By Sarah Colson
In 1969, bell bottom jeans were just beginning to make their way into the hearts and closets of American college students and vinyl records were all the rage. On the campus of East Tennessee State University, a student could walk the halls and enjoy groovy tunes broadcast from the campus’s student-run station.
Within a few years, students were listening to a 10-watt station run by the university’s speech department. Now, 42 years after the first student-run production, WETS-FM, no longer student-run, is the Tri-Cities’ first HD station, operates at 100,000 watts and thanks to the Internet, reaches a global audience.
If not for former ETSU professor Dr. Paul Walwick, who died late last month at the age of 89, those huge strides in the impact of ETSU radio may never have occurred.
When Walwick began teaching in the speech department in the late 1960s, the Internet was decades from reality, and most students got their news by word of mouth or the student-run carrier current station. The source used an electrical system to deliver the broadcast to the dormitories.
“Dr. Walwick hired me back in 1969 and I’ll be forever grateful about that,” said Tom Headley, retired professor in the department of broadcasting and friend to Walwick. Headley took over the broadcasting program for Bud Frank, for whom ETSU’s theater is named, while Frank worked on his PhD at Florida State. “I was supposed to only be here for one year, but it was made into a full-time position thanks to Dr. Walwick. He was a very fine person; very supportive. When I got here, the station itself was over in the student center.”
The student center was housed in a small, two-story farmhouse on campus. Walwick and Headley shared an office space. After a few years, the weight of the studio records and equipment did little to help the old floors and they began to warp.
The university decided to move the studio to a building on the edge of campus near the Cooper Annex. Then, Headley said the university decided to combine speech with journalism, public relations and advertising to form a new department of mass communication. That’s when Walwick had an idea.
“In 1972, we attempted to get an on-air station, which became WETS-FM,” Headley said. “Dr. Walwick was very instrumental in that and supportive.”
From there, Frank helped Headley and Walwick start the paperwork for a federal grant from what was then called the Health Education and Welfare Department. They were awarded $70,000 to build the station.
“It was a 10-watt AM station and they wanted to expand that,” current Station Director Wayne Winkler, who also has his PhD in history from ETSU, explained, “and they were able to get a license for a Class C FM station which is 100,000-watt, the most powerful FM station permitted. The Tri-Cities has four allocations from the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) for Class C FM stations and at the time they only had three. So there was an opening and they were moving in on that.”
Headley said he and his team wanted to make the small, student-run station a public radio station. Their plan was to staff it with people who would also teach in the broadcasting program, and hire students to be announcers and other on-air personalities. They recruited help from the owner of WCYB television, who volunteered his lawyers he had on retainer in Washington, D.C.
Everything the station did had to be approved by the president of the university, Dr. D.P. Culp.
“I took the paperwork over to the president,” Headley said, “and he said, ‘well, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is you got it. The bad news is I don’t want it in speech. I’m going to put it in public relations.’”
Culp wanted Headley to go over to the PR department to continue his leadership with the station. Instead, Headley stayed in speech.
“And then later, of course, mass communication became department of communication and they put speech back in it,” Headley said with a chuckle. “It was a bit ironic. Today, we just have a communication and a mass communication department, so it’s sort of all cycled back. Dr. Walwick was the man that was instrumental in establishing the speech department. He was active all the way through and supportive of it all.”
At the time of these departmental changes, the station was experiencing change as well and hasn’t stopped changing since.
“We now have our own television facility that is probably equal in terms of its equipment that all commercial stations have,” Headley said. “It’s an excellent place to train students.”
When Headley worked at the station, WETS was on the air 18 hours a day. In 1980, WETS (which carried National Public Radio) became the first radio network to broadcast using satellite. Then, in 2011, Winkler said one of the most challenging changes took place: WETS became the Tri-Cities’ first HD radio station with three digital signals. Now, the station carries four HD signals. HD 1 is a duplication of the old analogue signal; HD 2 is devoted to Americana music; HD 3 plays classical music; and the newest addition, HD 4, has been turned over to the student broadcasters.
“We’ve come into a digital age,” Headley said. “From what we had when we began to what it is now is just mind-boggling, really. I mean, when we started our television program in broadcasting, we used cardboard boxes to simulate cameras.”
Cardboard boxes are now only used to carry equipment into the studio – equipment Winkler said rivals any broadcasting studio nationwide.
“When I was first starting off, you would talk about what we didn’t have in terms of equipment,” Winkler said. “When I would do production I would be thinking, you know if we had multi-track tape recorders we could do so much more. Now we all have the same gear. If your production isn’t up to stock, well it’s because your producer isn’t up to stock.
“It’s constant change. When I first came here, the only equipment that’s in this room today that looks anything like what we used when I first started is the microphone. Everything else is different. When I first started we had turntables; we had reel tape recorders. We have none of that now. We’ve got three computer screens in the studio. Back then we had steam-powered transmitters.”
And with the Internet, Winkler said, the network’s audience has expanded from a 100-mile range to anyone with a computer or smartphone.
“We have listeners in Europe, in Africa, in Japan, in China. We can not only reach them, but we can also tell where our signal has gone. You realize that your audience now is global. We’re still very oriented to this region and that’s the vast majority of listeners, but we do have an awareness that our signal goes well beyond this Tri-Cities region.”
Winkler never met Walwick, but said the success WETS has now is a result of his work.
“It’s been a long, hard fight,” Headley said, “and Dr. Walwick was the man that … helped us get through all this and headed in the right direction. I’m excited to see what happens in the future.”