Tuesday, July 3, 2007

WRPI

(Funny sounding noise, much like someone imitating a squeak toy)
“What was that?”
“That’s a Werpi.”
“A Werpi?”
“Yeah, small musical animal, eats electricity and vinyl.”
“A Werpi, huh? How do you spell that?”
“WRPI, Troy, New York. The Troy, New York is silent.”
(groan) -- Legal station ID break on WRPI, circa 1974
.

WRPI was, and is, the student run (and financed) radio station of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I’ve known several people over the years who were in student radio when they were in school, but WRPI was something else again.

I got to RPI in the fall of 1968 (remind me to sometime just do a laundry list of what the country was like in 1968). WRPI was in the middle of its metamorphosis.

Up until the late 1960s, FM radio was the step-child of broadcasting, seen as a fit place for only classical music, maybe a little jazz, maybe a little folk, and other “educational” stuff.

But as rock became more “album centered” in the 1960s, a “progressive” or “free format” radio form emerged at stations like WOR and WNEW in New York, and WMMR, in Philadelphia. On the west coast, KSAN in San Francisco was also doing it, but that had no influence as such, on WRPI and I didn’t hear KSAN until I moved to California in 1974.

RPI had students who’d been listening to the northeastern progressive stations while still in high school, and these students eventually wrested programming control away from their elders (also students, but “old school,” as it were), sometime just before I got there. This was often referred to as “the Sophomore Coup.” They also plotted to upgrade WRPI from a 1 kilowatt monaural station with a small antenna behind their studios on the RPI campus to a 10,000 watt stereo station with a large antenna that they’d bargained away from a commercial station basically by being non-threatening. Commercial broadcasters don’t like their surplus equipment winding up in competitors’ hands; much better to give it to a school, take the tax break and not worry that the kids will take any audience share.

Or so they thought.

The Arbitron ratings of the time didn’t split out the non-commercial audience; it was just lumped under “other.” So by the time anyone actually realized what was going on, WRPI had the largest FM audience in the Albany-Troy-Schenectady area. And this was just when FM rock was taking off.

Some of us listened to WRPI all the time. Or, we listened to WRPI, then played records that we’d bought because we heard them on WRPI. The station was that influential.

Of course, some of the WRPI guys got a little full of themselves; quite a heady feeling doing a show on the biggest station in New York’s capitol district. Some comeuppance was bound to follow.

I always referred to it as “The Great Music Drought” of the early 1970s. For several years, it had been possible to just walk into a record store and buy a record – sometimes just based on the cover – and it would be good. Seriously, I had a friend who bought the first It’s a Beautiful Day album and Taj Mahal’s Take a Giant Step just because he liked the covers.

Then stuff happened. I’m not sure what. Maybe it was the rock star deaths, Jimi and Janis; maybe it was the bands breaking up (“Say it ain’t so, John and Paul); maybe it was the formation of a host of over-hyped super-groups. Whatever it was, there was suddenly a lot of crap music around. And progressive radio suffered.

The other thing that happened was that the tastes of the WRPI djs (and the djs have almost total programming power under the progressive rock format) diverged from their audience. It’s almost inevitable, actually. I watched it happen over and over again (including to myself). You start off liking what everyone likes, but over time, as you tire of the same-old-same-old, you start craving novelty and variety. Oops, suddenly you’re a connoisseur, with a taste for out-of-the-ordinary music.

What started getting to the more musically conservative part of the audience was the jazz and the wolf howls. Some of the station jazz aficionados had become enamored of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. Coltrane is a slightly easier sell, but sheets of sound on the saxophone are a bit rough on untrained ears. Then there was the Smithsonian recording “The Language and Music of the Wolves” which is basically wolf howls. I like it. Many didn’t. One dj used it as his theme. There was also a syndicated show from the ZBS foundations called “The Fourth Tower of Inverness” that was surreal and had a wolf howl in its intro. Turned out that many of the conservative listeners didn’t care for surrealist fantasy melodramas. Who knew?

What happened was pretty ironic. WRPI was the most popular radio station (not just the most popular college station, the most popular station) on almost every college campus in the Capitol District, with the exception of RPI itself. The corporate programmers had figured out that you could get an audience nearly as large or larger than the free format stations by playing what came to be called MOR (middle-of-the-road) rock in a restricted playlist format. This came to be called “familiar” music at WRPI, and many of the djs were agin’ it.

During my undergraduate days at RPI, I was a publications knurd. When I moved over to graduate school, I switched over to WRPI and became one of the djs, then a member of the programming committee, and, briefly, its PR officer and member of its board. I’m sure I had some idea of showing everyone How It Should Be Done. Popular, familiar music? Sure, but put it together with some connoisseur music, mix it right, and people will respond.

Ultimately, the joke was on me, when a group that included the WRPI station manager tried to seize control of programming at the station during a pretty hellish week that resulted in every dj who wouldn’t go along with it, including me, getting booted off the air, often in mid-show. The coup attempt was dropped after a week, owing to bad publicity, rumblings from the Student Union Executive Board, the inability of the coup meisters to find enough people to keep the station actually functioning, and the two to three hundred letters a day the station was getting from listeners saying “How Dare You?”

They did get a certain amount of revenge a few months later, targeting someone who was perceived as being a “ringleader” of the resistance to the format changes. That someone would be me, actually, but that’s a story for another time.

3 comments:

Bob Oldendorf said...

Hi!

We must have just missed connecting at WRPI - I joined in the wake of the Format Five Fiasco, and was active for the rest of the '70s.

(More stories of the Old Days, please....)

James Killus said...

I have a few other WRPI related things over in the newsgroup associated with my web page on sff.net. I'm slowly moving many of the newsgroup essays over here, so there will be some more WRPI tales here as time goes on.

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