLTI’s signal range seemed to be limited to the buildings connected to the same circuit, or so the students believed. What eventually happened was that WLTI’s signal leaked out and was picked up a few blocks up the Merrimack River. This occurrence was the result of the architectural design of the Southwick buildings which acted like a deflector and bounced the signal up the river. As Ed remembered, “There were only a few houses within that quarter mile radius, which was the strength of the reflected signal, but we never had a problem with the neighbors because generally they enjoyed the programming and saw no reason to complain.”2 Because the station had such a low signal, the FCC did not require them to apply for a communication license, but the call letters for the station WLTI probably had to be registered with them.
In the earliest stages of the radio station, the equipment used-as Ed recalls, “Was a strange assortment of lashed together equipment out of other people’s basements and some surplus military equipment.” This equipment included a record changer as a turntable, a borrowed broadcast remote mixer to serve as a console, and a variety of microphones including one or two borrowed from local radio stations which tended to be ancient. “However, the equipment at that time was reasonably adequate for the station’s needs,” Ed pointed out. The station assembled a home-built 5-10 watt transmitter, built from an assortment of equipment purchased from various radio supply stores, but as Ed recalled fondly, “Didn’t work very well, which subsequently lead to erratic scheduling.” Initially the radio station was located in an old physics laboratory on the third floor of Kitson Hall. The transmitter was placed in the basement of the old library. As Ed explained, the students installed a telephone line from the library to Kitson, and all that was needed was the switch to be turned on.
The equipment was turned on January 15, 1953 at exactly 7:00 PM and station WLTI, located on the dial at 550 AM, was finally live ON-AIR. The station would be broadcasting at 7:00 PM to 11:00 PM Monday through Thursday, Sundays from 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM. 4 The radio station also received two hundred dollars from the student council, as Ed explained, to purchase some badly needed equipment which would enable the club to continue its activities. “The lack of funds,” as Ed pointed out, “forced us into making certain decisions.”
For example, one of those decisions was to go carrier current. Because carrier current stations use less expensive equipment and did not need an antenna, the following decision reflected the first. Under the rules of the FCC, a station could be funded in one of two ways. The first is to be commercially funded, which meant that the advertisers would be allowed to sponsor their advertisements ON-AIR for a fee. The second way to be funded is by some institution through public, government, or corporate grants. A good example is WGBH (89.7 FM) in Boston. Since WLTI was a carrier current station and had such a low power outage, it did not come under the jurisdiction of the FCC. Under those conditions, WLTI was allowed to have commercials in between its broadcasts sponsored by the local businesses. In fact through research into other carrier current stations, Ed found that most of the other college carrier current stations were funded the same way.
How were these commercials produced and who would advertise on a station which only broadcasted to three buildings? Well, as Ed recalls, most of the commercials usually lasted only thirty seconds to a minute. Therefore, the only production cost was a voice to say the blurb and that was that. Most of the commercials were solicited from local businesses near the campus. Gagnon’s Hardware Store was a frequent customer, but the most popular and profitable were the eating establishments. The rationale behind this approach was: “We support your establishment, why not support ours.” Later on, the station started to move into the downtown area to attract the local shops and merchants. One highly successful sponsor was the Diamond Yellow Taxi Cab. As Ed recalled, “The Diamond Yellow used to sponsor the time which was done every hour; this became very profitable for both establishments.” The total amount of money received from the advertisements usually ran up to several hundred dollars for the entire year. Therefore, the commercials were the major source of funding for the station and would continue until 1963 when the Administration began to fund the station entirely.
The early programming for the radio station mainly consisted of music and very little else. It featured Latin-American (many Latin American students attended Lowell for the textile program), classical, semi-classical, show tunes, and some comedy. There was no broadcasting of sports, news, or weather, only the time. Also, campus news was never broadcast mainly, Ed said, “Because nothing was going on.” The programming was very erratic, the result of some very poorly built equipment, but also because of other problems beyond the physical control of the station members. As Ed stated: “We would subsequently find buildings being locked, radio stations calling for their live remote console, all of this resulted in a couple of hours of broadcasting a day.” Therefore, the station hours were usually scheduled during the evenings because during the day everyone was either in labs or classes. However, Ed pointed out that the programming was constant enough to sell the spot commercials. “As long as we were getting in the requisite numbers,” he explained, “we would get the money for broadcasting them.”
Towards the end of the spring semester of 1953, what Ed called the organization and planning period, WLTI underwent a redesigning phase after which the station looked and sounded more like a professional station. As Ed remembered the first order of business was to construct a new console, instead of using the one borrowed from the local radio station. This console was built in the basement of Ed’s garage. “The console, ” Ed described, “had 4 to 5 mixing channels, with two 16 inch Recocut turntables with Gray viscous damped tone arms and variable reluctance cartridges. The console had low noise tubes and transformer cupplings from the microphone into the console out to the broadcast line using rather good high fidelity transformers. The band was 20-20,000 cycles with very low distortion.” The console was completed in the summer of 1953 with the help of some of the station members, but the principal work was done by Ed himself.
As the equipment was getting some needed restoration, the radio station moved from its location in Kitson Hall to the basement of Eames Hall which at that time Ed remembered, was being used as a trunk room.*
*Since WLTI moved to its new location in the basement of the Lydon Library in 1971, the room is now being used as a laundromat*
The Administration for the first time provided some substantial aid in the construction of the station. The Administration provided for materials including wallboards, 2 by 4 beams, and some of the labor for the mechanical work done for the station. Ed recalled, “WLTI also paid for some of the materials and things such as soundproofing by hanging up curtains and building double walls.” The new studio was 15′ by 15′ and was divided into two sections. The control room was located towards the inside back of the building. “The record library consisted of a few shelves and about as many records,” Ed joked. All of the shelves and records provided the station with additional soundproofing and acoustics as well.
With $200 from the Student Council, WLTI was able to acquire additional equipment that was necessary to provide good professional sound. A turntable, tone arms, and parts for the console were purchased along with two microphones. As Ed explains, “The first microphone was an RCA 77D broadcast mic which traditionally costs around $150 and was commonly seen on TV. The second microphone was an Electrovoice 655 Dynamic microphone that was roughly the same type.” The last piece of equipment purchased was a tape recorder to do taped interviews or record local events worthy of being reported as news. Unfortunately, as Ed recalled, WLTI did not have the money to buy a recorder. So some of the members went to a local bank and tried to borrow $600. As Ed Explains: “The bank was not really interested in lending to clubs, especially college clubs.” Undaunted, Ed went about in search of co-signers for the loan. He found six willing professors each co-signing the loan for one hundred dollars apiece. The bank manager gave the station its loan, and with it, they bought “The Thing.” As Ed commented, “It was a Magnacord Tape Recorder which weighed forty pounds and was really a task to lug it around. But it was a broadcast body 7 1/2 inch per second recorder that produced some excellent sounds.” The loan was paid back in a matter of months. “As usual” Ed insisted, “the radio station was self-supporting.”
The club had a President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, and Faculty Advisor. It also had a chief engineer, program director, and general manager who was also President. The station also had a person in charge of gathering prospective sponsors for advertisements, with the treasurer responsible for the collection. “After all,” Ed boasted, “we ran a business!”
The decision as to what type of programming was to be aired by the station was left to the program director. “We essentially followed conventional broadcast practices in how a station was run.” Ed had inquired about the broadcast practices of other college stations, but discovered that WLTI was fairly conventional and had followed general broadcast practices.
Was there any involvement on the part of the Administration? Ed replied: “The radio station was not subjected to any censorship for its programming, music, or other types of ON-AIR broadcasting.” The only restrictions that were imposed by the administration were that WLTI obey the FCC law and that the programming be tasteful and avoid upsetting any particular group of people. To which Ed added, “It was only good station practice to obey the law, and considering the fact that WLTI broadcast only to the dorm students and a handful of other people up the river, there weren’t too many people to offend.” 14 WLTI continued its good relations with the Administration and its faculty members. WLTI’s first advisor was Colonel Eugene Kelley. The station replaced him with Professor John Robertson, Chairman of the Department of Social Sciences. As Ed remembered, Professor Robertson was instrumental in the crucial growing period of the station. He was also instrumental in mediating any potential problems that might have arisen between the station and administration.
How did the college campus react to WLTI? “Generally enthusiastic,” Ed said, “It was the students who got us started!” Of course there wasn’t 100% listenership or even a majority for that matter, but the station tried to put in as much variety to cater to the majority as well as minority interests. For example, Ed pointed out that WLTI initiated a morning program before classes began which was well received by the students in the two dorms.
As for making the station recognizable to the students themselves, Ed said, “We were our best publicists.” This meant getting involved with campus activities, and one of those activities was the dance conducted by Eames Hall called “Club Eames.” As Ed remembered, “It was usually poorly attended and rather a flop.” This time though, WLTI ran the dance and ended up not only making money for the dorm but as Ed pointed out: “It was the social event of the year. Eames Hall was so crowded that dancing was all but impossible.” The activities that the station did were mainly for the students, and the students at the station made sure that the club or event knew that WLTI was helping with the event.
As Ed remembers there were usually a nucleus of ten to fifteen people who ran the station, but there were other people who did a show and some behind-the-scenes work. As Ed saw graduation approaching, he reflected: “We were a club, we taught some people how to behave ON-AIR, about being a disc-jockey, and a little bit about business. After all, we ran a business, we were entrepreneurs, we started a station that was able to grow and survive.” Station WLTI survived and grew during its first few years under its founder and first president Ed Bonacci. When he visited the station in the 1970′s, he saw that the remnants of the old carrier current station were gone. In its place though, was a station whose humble beginnings started inside a dorm room by a student who enjoyed music and loved to build broadcast equipment.
“The time is now 7:00 PM and this is WLTI, the voice of the Lowell Technological Institute.” This was the sign-on call for the radio station in 1955 and was the New Voice for the campus area. There were a few administrative changes within the hierarchical structure of the station. Harvey Kaye, a Textile Engineering student, was the new president, and the station kept switching dial numbers on the AM band between 640 and 655. The programming though still remained the same. It consisted of popular music, rhythm and blues, jazz, and Latin Americana. Later in the evening, the station supplied its listeners with quiet music till midnight to study by.
There wasn’t much change in the programming of the station between 1955 and 1960, but I discovered how students got involved with the station and what attracted them to it by interviewing three people who were with the station from 1955-1963. The first interview was Arthur Tracy, a Textile Engineering student, who joined the station as a freshman in 1955, moved into the Vice President’s role in 1957, and served as President in 1958 and 1959.
Arthur’s first impression of the station was it looked like a Mickey Mouse type operation; the only thing keeping the station together it seemed was wiring and paperclips. Its interior was a dingy battleship gray. As he became involved with WLTI, he noted that the programming was basically controlled by the Disc Jockeys themselves, each of which had their own style. What was the Program Director’s job? He explained the function of the Program Director was to keep the programming from becoming stale or dry and to keep it evenly balanced without losing the creativity or spontaneous style. Arthur had a show entitled “Music Under the Big Top” that got its name because he played some circus music as the introduction to his show. As Arthur noted, “A lot of the DJs had names for their shows which brought some character and variety to the station and kept the programming fresh and alive.” He also told me that WLTI started to receive 33 1/3 LP’s from some well-known record labels: Columbia and RCA. All came through the normal channels, usually by subscribing to record companies. This allowed for a wider range of music, although a lot of station members brought in most of their own stuff to be broadcast on their show.
WLTI also received some pre-recorded Public Affairs programs. Arthur mentioned, “Serenade in Blue” which was a show produced in Hollywood and shipped to stations all over the United States which covered popular music and was professionally produced. The station also continued to paraphrase the news by reading the Boston Globe. They also did some local news. They also tried some on-campus reporting, some examples were “the man on the street” type interviews, which were done by taking “The Thing” outside, but this was not too successful. As Arthur pointed out, “We were limited by the length of our extension chord.”
Pep rallies outside of Eames Hall or some inauguration of a school activity, were also covered. As a result Arthur commented: “The students were always trying to experiment and at times were successful, other times were not.” The students felt as if they were broadcasting to the world and tried to sound as professional as possible.
WLTI was still being funded by the commercials, as Henry “Bud” Horseman, treasurer in 1958 could tell you. Bud got his start through his relationship with Arthur with whom he commuted to school. He gravitated into the position of treasurer because so few students participated in running the station. Usually if you were there and the spot was vacant, you just moved into it. As treasurer, Bud’s duties were to make sure the bills for the commercials were collected and the station bills got paid. WLTI branched off into the downtown market by having local businesses sponsored commercials. Union National Bank, clothing stores, and some restaurants were the new accounts for the station. The radio station also had a Coke machine installed that Bud said: “Used to bring in some cash to the station.”
As Bud recalled the only overhead cost WLTI incurred was the cost of the record subscriptions that usually amounted to a few hundred dollars. Heat and electricity were paid for by the Administration.
WLTI did go under some physical changes. The battleship grey walls received a nice coat of fresh yellow and coral paint. Arthur Tracy and John Carter, a textile-engineering student, rebuilt the console table into a circular design. The Administration was very supportive of WLTI and found the station, as Arthur noted, “a binding factor for vital information to be broadcast for the students.” It was also a good recreational outlet, and if it provided some musical entertainment to the audience than that was great.
“Of the Students, by the Students, and for the Students!” was the motto of WLTI in the 1960 yearbook, which would certainly characterize the attitudes of the radio station and its objectives. Carlton Griffin, and Industrial Management major, was involved with the station for four years beginning in 1959, became Vice President in 1962, and in 1963 the President. He started with the station as a freshman as a result of a recruiting interview. And as he remembered, WLTI looked like a closet. Carlton had some broadcasting experience at a station in Framingham called WKOX. Carlton recalls two rooms separated by a pane of glass; the back room was for the station equipment. The other, a very small studio, doubled as the record library. In 1962-63, the programming started to receive some public affairs programs. These were a bit different because they were offering lectures and educational information. Some were JFK presidential speeches on tape, obtained from the AFL-CIO for free and some Voice of America tapes.