WTJU Turns 60
It began in a basement classroom in Cabell Hall – an experiment that grew out of what was then called the Department of Speech and Drama.
Now, 60 years later, WTJU has ridden wave after wave of cultural upheavals on its way to becoming a treasured part of the lives of passionate volunteers and listeners on the UVA Grounds, in the Charlottesville community, and, thanks to the increasing power of technology, far, far beyond.
The story of WTJU in many ways mirrors the story of the American culture in which it has existed. It’s full of innovation, peaks and valleys, outsized personalities, heart, and an unwavering dedication to providing its listeners with countless routes to musical adventure and discovery.
The WTJU story began in 1955 when the Department of Speech
and Drama decided they wanted to create a UVA-based educational radio station.
The fraternity Kappa Delta Pi came up with the lion’s share of the funding
necessary to get the idea off the ground, and two years later, the station had
100 listeners around Charlottesville.
“From what I have heard,” current WTJU General Manager Nathan Moore said, “the professor who got it going was looking for a sort of arts and high culture version of a university broadcaster, because WUVA had been around for nine or ten years and was, at that point, basically playing pop hits. WTJU became a high-brow alternative to that.”
Times, formats, and society as a whole would soon change. One thing that has never changed, however, is the spirit of innovation that has served as the fuel behind the building of this big, bright, messy, and beautiful flagship.
Moore smiles as he tells a story about one of the station’s earliest dynamic duos, Mike Leach and Joe Bourdow. The two mid-60’s WTJU-ers, who Moore said were “super-active doing music and working in the news department,” were also known for breaking new technological ground. “They would sort of hardwire hack the phone system so they could do a remote from anywhere. They would put a couple wires into the phone patch bay of the building. It was pretty high tech at the time.”
The reason for the move, though, translates well to college
students of any era. “They told me that they did it so they could host the
morning show from some guy’s bedroom so he didn’t have to come in,” Moore said.
“It was kind of college laziness extended to technological ingenuity.”
As the sixties came to a close, the cultural revolution sweeping the nation swept the station’s studios as well. “From 1969-71,” Moore said, “a relatively short amount of time, it went from a predominantly classical, highbrow-oriented station to having a full rock department, and adding women to the on-air team.”
When the 80’s brought a new golden age of college radio, WTJU found itself near the front of the class by recognizing and playing bands that became some of the biggest names on the underground music scene – including Fugazi, the Dead Milkmen, and Dinosaur, Jr. The talent flowed not only through WTJU DJ’s, but also from them. “You had guys like Steve Malkmus, James McNew, and Dave Berman who were all here and then went on to be in bands like Pavement, The Silver Jews, and Yo La Tengo.”
In the early 1990’s, WTJU turned a potentially major obstacle into a floodgate-opening opportunity that, as much as anything else, defines WTJU today. When a station volunteer filed an improper FCC document, the Dean of Students office decided it was time for an actual General Manger. Enter Chuck Taylor, who would take the position in 1993 and oversee the station for 17 years.
“I think he didn’t quite know what to do in the summer when the students left,” Moore said, “so he started bringing in all these community members to host shows.” The new flood of talent and its accompanying explosion of diverse interests has been key to one of the station’s defining characteristics, captured perfectly by its longest-running on-air personality.
“WTJU has become a sort of treasure house of music, and an exploration point,” said Dave “Professor Bebop” Rogers, who is currently in his 44th year on the station. “And a lot of that has to do with what we do as DJ’s. I am in the Jazz department, but I often play lots of other things. What we are really all about is seeking out a connection that goes beyond any narrow definition of music that is tied only to what is most popular at the time. We are really about, ‘Let’s just get out there and swim around in what music has offer.’”
That approach, Rogers said, is helped greatly by the inter-generational influences at the station. “There is a very fresh outlook here because we span so many decades in terms of our age and musical exposure. We learn from each other. There is value for someone like me, at 70 years old, sitting down to have a music discussion with an 18, 19, 20 year-old at the station. It exposes me to things I would otherwise have missed.”
The role played by those younger voices has waxed and waned over the station’s history. The influx of community-based DJ’s changed the balance at the station in ways many agree weren’t always good. “The bottom line is,” said WTJU Rock Director Nick Rubin, who joined the station in 2004, “you had a UVA radio station with relatively few students, and if you are thinking about how to sustain a radio station here or anywhere else, getting students involved had to be a top priority.”
Moore not only recognized this, Rubin said, but immediately got to work doing something about it by establishing WXTJ as a sister station run and staffed entirely by students. Launched in 2013 as an online-only offering, WXTJ recently hit the traditional airwaves by broadcasting on low power FM.
Another focus of Moore’s has been on expanding the station’s community engagement through a series of high profile successes including an annual concert series at Charlottesville’s Ix Art Park that features local and national acts, a summer radio camp for kids, on and off-air partnerships with local venues like The Jefferson and The Paramount, regional music and arts festivals, and community groups like The Bridge PAI and Big Blue Door storytelling project, as well as a deeper level of cooperation and engagement with the UVA Arts in general. The key, he says, is collaboration. “It comes naturally to me to try and get a bunch of allies and build at coalition to do something cool. I am all about whatever creative collaboration we can come up with that can have an impact and make our community stronger and better to paint the inside of our bubble really pretty colors.”
The new era of exploding communication outlets, many will tell you, signals challenging times ahead for the radio industry. And while no station or company is immune to the changes, WTJU’s unique “bubble” will play a big role in moving the station forward. In a world increasingly dominated by algorithmic matching services and computerized playlists that tell us what we like, WTJU continues to bet the house on stretching boundaries and expanding the contents of our personal playlists while making strong and lasting connections with listeners who choose variety over sameness.
“We’re more about rhythms than algorithms,” Moore said, “About once a quarter, I have to file some paperwork with ASCAP and BMI, the artist rights organizations that basically report the tracks we play over a seven-day period. We can generally play 1,350 songs over the period of time. The last time I submitted this information there were only eight songs we played twice.”
From its commitment to originality to its all-volunteer staff to its complete absence of rotation playlists and the nearly unmatched range of genres that fill its airwaves, there is plenty that sets WTJU apart from the pack in today’s radio world. But perhaps its most defining characteristic is the one that it has carried from its first day on air. WTJU today, like it was 60 years ago, is a station built around the connections it has created with listeners who relate to its DJ’s as old friends they may or may not have met yet.
Rubin tells of a fan he met at a show by a band called Sensation Six, who had a cult following in the 70’s. He struck up a conversation with a fellow fan who looked old enough to have seen them back in the day. Turned out he had discovered the group on WTJU’s “Radio Fredonia.”
“I said ‘Dude! That is my show!’” The fan went on to mention an obscure Vermont band called The Pants that Rubin had played on the show, as well as friends from his days in Vermont. “It just so happened I had a Pants mix CD in my car that I had made for a friend. I said, ‘Wait here, I will be back in two minutes.’ It was really heartwarming.”
Those stories can be heard from DJ’s up and down the dial, especially given the worldwide reach streaming offers, allowing alumni and adventurous music seekers alike to continue to take WTJU with them on their own musical journeys.
Here’s to the next 60!