Fostering electronic and digital student media at UVa since 1947

historyIt was the end of World War II. Millions of veterans returned to the States; over two million of them decided to return to school under the G.I. Bill. New technologies had sprung to life as a result of the war effort, and many of these young G.I.s had acquired the latest engineering, electronic, and even broadcasting skills while overseas. Now they were back at school, and brought their passion for technology and innovation with them.

It was into this environment that WUVA Radio was born, beginning operations as a closed-circuit, “carrier current” AM station in the fall of 1947, broadcasting to the “old dorms” and other nearby buildings on 640 kHz from studios in the basement of Madison Hall. The station’s carrier-current technology used the electrical wiring in buildings as antennas for the station’s signal. It worked, but it was static-prone, low-power AM, and required a small, dedicated transmitter in each building complex the station served.

In the post-war era, some universities were beginning to recognize broadcasting as an area for academic study. At these schools, many student-originated stations evolved into the “official” college radio station, receiving sanction, funding and facilities from a supportive institution. However, at schools without a formal broadcasting or mass communications program — including the University of Virginia — these stations tended to remain financially and organizationally independent, continuing largely as extra-curricular student organizations.

Most operated as non-commercial, public radio stations, relying on small budgets consisting mainly of listener donations and meager community support. A handful, however, sought and secured permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to operate as commercial broadcasters, selling advertising to support themselves, and evolving into a unique breed within the species: student owned and operated — yet fully self-supporting — commercial broadcast operations.

Today, more than sixty years later, WUVA continues to keep rare company as one of only six such stations in the United States, along with WPRB at Princeton University; WYBC at Yale; WHRB at Harvard; WBRU at Brown; and WVBR at Cornell.

As the University grew in physical size during the 1950s, WUVA’s carrier current broadcasts reached an ever-diminishing proportion of the University community, because more and more students began living off Grounds. Nonetheless, the station flourished during its first “golden era,” with a full broadcast schedule (18+ hours daily), a robust news and public affairs department, and a format consisting primarily of the popular music of the post-World War II era, and, beginning in 1954, the top hits of the “rock and roll” revolution.

In the mid-50s, WUVA moved from Madison Hall to more spacious studios in the basement of LeFevre House, in the then-new McCormick Road dorms. It was not uncommon for over 125 students to be actively involved in the station’s operations during the school year. The station was, however, off the air during holiday and spring breaks, and over the summer.

By the late 1960s, the station realized that much of its potential audience was far out of range of its aging network of low-power carrier-current transmitters. Seeking better coverage, WUVA applied to the FCC for a full-service, commercial AM license on 1400 kHz, but was unsuccessful in a crowded field of applicants. However, WUVA eventually succeeded in adding a Cable FM channel at 89.1 to its carrier current AM service. The Cable FM station could be heard by anyone in Charlottesville who hooked an FM receiver to their cable TV line.

Still, the service was limited, and with both the University and Charlottesville communities growing rapidly, WUVA was able to reach only a small portion of the market. The station supplemented annual advertising sales of less than $25,000 with a DJ service, Uncle Funky’s Platter Platoon, which well served the station’s financial needs during the height of the original “disco” era in the mid-70s.

During this time, WUVA developed aggressive news, public affairs, and sports departments. The station’s student reporters interviewed newsmakers who visited the University (including — given the station’s core audience — many stars in the music industry who came to Grounds for concerts on big weekends), delivered weekly programs analyzing current events, and even provided live broadcasts of UVa baseball and lacrosse games.

WUVA also once again embarked on the lengthy and complicated process of applying for a full-service commercial license from the FCC. This time, the prize was an FM assignment on 92.7 mHz, and, after nearly six years of tortuous effort against several competing applicants, WUVA prevailed. With the help of various station alumni and a crucial loan from the University of Virginia Alumni Association, the station was able to prevail in the FCC comparative hearing.

Finally, on June 22, 1979, the station began full-fledged broadcast operations on 92.7 FM, migrating its Cable-FM-era format of album-oriented rock, news, and public affairs programming to the broader airwaves of Central Virginia. Now, the station could be heard by everyone within 50 miles of Charlottesville, and the station’s business prospects were brighter than ever.

During the 1970s and well into the 80s, WUVA’s student staff continued to number well above 125 each year, now supplemented by a paid, professional sales staff and office manager. The station’s Board of Directors, composed of five student managers and six former students who serve as Alumni Directors, recognized that WUVA’s new audience reached well beyond the University community, and that the station’s survival as a business depended on having a consistent, full-time sales and business staff. However, students continued to be actively involved in creating promotional campaigns, ad copy and creative audio productions to support the advertising sales effort. The station’s high audience ratings were reflected in strong advertising sales, and WUVA enjoyed its second “golden era.”

Being a full-fledged commercial FM station, however, has its challenges. The competitive, rapidly-changing business of radio broadcasting in the late 80s put the station on a roller coaster ride of up-and-down audience ratings (which directly affected the station’s revenues), precipitating a series of music programming changes, from Album Rock to Top 40 to Contemporary Hits, and finally to the current Urban Contemporary format, which has been WUVA’s on-air product for the past ten years.

In the mid-1990s, the competitive radio marketplace conspired with the University’s urgent need for space to force fundamental changes in the station’s operation. WUVA had to give up its studio space in the basement of LeFevre dorm, and entered into a Local Marketing Agreement (“LMA”) with Charlottesville Broadcasting Company (which then operated radio station WINA and several others). The LMA, a creation of FCC regulators and the result of the increasingly competitive radio industry, allowed radio stations to remain competitive by sharing facilities with and subcontracting sales operations to other local stations.

While a business and operational necessity, the LMA was tough on WUVA’s student-owned-and-operated traditions. The station was moved into Charlottesville Broadcasting’s facilities beneath the parking garage on Charlottesville’s downtown mall, far from the Grounds. Physical separation from the University made it difficult for students to interact with the station. Many of the station’s day-to-day operational jobs were supplemented by Charlottesville Broadcasting personnel, particularly during school breaks and over the summer, and the station had even more difficulty retaining an adequate student staff outside of the University’s academic year.

At the same time, radio was undergoing a dramatic change in technology, from the era of audio tape and vinyl records to all-digital, computer-based, and automated programming operations. Thus, the way students practiced their radio craft was undergoing its own radical transformation.

The station continued to be buffeted by difficult staff and business transitions in the late 90s and early 2000s, as Charlottesville Broadcasting was acquired by another local broadcaster, Eure Communications. WUVA’s operations again were moved, this time to Eure’s broadcast facilities on Rose Hill Drive, a bit closer to the Grounds, but still difficult for students — especially those without automobiles — to reach.

By this point WUVA was sharing space with five other Charlottesville radio stations: WWWV, WCHV, WKAV, WINA and WQMZ. Studio time and office space were at a premium; WUVA’s sales and business office moved to Emmet Street, north of Barracks Road, while the studios remained at Rose Hill Drive, jammed into a room hardly larger than closet. By the turn of the century there were nearly 30 radio stations vying for Charlottesville listeners’ ears and advertisers’ dollars.

These profound and nearly simultaneous changes put WUVA through the greatest organizational stress in its 60+ years of operation. At one point, the active student staff actually dwindled to two. WUVA’s Board of Directors knew that the station simply had to get back to having its own facilities, on or near the Grounds, to reinvigorate student participation and set the station’s operations on a sustainable, long-term path.

In spite of these challenges, WUVA’s broadcast service continued to prove its value, not only to the University community, but to Charlottesville and the surrounding area as well., The station had built a top-notch sales team, and earned its way through trying times by proving to advertisers that it could hold a good audience, even without a large student staff.

In 2001, WUVA’s board began a concerted effort to find a new home. The University, with its own severe growing pains, could offer no on-Grounds location.  Finally, in the summer of 2010, WUVA moved into its present quarters on Grounds, on the top floor of Alumni Hall.  Now, after more than a decade, WUVA’s studios and offices are once again completely, conveniently accessible to UVa students.

When it left Lefevre dorm in the mid 1990s, the station was forced to divest itself of virtually all its analog-era equipment, including an historic collection of vinyl-based music. Except for its transmitter atop Carter’s Mountain, up the ridgeline from Monticello, WUVA had been operating for nearly a decade by leasing other stations’ facilities and equipment. As a result, when WUVA moved into its new studios in the summer of 2003, it had to make major capital investments to re-equip itself with everything from desks and chairs to the latest digital broadcast gear.

WUVA(FM) has had different music formats over the years, including Rock and Roll and Urban Contemporary.  In September of 2015, WUVA, responding to changes in the Charlottesville radio market, made the transition to its current Nash Icon Country format.

During this time, WUVA alumni were actively involved as the University conceived a new academic offering, Media Studies. This program recognizes the importance of media as a subject in the liberal arts. From its inception, the new curriculum was in great demand, and what began as a modest program quickly evolved into a growing, highly successful academic department. WUVA has a formal agreement with the College and the Media Studies Department to offer internships to Media Studies majors, the first of what the station anticipates will be an increasing, innovative series of alliances with various schools throughout the University.

Now, in its seventh decade, WUVA is enjoying its third “golden era,” with modern broadcast facilities and much needed space for student staff operations; offices for the station’s professional sales team and support staff; and most important, room for the station to grow. WUVA has two state-of-the-art studios, computer-based scheduling, audio production and broadcast program systems.

At the same time, WUVA has taken advantage of online opportunities to develop a strong Internet presence with, complementing its FM service on 92.7 by offering digital news and online reporting to University students, faculty, and staff, to alumni, to the Charlottesville area and around the world.

With these developments, where is WUVA today? In many respects WUVA’s FM operation sounds and acts like any other commercial FM station. It has emerged with its mission intact, yet expanded: to train University of Virginia students in the art of commercial broadcasting, as the field has grown and continues to evolve. Even with rapid advances in digital technologies and the competitive dynamics of today’s radio marketplace, WUVA continues to fulfill its calling. Ever-larger numbers of University students are again actively engaged in all facets of its operations, drawing on the “WUVA experience” to advance the station’s on-air (and Internet) product — and their own skills.

Successive generations of students have learned — much to their delight — that having WUVA on their resumes opens doors as they enter the job market. Over the past 60 years, WUVA alums earned high-profile managerial, on-air, and technical positions with some of the biggest names in the mass communications business, including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX, ESPN, Disney, Clear Channel, Cumulus Media, and the Discovery Channel, as well as with industry-leading production, advertising, marketing, and law firms. Their “real-world” broadcasting experience is uniquely valuable precisely because it complements, yet is unavailable in, the academic curriculum.

The continuing loyalty and active interest of these successful alums speak to the station’s success across nearly seven decades. Of course, not every student who works at WUVA goes on to a career in media or communications; in fact, most do not. Yet many WUVA alums who work outside the broadcasting business are loyal, too — some would say fanatically so.

Why such dedication? They will tell you that WUVA was their “business boot camp.” WUVA has given generations of students the chance to operate an actual commercial business that is recognized and valued by the community. Students learn the business, own it, control it, and are responsible for its failure or success. In the process, they learn as much about themselves as they do about broadcasting — who they are, what they’re good at, and how to work successfully with a diverse group of colleagues at a place where the stakes are real, and where responsibility and creativity really matter.

Over the past sixty eight years, nearly 2,500 University students enjoyed “the WUVA Experience.” Alums near and far who recognize the value of that experience are determined that WUVA continue to thrive and evolve, in order to enhance the richness of University life for future generations of students fortunate enough to work there.

Today, WUVA’s alums are nurturing the station’s growth into new media, expanding the station’s alumni network to help students begin careers, and savoring the lifetime friendships that form anew among each generation of WUVA’s student broadcasters.

Contributed by Richard D. Marks (Coll ’66) and Rick Dreves (Arch ’77), both of whom served in management at WUVA during their time at the University.