Exhibit Showcases Campus Radio Station WMUC
An exhibit documenting the rich history of the University of Maryland’s radio station opens Friday, September 20.
“Saving College Radio: WMUC Past, Present and Future" showcases the student-operated station that has served as a training ground and creative outlet for students since 1948, making it one of the nation’s longest continuously operating college radio stations. As a platform for alternative programming, WMUC remains the only alternative music station in the D.C. metro area.
“Radio stations are hubs of cultural activity and embody local traditions and culture,” says Laura Schnitker, curator of the exhibit and sound archivist at the University Libraries. “In addition to being the voice of the campus community, WMUC is important because it provides an alternative to commercial Top 40 or talk radio.”
Offering the student perspective of key historical events and campus happenings, the exhibit draws from more than 1,800 audio recordings as well as reports, administrative files, brochures and photographs. Materials in the WMUC Collection are part of the University Archives and document cultural, music, sports, and news programs.
Among the highlights of the exhibit are: early 1970s audio recordings of Vietnam War protests on campus that drew thousands of demonstrators; a station ID, or short on-air promo, that John Lennon recorded for a WMUC deejay at the press conference accompanying the Beatles’ first U.S. concert at the Washington Coliseum; station IDs recorded by other celebrities including Fats Domino, Chubby Checker, Phyllis Diller and Frank Zappa, among others; and information about Yesternow, the station’s first ongoing program to both feature and target African Americans and other student communities.
The exhibit underscores the UMD Libraries’ efforts to preserve the university’s student radio heritage. Robin Pike, manager of digital conversion and media reformatting, leads a team of specialists working to digitize the station’s audio recordings and print materials, important to the university because they are unique, at risk and irreplaceable. Quarter-inch, open-reel audio tape, for example, will be preserved according to national standards and practices and ingested to a digital collections repository, ultimately to be made available to researchers.
Preserving the items is especially challenging, she says, because of the rate at which the media degrades.
“We don’t have much time left,” says Pike says. “Most magnetic audio tape has approximately 15 years left before it degrades beyond a point where the content can be saved.”
One way to restore open-reel tapes so that they can be played and digitized is to bake them in a special oven at 120 degrees for one to two days. The oven, she says, is similar to those used in science labs, with heat lower than that of a toaster oven. “We only get a few chances to play and digitize the tapes after baking them,” Pike says. “This doesn’t preserve the items, but it does temporarily help. ”
University-sponsored radio started in the early 20th century, often by engineering departments seeking to provide students with broadcasting experience in the experimental medium. After World War I, about 200 licenses were granted to educational institutions. By 1938, however, fewer than 40 college stations were still on the air due to the rise in commercial networks and the increasing value of airwave space.
WMUC mostly emulated commercial radio until the 1970s, when new FM technology and the freeform movement offered more experimental approaches to broadcasting ushered an era of experimental, free-form radio.
Schnitker, an ethnomusicologist, hosts a Thursday-morning WMUC radio show Bohemian Challenge. She appreciates firsthand the significance of college radio. “It’s such a valuable creative outlet, not only for those involved in its production but also for the listeners,” she says. It really is a public service.”
With a wide-ranging collection of resources documenting the history of radio and television broadcasting, the University of Maryland Libraries is the home to the National Public Broadcasting Archives and the Library of American Broadcasting.
Admission to “Saving College Radio: WMUC Past, Present and Future” is free and open to the public during the Maryland Room Gallery’s open hours (Monday - Friday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Wednesday 10 a.m. – 8pm, Sunday 1 p.m. - 6 p.m.).
For additional information about the exhibit and opening go to:
The University of Maryland Libraries comprise the largest academic library system in the Washington D.C.-Baltimore area. The eight-library system supports the teaching, learning and research needs of University of Maryland students and faculty.