Remembering WDBS

The Campus Radio Station of Duke University (1950-1983)


Durham's Newest FM Radio Station Is the Product of Student Initiative

This article appeared in News Register, Winter 1972.

At midnight, a solitary student trudges along flagstone walks glistening with recent spring rain, back toward his dormitory from the library. He is worn out with the strain of a heavy courseload and the prospect of seven hours' sleep is inviting. He passes under a gothic archway, mounts a few stairs, and, entering his room, quickly prepares for bed. The tensions and preoccupations of the day are not easily displaced, and clicking on his radio and twisting a dial, he appreciatively seeks the soothing tones of music. Two folk-songs and a Carole King lament later he sleeps.

Less than two miles away, on East Campus on the second floor of the north end of Bivins building, surrounded by machinery and record cabinets, WDBS disk jockey Chris Santy sips coffee and carefully selects some of the albums he will play that night on his late-late show. Mr. Santy, a 1971 graduate of Duke who has hopes of becoming a professional actor, is one of the seventy-five members of the University community who have made Durham's newest FM station a reality and an operational success.

According to Mr. Santy, the purpose of WDBS is to bring to Duke students and listeners in the Triangle area the best possible programs of contemporary music and current events, in addition to providing a constructive outlet for the energies of students with interests in broadcasting, news and sports reporting, and electrical engineering. WDBS began operations in 1950, and for several years broadcast from the basement of what is now the Divinity School. In 1964 new equipment was constructed, purchased, and acquired by trade with professional stations in the Durham area, and the staff moved to East Campus and Bivins building.

For twenty-one years WDBS operated at 560 kilohertz as a campus-restricted, student government-sponsored AM station. In April of 1971, with the aid of a University loan, WDBS purchased an FM license from WSRC in Durham and began broadcasting twenty-one hours each day at 107.1 megahertz FM and 1600 kilohertz AM. With the completion of a new 330-foot, 3000-watt tower on Rose of Sharon Road in Durham County, WDBS programs will eventually have an effective radius of sixty miles (thirty miles in stereo) that will include Burlington, Chapel Hill, and much of western Raleigh.

Mr. Santy is quick to point out that the job of a disk jockey is decidedly more complicated than the mere playing of records. Surrounded by a jungle of microphones, recording machines, tapes, cassette players, turn-tables, and mysterious apparatus familiar only to the initiated, the announcer is involved in a creative endeavor. He must know the music thoroughly and be able to put together a program that has continuity; not a succession of unrelated sounds. Furthermore, he must keep an accurate air log as required by the Federal Communications Act of 1934, take frequent transmitter readings, answer requests from listeners, and coherently read advertisements and community service announcements. At WDBS there is an emphasis on balance in the programming. The top forty song format, so popular with strictly commercial stations, is avoided, and an effort is made to give air time to those albums which reflect quality and promise in spite of current obscurity.

The difficult job of coordinating all of the activities of WDBS is handled capably by Jim Davis, station manager and president of WDBS, Incorporated. In addition to making sure that the programs run smoothly and overseeing a large staff which includes thirty-five disk jockeys, Mr. Davis must act as a liaison between the station, its board of trustees, and the student government, satisfy his advertisers and the FCC, see to the care and purchase of new equipment, and stand responsible for the solvency of the fledgling corporation at the end of the fiscal year.

People connected with WDBS take pride in the fact that, although the station has been serving the Triangle area for less than a year, it compared very favorably with other local stations in a recent poll of listeners conducted by an outside organization. In an effort to serve the community, WDBS subscribes to the United Press International wire service and monitors ABC radio news broadcasts giving up-to-the-minute news and sports coverage. The large news staff, consisting of fifteen readers and ten local correspondents, synthesizes national news and events of a more regional nature and offers reports twice each hour. Last year a news team was sent to Washington, D. C. during the peace mobilization rally to bring to the Durham area live and objective on-the-scene impressions of the occurrences at the capital. More recently, the staff has been covering the Chapel Hill-based movement to have Duke President Terry Sanford elected President of the United States.

Special features which add to the variety of the programming include broadcasts of all home Duke basketball games on AM, three national sportscasts each day, a thirty-minute sports special on Monday evenings, "Crosswords" -- a public opinion forum in which listeners' views are shared -- and six hours of classical music on Sunday mornings. On Sunday afternoon Elizabeth Hastings conducts a show for women followed by "Tomcat Earthworks" with Bob Conroy which features special recording artists, a "surprise hour," interviews, and messages from ecology groups on "Carolina Conservationist."

While one is impressed by the professionalism of the staff of Duke's radio station, all is not fraught with the high seriousness which characterizes a more commercial broadcasting system. Bare spaces on walls not decorated with album covers and musical group personality posters are subject to acerbic undergraduate dissertations on the state of the world, demerits of a particular political figure (few are spared), and concise literary exclamations of a more social nature. For the amusement of the radio audience satirical commercials to be read on the air are created and recorded in the production studio. One such spot advertises the benefits that an automobile owner may realize from the purchase of an H. R. Wellington Raffilator. This chiropractic device, among its other services, will increase the probability of better mileage with any liquid introduced into your gasoline tank. Another commercial carries you to the majestic and storm-troubled waters of the Caspian Sea where courageous mariners labor to bring renowned Magellan oil products to the hungry engines of modern America.

When an eclipse darkened the Atlantic seaboard two years ago, diligent WDBS reporters were busy with microphones on East Campus recording any profound comments the young ladies cared to make regarding the phenomenon and taking note of what the more fashion-conscious eclipse watchers were wearing. To their credit we might add that WDBS was the only radio station in the country to give on-the-scene coverage to that gala occasion, New Year's Eve at Five Points in Durham.


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