SCHENECTADY — The station may be quiet, but Union College’s WRUC has a lot to celebrate today, including 100 years of radio.
The pioneering student radio station is known as the “first station in the nation,” yet its actual claim to fame must be tightly defined. It’s the first college station, and the first licensed station of any kind, to air regularly scheduled programs, according to Wayne Somers, editor of the “Encyclopedia of Union College.”
WRUC, or 2ADD as it was known then, kicked off on Oct. 14, 1920, with a phonograph recording of “Tell Me, Little Gypsy” by Irving Berlin, which could be heard as far afield as Hartford, Connecticut.
Although the songs, programs and technology changed, the station has remained a mainstay on campus.
“Growing up, I was a part of bands. . . . I always loved making playlists,” said Sata Diakite, general manager of the station and a senior at Union. She’s run a program called “Recharge,” which features everything from hip-hop to alternative music, at the station since her freshman year. It was the station’s history, in part, that drew her to it.
“. . . When I heard about WRUC and it being the first station in the nation, I was like, this seems really impressive,” Diakite said.
While its nickname doesn’t quite tell the whole story, through the years the station has been home to a number of “firsts.” In 1920, the station featured music for off-campus dances, advertisements for Union’s engineering program and play-by-play broadcasts of athletic events.
The students, perhaps led by the station’s secretary/treasurer Leo Freedman, claimed they created the first portable broadcast receiver, calling it the “wireless baby carriage.” Students took a wicker baby carriage and stuffed it with a receiver, antenna and batteries, and pushed the contraption around Schenectady, broadcasting music from campus. The stunt was reenacted a few weeks later for a newsreel that ran in the United States and Europe.
The station does not, however, have a continuous history and went off-air in the ensuing years. But under the leadership of Jeffrey Hedquist and Richard Ferguson, it was revived and brought to a new level in the mid- to late-1960s.
“It was a typical college radio station, and then when we got ahold of it [we] said, ‘Let’s make this into a money-making rocker,’ with that idea and the feeling of this could be more fun than anything else,” Hedquist said.
When the 1967 graduates first got into the studio, they found dilapidated equipment and not much else.
“There it was in 1963, barely on the air, poorly used facility and we over a period of time turned it into an 18-hour day, seven days a week, rock powerhouse. . . . We recruited everyone on campus and ended up being the largest activity on campus,” Hedquist said.
It became a popular Top 40 commercial station, with contests, jingles and giveaways. Students were airing programs including five newscasts a day, an hourly weather report, coverage of concerts and lectures, a daily sports program and more.
They also sold advertising to upgrade the equipment, build new studios and support programming. In 1965-1966, the station had an $8,000 budget and billed $6,000 in advertising, according to the college.
“We then decided that we would do the same thing at Skidmore because Skidmore was our sister school. Where Union was all male, Skidmore was all female,” Hedquist said. For a time, they were broadcasting on both campuses.
Students ran everything, from contests to advertising to newscasts to concert promotion and coverage. Hedquist joked that some students actually “majored in WRUC.”
“It became our fraternity. It became the place where we ate, slept and lived. . . . We knew we were creating something magical, but we had no idea the influence that it would have on our lives and the lives of other people,” Hedquist said.
Many of the people who were involved in WRUC at the time went on to careers in broadcasting or the entertainment industry. That includes Phil Robinson, a 1971 graduate who was the screenwriter and director of “Field of Dreams” and “Sneakers”; as well as Richard Roth, a 1970 graduate who went on to become a correspondent for CBS News and NBC News; and Julie Greifer Swidler, a 1979 graduate who is executive vice president of business affairs and general counsel at Sony Music Entertainment.
“For a school that did not have any kind of broadcasting degree, it certainly produced a lot of people who ended up with professional skills in broadcasting,” Hedquist said. He runs Hedquist Productions, among other companies.
“It was a magical time that in some ways cannot be repeated,” Hedquist said.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the station, Diakite and the rest of the students involved with WRUC today were left with a difficult situation. They haven’t been able to broadcast this semester because their studio isn’t well-ventilated, and with the coronavirus pandemic it was deemed unsafe for students to use.
That doesn’t mean the work has stopped.
“What we’re going to do is have USB microphones and figure out a way to broadcast people’s shows through their dorm rooms. That’s what we’re planning to do,” Diakite said.
Starting Sunday, they’ll also be using social media and Zoom to commemorate the station’s anniversary. Throughout the week, they’ll have Instagram Live sessions with current and former disc jockeys. They’ll also post alumni playlists on their Instagram account (wruc89.7fm).
For Union students and alumni, WRUC is also bringing together a panel of former DJs who worked at the station in the 1980s to 2000s. They’ll discuss via Zoom what each era was like and their experiences at the station.
“Even though we can’t have a physical celebration, we want to keep the momentum going,” Diakite said.