Remembering WDBS

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

WDBS - Blue Devil Network

This article appeared in the Duke Alumni Journal, Oct. 1950.

A Duke radio station, the dream of several ambitious students a few years ago, is now a reality.

Today, after many months of planning, construction, difficult preliminary testing, the tedious accumulation of technical and legal information and advice, and the gratifying cooperation of trustees, faculty, students, and businessmen in the city of Durham, a Duke student-staffed radio station is operating daily on a planned program schedule.

Campus-coverage radio stations are not new to colleges and universities around the country. A great many of these stations, run by student staffs with the assistance of expert coaching from faculty advisors, have been operating successfully for a number of years.

Programs are arranged to entertain and inform the student audiences with high quality programs designed to benefit the University as a whole, serving faculty, administration, departments and campus organizations by acquainting one with the other and bringing all closer together.

The operation of a broadcasting station has proved to be valuable experience for students interested in radio production, engineering, business, advertising, writing of various types, and public speaking practices and techniques. The organization and production of many varieties of entertainment such as plays, musicals, comedies, forums, sports, etc., are assets in developing and bringing out the creative talents and abilities of members of the student body. At schools offering courses in radio production and journalism, a campus station provides excellent laboratory facilities.

Campus radio stations are carrier-current stations, often called "wired-wireless." That means that programs are not transmitted through the air as in ordinary commercial broadcasting, but are carried over improvised lines or power lines to the student audience. As long as the radio waves from the transmission system are kept within limits specified by the Federal Communications Commission, no license is required for either the station or the operators. At Duke, the reception limit is a maximum of 285 feet from the carrier line.

In pre-war years there was substantial student interest in radio broadcasting at Duke. The local commercial stations granted a goodly amount of radio time to the Duke band and other campus organizations for broadcast purposes. However, the University did not have a station it could call its own, and interest languished during the war.

The inspiration for a station on the Duke campus was the creation of three students: Archie Mathis, '51, E. P. (Sonny) Elmore, Jr., '50, and Ed Hillman, '49. In the fall of 1947 these students, roommates, possessed a few meager pieces of equipment such as a microphone, a turntable, and some other odds and ends. Around these small items they framed their concepts of a Duke radio station. Other college stations arose from such diminutive beginnings, and these students enthusiastically believed that this accomplishment could be repeated here.

They presented their ideas to the administration. The reaction was favorable and a faculty advisor, Joseph C. Wetherby, assistant professor of speech, was appointed. The actual establishment of a station, however, was frustrated by a futile search for a possible location on the over-crowded post-war campus.

For over two years the project was delayed, but this preliminary staff would not remain idle. Not to be discouraged, it accumulated an extensive file of technical and legal data by affiliating itself with the Inter-collegiate Broadcasting System. It worked out plans for a system to cover both campuses, started a record library of a few donations from recording companies interested in beginning college stations, and provided the basis for later publicity and interest in the undertaking.

Plans for the station were also kept alive by continuing advice from interested groups, individuals and departments. The Chronicle, DukEngineer, and the leaders of the Men's Student Government Association took positive action to provide funds and establish the station as an independent campus organization.

However, administration approval, advice and assistance, and the cooperation of various departments, student organizations and individuals were not enough. Active student support and enthusiasm was necessary for the establishment of a well-equipped and well-organized campus station.

This support had to be strong enough to complete a financial drive, provide a volunteer staff and a variety of student talent to adequately operate the station, and lay an organized foundation for the purchase and construction of studio facilities and transmission apparatus.

Sonny Elmore drew up an extensive and complete report of the proposed project, and presented it to the Student Council and the student body. The object of the paper was to inform the students of what had been done, what was planned for the future, and what financial contributions were necessary before the physical construction could start. It appealed to students to contribute $1.00 each, mentioning that one-third of the necessary funds had been accumulated. It also called for volunteers to staff the station, talent to help in occasional productions, and suggestions and comments to aid in successfully carrying out the proposals.

Student response was encouraging. The station became the biggest project of the Men's SGA. A volunteer radio committee, headed by Al Stone, '50, vice-president of SGA, was organized. The committee approved the ideas of the staff and gave official student recognition to the undertaking. The staff was formally elected to managerial positions. Logan Bruce, '50, was chosen station manager, Beverly Barge, production manager, Sonny Elmore, engineer, and Archie Mathis, business manager.

The campaign to raise funds began with a talent show under the direction of Art Steuer. It was known as "Humperdinck Night," and featured singing, dancing, comedy teams, juggling, hill-billy music, and other acts, all performed by members of the student body. Ken Corbitt of WTIK Durham, acted as master of ceremonies. A Negro quartet from North Carolina College was an additional feature of the evening. The show was a rousing success, netting the station approximately $500.00.

Additional funds were obtained through a Men's SGA membership drive. Memberships were sold at $1.00 each, and out of the total amount received, the SGA appropriated $750.00 to the radio station.

The East Campus Women's SGA voted $400.00 toward the construction of their own transmitter. This booster transmitter is now on order, and it is hoped that the installation will take place in the near future.

The West Campus transmitter was built by Joe Edwards, a technician for the School of Engineering, at a figure considerably below the cost of a commercial set. This contribution saved the station close to $1,300.00.

The construction of a studio itself, now located in the basement of Gray Building, was a task too great for the students to handle alone. For this work, the Trustees of the University voted a sum of money. Carpenters, electricians and other skilled workers began construction in the fall of 1949, in a room formerly used as a workshop by the Duke Players.

The work was completed in the spring of 1950, and the studio was made ready for the installation of the transmitting equipment.

Before operation could begin, some months of pre-testing were necessary. Equipment had to be built and tested for range and adaptability. A difficulty at this stage was the fact that equipment had to be constructed first and tested in order to determine exactly what would be practicable for adequate campus coverage. It is this testing stage that is at present delaying the installation of the booster transmitter on the East Campus.

On May 15, a short week before the close of the school year, Duke's newest organization, station WDBS, began broadcasting on a frequency of 560 kilocycles.

The policies of the station are directed by a Radio Council, made up of faculty and students, comparable to the Publications Board. The council is composed of the station manager, now Robert Cook, who gained his experience with an army station in Italy, and three department managers, Archie Mathis, Norman Bolton and Norman (Pete) Archambault. Also on this council are four faculty advisors: Robert B. Cox, dean of undergraduate men; Miss Mary Grace Wilson, dean of residence, Woman's College; Joseph C. Wetherby, and Robert B. Fearing, advisor, student activities; and one representative from Women's SGA, one representative from Men's SGA, two campus representatives and an engineering representative.

The station is organized into three departments: production, business and engineering, with a student manager and a faculty advisor for each one. Within these departments volunteer students carry out functions for operating the station.

A regular operating schedule took effect after the formal opening on the night of October 2. At present, the program schedule includes a request show, campus newscasts, a classical "Concert Hall of the Air," sportscasts, interviews with personalities on the campus and outstanding visitors, and transcribed programs featuring radio stars. The station transmits evenings from 8 to 11 o'clock.

Plans for the coming year call for performances by such student dramatic organizations as the Hoof 'n' Horn and the Duke Players, round-tables by the Debate Council, programs by the various clubs and societies, and vespers. Programs are being designed to bring East and West Campus into closer contact, raise lagging school spirit, and find self-supporting student talent.

WDBS is now "on its own." Operational expenses are being met through limited local advertising and other means. However, the station has many needs that are beyond the present budget. The record library is woefully inadequate, control panels and other equipment are needed for the booster station on the East Campus, and the staff is desperately seeing a piano.

The accumulation of enough equipment and material to provide a top-notch campus-coverage station with national recognition takes time, patience, and continuous active and able assistance on the part of students, faculty, and alumni. Recent fine support fro the duke station has been extremely encouraging, and hopes are high that WDBS will become an integral part of the University community, bringing to both campuses increased educational and extra-curricular advantages.

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