Ted Turner will be there in spirit.
Thanks in part to early support from the cable television pioneer, WMBR will celebrate 40 years of noncommercial FM radio at MIT on April 10.
"Ted Turner's generous contribution helped us update our technical equipment at a critical time," said Todd Glickman (SB 1977), president of the Technology Broadcasting Corp., which oversees the station. Mr. Glickman became the station's first meteorologist during his freshman year and has been involved ever since. "One thing that has remained the same over the years has been our members' dedication to bringing the MIT community innovative, alternative radio -- commercial-free," he said.
WMBR is both a student activity and a community station; MIT provides an annual operating grant and listener contributions pay for capital improvements. The 200-person, all-volunteer staff includes MIT students, alumni and staff, as well as people from the community at large. No one has ever been paid.
Senior Christopher D. Avrich, the current general manager, was introduced to WMBR by a friend as a sophomore. After training during IAP, he hosted a show during the spring term and has been on the air ever since. He now hosts "What It Is" from 10pm-midnight on Wednesdays.
"Having a show every week is a great way for me to unwind and de-stress," said Mr. Avrich, an electrical engineering and computer science major. "Even when I come into the station not really wanting to spend two hours there, I leave relaxed and glad that I did."
Program manager Joyce C. Yang, a graduate student in biology, hosts "Reel to Reel" on Tuesdays at 6am, which features music from the movies, with an eclectic playlist that ranges from Bach to Dylan. This reinforces her joy that radio is a democratic medium. "Radio makes no distinction between the person at the Newton golf club or the man walking down the street in Dorchester," she said. "It reaches everyone."
Ms. Yang was introduced to WMBR by former general manager Aron C. Ecklund, a friend and fellow biology graduate student who is a host of the long-running morning show "Breakfast of Champions." She'll never forget her first on-air experience on "Niteowl," which features new DJs.
"Lights were blinking on the console, the Burke [which monitors the transmitter] was a mystery box, there seemed to be a gazillion buttons, the phone was ringing off the hook, and I forgot to bring in several of the CDs I had wanted to play," she said. "But amazingly, things gelled, my friends called me up to congratulate me, and my voice didn't crack, though it was a few octaves higher than usual."
MIT radio was established in 1946, broadcasting on campus as an AM station from the basement of the Ware dormitory (now part of Senior House) with the call letters WMIT. When the station applied for an FCC license five years later, the call letters were reluctantly changed to WTBS (Technology Broadcasting System) because a station in North Carolina already had the call letters WMIT.
WTBS went on the air as a 10-watt, student-run FM station on April 10, 1961. The broadcast schedule consisted of two or three hours each weekday morning and evening, with additional programs on weekends. The station shut down on weekday afternoons to allow the students to attend classes. Gradually, members of the community were invited to fill out the schedule.
In 1978, WTBS concluded a successful six-year legal battle to upgrade the signal to 200 watts and broadcast from the existing Eastgate tower and antenna. But the legal expenses left the station broke, with no funds to complete the project and purchase a new transmitter.
At the same time, Ted Turner was hatching plans to create a cable superstation in Atlanta and wanted to call it WTBS (Turner Broadcasting System). Even though a New York Times offer ($50) had been turned down in 1973, Mr. Turner contacted the MIT radio station with an offer to buy the call letters. A deal for $50,000 was struck.
Since the purchase of call letters was prohibited by the FCC, the lawyers took advantage of the MIT station's nonprofit status: Mr. Turner would donate $25,000 to the station under the condition that WTBS would apply for and receive new call letters. When the FCC granted the call letters to him, he would donate an additional $25,000.
WTBS became WMBR (Walker Memorial Basement Radio) on May 24, 1979 and received the first payment. A short time later, Mr. Turner got the WTBS call sign and contributed another $25,000. WMBR's 200-watt signal debuted on November 10, 1979.
The station, upgraded to 720 watts in 1995, broadcasts 365 days a year at 88.1 FM from Walker's basement. It is on the air 20-24 hours a day, seven days a week. With more than 70 shows, programming includes news and talk, hip-hop, punk rock, rhythm and blues, jazz and classical music. The longest-running program, "Downeast Ceilidh" (the second word, pronounced "KAY-lee," translates roughly to "jam session" in Scottish Gaelic), has been hosted by Marcia Young Palmater since 1972.
"For 29 years, we've had the same name, the same theme music and the same night," said Ms. Palmater, a New Hampshire native who plays folk music from Canada's Atlantic Provinces on Thursdays from 8-10pm. "I've always loved the fiddle." Her boyfriend became her engineer and biggest fan shortly after the first broadcast. David Palmater, operations manager of WUMB, has been her husband for 27 years.
Ms. Palmater remembers when MIT's AM and FM stations broadcast simultaneously, with the commercial AM station airing advertisements while the public FM station did public service announcements. To break the monotony of the PSAs, the staff and announcers produced a series of commercials for fictitious products such as "Apple Gunkies." The AM station was never a commercial success. "We never had more than a few piddly little ads," said Ms. Palmater.
With the superior quality of the FM signal, the AM audience dwindled. At one point, the station offered $5 to listeners who called within a short time period. "We never had a taker," recalled Ms. Palmater. "It was a real dinosaur." The AM station went off the air in 1974.
Other long-running programs include "Breakfast of Champions," which went on the air in 1983, six years after "The Late Riser's Club" made its debut. They are on the air back-to-back from 8am-noon Monday through Friday. Other popular programs include "Lost and Found," "The James Dean Death Car Experience," "Out of the Blues" and "Pipeline," which features live bands Tuesday evenings. The complete WMBR schedule is available at wmbr.mit.edu.
The basement studios were renovated in 1999. In addition to a new broadcasting facility, performance space for live concerts and a production studio were built. The same year, WMBR received a Best in Boston award from Boston Magazine for its rock and roll programming.
Through the years, the station has attracted creative, diverse and often eccentric people, some of whom attended a private reunion to celebrate the 40th anniversary last weekend. The current group is typical. "Come to a management meeting and you'll see more characters than there are in a Broadway play," program director Yang said. "Being weird is a pre- requisite, so I fitted right in. But we're one big family, sometimes quarrelsome but mostly happy."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 4, 2001.