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Thanks to Ted Turner, FM radio at MIT celebrates its 40th anniversary April 10

Former general manager Joyce C. Yang, a graduate student in biology, left, and current general manager Christopher Avrich, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science, man the boards in WMBR's broadcast studio.
Former general manager Joyce C. Yang, a graduate student in biology, left, and current general manager Christopher Avrich, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science, man the boards in WMBR's broadcast studio.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Ted Turner will be there in spirit.

Thanks, in part, to early support from the cable television pioneer, WMBR will celebrate 40 years of non-commercial 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, Class of 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.

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.

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," said Program Manager Joyce C. Yang, a graduate student in biology. "Being weird is a prerequisite, so I fitted right in. But we're one big family, sometimes quarrelsome, but mostly happy."

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.

It 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. But the legal expenses left the station broke, with no funds to complete the project and purchase a new transmitter. At the same time, Mr. 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 non-profit 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 (roughly, 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 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 not a commercial success. "We never had more than a few piddly little ads," said Ms. Palmater.

With the superior quality and wider spread 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.

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.

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