In 1957, UVA engineering student Rowland Johnson spent part of his honeymoon delivering, in a rented truck and with the help of his groomsmen, a four-ton World War II Navy surplus radio transmitter from Washington D.C. to Charlottesville. That sort of dedication is exactly what has sustained volunteer radio at WTJU (www.wtju.radio.virginia.edu) for the last 50 years.
Two years earlier, educational fraternity Kappa Delta Pi had donated $450 to the department of speech and drama for the sake of a station. That dream became a reality when the transmitter was hoisted on top of Cabell Hall and WTJU joined 58 other educational stations nationwide below 92 on the FM dial. The station initially broadcast at 10 watts, reaching about 100 listeners, one as far away as Crozet.
Spin zone: WTJU General Manager Chuck Taylor poses in front of just a few of the artifacts that attest to the station’s long history.
WTJU declared its independence from the speech department several years later and began receiving funding as a student group. In 1959, the first of many 24-hour fundraising marathons aired, an idea that has helped the station maintain its musical and spiritual independence through the years. Although jazz programming was added in the early 1960s, approximately 85 percent of music played on WTJU was classical into the late ‘60s. In 1969, there was conflict between station traditionalists and new DJs to introduce rock music. Of course, rock ‘n’ roll won out. In the early ‘70s, the station not only went stereo, but also adopted the 24/7 format that we enjoy today.
Talk about the station today, and many people remember the glorious cacaphony of the late-night shows, DJs fielding 4am requests from the A School. Or how Plan 9 had to stock up on blank cassette tapes whenever the marathon shows rolled around. Or the jazz concert series that brought the likes of Sun Ra to town.
Today, WTJU seems like a beautiful tropical island in the North Sea of corporate radio. Because it was unencumbered by commercialism and playlists, it always seems to have inspired a sort of fanatical loyalty. DJs have always been volunteer, and many of the rock jocks started in the 2am to 6am slot. From time to time, it has been suggested that all DJs should be UVA students, but such a rule would rob us of such treasured hosts as Professor Bebop, Gary Funston, Dominic and Robin Tomlin, DJs who care about music and are allowed to dig as deeply as possible into the musical possibilities. Happy Birthday, WTJU—50 years and counting.
The distribution of music has always been closely aligned with radio. In the 1940s, music was distributed on 78 rpm’s, and the lion’s share went to juke boxes around the country. In 1948 the 33 1/3 was invented and RCA and Columbia records began releasing classical and jazz music on 12” LPs in the early ‘50s. Around the same time, the 7” 45rpm, the iconic symbol of rock ‘n’ roll, began to find its niche in the music marketplace. For 15 years, pop music was driven by the success of the hit single. But in the mid-’60s, LPs took on more importance, driven by bands like The Beatles and FM radio. Full length LPs began to be viewed as an art form, and track sequencing, concept albums and rock operas were born. The LP format lasted 30-plus years, and sales grew steadily into the CD era. But in the last 10 years, and especially with digital downloads, singles, which had been in the throes of a decline, have regained their importance.
In the midst of all the changes in the marketplace, albums are being awarded their credibility again, at least on stage. Our own Ezra Hamilton and his band have performed Innervisions and What’s Goin’ On live. Lou Reed recently performed his dark masterpiece, Berlin, in concert in Brooklyn. And maybe you heard on NPR that a group in Nashville, The Long Players, have started a Music City event bringing classic albums to club stages. Performing such greats as Sergeant Pepper and Let It Bleed, they have even had the great luxury of having original session players Al Kooper and Charlie McCoy on their rendering of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.
Richmond’s Susan Greenbaum (www.susangreenbaum.com), Harvard grad and corporate climber turned songwriter, will perform one of the best selling LPs of all time, Carole King’s Tapestry, at The Gravity Lounge on Friday, February 9. This will also be a celebration of C.K.’s birthday. (She turns 65 on February 9.)