Friday, January 27, 2023

‘Small rebellions’ — the history of WCWM, William & Mary’s radio station

A WCWM DJ's natural habitat is in the warm, fuzzy light of the broadcast room, according to Station Manager Varvara Troitski (WYDaily Photo/Benjamin West)
A WCWM DJ’s natural habitat is in the warm, fuzzy light of the broadcast room, according to Station Manager Varvara Troitski (WYDaily/Benjamin West)

Deep in the basement of the Campus Center, WCWM 90.9 FM’s headquarters look like the cockpit of a sci-fi spaceship.

The room is mood lit with fairy lights and a vintage lamp, and everywhere are posters, stickers, plastic trinkets, drawings and music, so much music.

“One of my favorite things to do is to come down here and just pick a random record off the shelf and play it,” William & Mary student and WCWM station manager Varvara Troitski said.

An internal window, gridded out in painter’s tape and dozens of colorful note cards, denotes the show’s weekly schedule — jazz, blues, public radio-style talk hours, and even a segment dedicated to popular parody artist Weird Al, are among the lineup. Though the station has cut back for summer hours, this spring semester saw 70 volunteers and 62 distinct shows, Troitski said.

Troitski in front of a small sample of the station's music. WCWM is home to thousands of Vinyl and CDs, one of the largest collections on the East Coast, she said (WYDaily Photo/Benjamin West)
Troitski in front of a small sample of the station’s music. WCWM is home to thousands of Vinyl and CDs, one of the largest collections on the East Coast, she said (WYDaily Photo/Benjamin West)

Today, WCWM is entirely student-run, and prides itself in eclectic music programming. But with roots stretching back to the early 1950s, when a handful of kids blasted out a shoddy AM signal that barely reached the dorms — it has been a long journey to get where the station is today.

Beethoven and Bach — the station’s history

Just more than a decade after WWII, William & Mary sophomore Ted Hunnicutt sent a 65-page proposal to the college president asking for a student run radio station to satisfy a new vice for youth everywhere: rock n’ roll.

“So basically students would have to stand in a certain part of their dorm room in order to hear the station,” University of Houston professor and former WCWM station manager Anne Gessler said.

A picture of Gessler can still be found right outside the front door of WCWM. Check the top-left corner of the poster (WYDaily Photo/Benjamin West)
A picture of Gessler can still be found right outside the front door of WCWM. Check the top-left corner of the poster (WYDaily Photo/Benjamin West)

Gessler, who grew up in love with radio, “obsessively” taping the music that came through her home system as a child, literally wrote the book on WCWM history — a 102-page thesis, written as the cap to her bachelor’s degree at William & Mary.

According to Gessler’s thesis, in 1956 when the station first hit the airwaves, the only other way to tap into the budding rock n’ roll phenomenon was late at night when the signals from long range stations floated over the mountains and into students’ messy, midnight dorm room.

In less than a year, WCWM failed financially — the fault of the lack of interest and backing by the college, according to Gessler’s citation of former project director Fred Shaffer.

William & Mary did turn an interest in the little DIY project, just not in the way that the founders had hoped. Shortly after the first incarnation of WCWM failed in 1957, the university applied for its own license, this time on the FM waves, and rebirthed the station as an educational endeavor. By 1960, under heavy administrative oversight, the station was almost exclusively playing “high culture” classical music and discouraging personality from the live DJs.

“The William and Mary administration did not want its students to dance,” Gessler wrote. “It wanted them to sit down and absorb their European cultural heritage.”

Into the mid 1960s, WCWM began to diversify its programming, continuing its “struggle to become its own entity rather than remain a mouthpiece of the college,” she wrote.

Some rock n’ roll and other popular programming was allowed, though tightly contained, Gessler said. But the station was making moves to break away from oversight. This didn’t come in one wild sweep of resistance, Gessler said.

“I would say that it was small rebellions,” she said.

One notable story from the time finds Jesse Hawk, dubbed on-air as “The Rockin’ Hawk,” playing a primetime rock radio show, tentatively approved by the administration as a way to boost listenership. The radio instructor at the time, James Sawyer, reportedly tuned into Hawk’s program to find him blasting “Louie Louie.”  Gessler writes that Sawyer called Hawk and demanded he cease the track immediately, which brewed into a live, on-air argument in which Hawk urged listeners to call in and voice their opinion.

Another sort of incremental rebellion was taking place as well — women in the workplace.

At the time, Gessler writes, on William & Mary and many other campuses worldwide, women had strict curfews, they couldn’t wear pants or smoke in public — all restrictions never extended to men. Having to be back in their dorms by 11 p.m., or even 7 p.m. on some nights, made it difficult for women to assume leadership roles.

“There was kind of an unspoken policy that they would be passed over for promotion,” Gessler said. “So they would be, like, the secretary or they would be the librarian.”

Gessler fondly recalls a story about one female student becoming an expert at computer engineering and getting a leg up in the radio business. She got special credentials to stay out all night because she was needed in the computer lab — therefore bypassing the stringent curfew.

Whether it be by student initiative, the changing times, or a little of both — the early 1970s saw the first female station director and an extreme retreat of administrative oversight. Today, WCWM receives funding from the college, but still enjoys the freedom of being an entirely student-run production.

Check back Thursday, May 30 for part two — the story of a disaster that nearly destroyed the station.

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