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WMBR takes a look back at 30 years of FM radio


By Katherine Shim

Wednesday night, Walker Memorial Basement Radio celebrated its 30th anniversary of non-commercial, FM radio with a live broadcast of its studio party, featuring segments of its first minutes on air and an interview with President Charles M. Vest about the radio station. WMBR first began broadcasting as an FM station at 8 pm April 10, 1961.

Wednesday night also marked WMBR's return to news broadcasting which was discontinued about five years ago. WMBR Nightly News, a cooperative effort of both WMBR and radio station WGBH, will run on weeknights from 8 to 8:30 pm and will feature both national and local news.

The decision to run a news segment was made largely because of WMBR staff interest, not due to overwhelming listener demand, said Shawn Mamros G, a former member of WMBR.

Radio station looks back

Thirty years ago, the radio station broadcasted from the basement of Senior House for about two hours in the morning and from 5 pm to 1 am at night. Staff numbered approximately 45 people, including three women, and power of transmission was 10 watts. Programming featured exclusively classical or jazz music.

Today, WMBR broadcasts 18 hours a day from 8 am to 2 am, staff numbers over 100, and power of transmission is 360 watts -- the second most powerful college radio station in the Boston area, said Allen R. Kent '63, a member of the Technology Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) which holds WMBR's license. Programming runs the spectrum of "rock, jazz, classical, folk, funk, punk, industrial, reggae and hip-hop," the program guide states.

Before becoming an FM station in 1961, the radio station broadcasted across the MIT campus via restricted radiation transmission, a form of transmission coupled to AM power lines. Dormitories received signal through twisted loop antennas strung from their roofs.

In 1987, WMBR began broadcasting in FM stereo.

Over the past 30 years, a few traditions have developed in WMBR, most notably, broadcast of fictitious commercials and all-nighters of music.

"WMBR has a few traditions that have lasted over the years," Mamros said. "As a non-commercial radio station, we don't run commercials, but we have invented commercials of fictitious things -- the most well known are ads for `Apple Dunkies' and `Nocturnal Aviation Slots,' " he said.

"Also, at the end of every year of every term, WMBR used to close out with `Night Foul,' -- an all-nighter of horrible music," Mamros continued. "The music would go on until someone got tired. We still occasionally do all-nighters like that."

"WMBR has continued its tradition of running remotes [broadcasts] at various campus locations," Kent said. "In the same era [in which WMBR first became an FM station] WMBR ran a remote in front of Club 47 on Massachusetts Avenue. One of the performers there was Joan Baez."

"Over the years, WMBR has featured a number of live performers -- some famous and many not as famous," Kent added.

Since 1961, the philosophy of WMBR has shifted, said Todd Glickman, president of TBC and a former WMBR staff member.

"When I as a student, the main concern of WMBR was the technological aspects of radio signal," said Glickman. "Today, the emphasis is on different and interesting programming."

"A long-standing philosophy of the station is to not copy any commercial station," Mamros added. "We try to provide programming that you wouldn't get elsewhere. We explore all types of programming, and the station changes format every two hours."

The station has also made attempts in recent years to extend its audience beyond the MIT community.

"Staff is about 50 percent MIT, and 50 percent from the outside community. Our audience beyond MIT is certainly pretty significant" said Robert D. Dredge '92, former general manager of WMBR.