Born out of a vision for enhancing campus life, student broadcasting promised a new and very real expansion upon the classical idea of the student body as the heart and soul of the living university. To accomplish this, the Senior Gift of the Class of 1912 equipped The Pennsylvania State College with one of America’s first student-operated radio stations.
Launched in 1912 on the eve of the First World War, 8XE was, according to The Daily Collegian, “one of the first experimental licenses … granted by the government,” as well as “the first licensed club in the nation” among collegiate peers. By 1921 experimental broadcasts were evolving, and newly-christened station WPSC was again among the first of its collegiate or national peers.
WPSC harnessed both AM and shortwave frequencies to reach a local and international audience. Listeners as distant as England, Egypt, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand could hear programming featuring the first student play-by-play coverage of Penn State football, as well as basketball, wrestling, and boxing. The station also aired weekly chapel services, Glee Club and fraternity orchestra performances, music from the singers and composers of the time, lectures by professors and visitors, and distance learning instruction. It also served as occasional relay carrier for KDKA, the world’s first commercially licensed radio station.
As early as 1920, Penn State employed an undergraduate student general manager in charge of the station’s operations and in 1927 equipped the station with a $2,000 annual budget. But by 1932, wracked by the Great Depression and the prospect of costly new federal broadcast regulations, WPSC ceased operations. However, students kept alive the spirit of WPSC through less-regulated shortwave broadcasts over the course of the next generation.
By the late 1940s, fresh from American victory in World War II and in a booming economy, Penn State was ready for a new chapter. The Senior Gift of the Class of 1951 returned student radio to the airwaves as WDFM in 1953, perpetuating the spirit of pioneering student broadcasters. Located in 304 Sparks, WDFM was one of the area’s first FM stations.
In its earliest days, WDFM aired classical music, lectures, Greek and Shakespearean plays, and radio dramas like The Adventures of Ludlow and Myrtle. Like WPSC, WDFM welcomed students of any academic major, as well as alumni and townspeople. Featuring programming from “Bach to rock,” WDFM was also said to stand for “We Dig Fine Music.”
Sandy Greenspun Thomas, a board operator in the 1950s, later reflected in The Penn Stater: “The fact that I was allowed to broadcast on the air was unusual. In those days, you wouldn’t hear women on commercial stations or national stations. … I loved it. It was the most rewarding, energizing, confidence-building experience.”
Robert K. Zimmerman, another alumnus from the early era, recalled: “I did a request show, which turned into a rock ‘n’ roll show, because in 1958, what did everyone want to hear? I was the first at the station to play rock ‘n’ roll. Dr. Nelson [our advisor] called me and gave me hell for playing “Hound Dog.” I said, “Well, someone requested it.” Of course, I’d stacked the requests, had my friends call in.”
As a campus and community voice for Penn State throughout the Cold War, WDFM and its student broadcasters frequently found themselves at the center of historic events, narrating along with their professional counterparts the stories of the American century. “I was standing in the studio,” recalled Dick Harris, “the afternoon that the news of the assassination of President Kennedy came across the teletype machine.” When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Penn State in January 1965, WDFM broadcast his speech for those not able to join the more than 8,000 who had packed Rec Hall. MLK spoke of his “faith in America,” the Greek concepts of love in eros, phileo, and agape, his struggle for voting rights in Selma, and the necessity of the “struggle to secure moral ends through moral means.”
WDFM evolved in the 1960s and ‘70s, reflecting the evolution of American culture. Student broadcasters diversified their programming, including weekly USG press conferences, more than 50 weekly five-minute newscasts, dramatic literary readings, and live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera from Lincoln Center in Manhattan alongside “middle of the road music” like jazz and folk. University Chapel services continued to be broadcast each Sunday into the 1970s to an edgier student body.
“We were very into playing ‘deep cuts’ on an album,” one student of the time reflected, “not the popular songs.” WDFM programs like “Highlight” fostered public opinion conversation, while students pushed the boundaries of their listenership with antics like the “first male stripease on radio.” At other times, student broadcasters embraced the 24/7 demands of their medium. One student recalled of his show and timeslot: “One of the themes of the show was ‘It’s Saturday night. If you’re listening, you’re a loser.’”
By the late 1970s, WDFM celebrated more than 25 years and a litany of successful graduates who were shaping the explosion of American popular media over the airwaves, behind the scenes, and in the boardroom; leaders in fields like journalism, broadcasting, and advertising, their professional fortunes rising with the rising influence of radio and television at places as varied as NBC, Westinghouse, HBO, Showtime, and NASA.
(Meanwhile WDFM inspired others. In 1963, West Halls Radio emerged as WHR, and by 1972 was joined by WEHR in East Halls, and WSHR in South Halls. These sister stations harnessed a unique “carrier current” approach to broadcasting in their respective residence halls, using power lines to transmit broadcasts directly to the dormitories. These stations functioned independently, with their own staffs and broadcast schedules. WHR and WSHR faded in relevance over time and were largely defunct by the late 1980s. WEHR continued to operate until the mid-2000s.)
A changing media landscape came to impact student life in the 1980s. One student captured the growing tension in an April 1980 Daily Collegian article, explaining that some professors and administrators believed student broadcasting belonged “in the hands of professionals” rather than with young people. An October 1981 editorial cites Senior Vice President for Administration Richard E. Grubb’s promise that administrative goals for professional broadcasting would be “carefully designed to have no effect on WDFM. WDFM has a rich history, a long tradition and a strong loyalty which should not be disturbed…” Lisa Posvar Rossi, WDFM’s 1981-82 general manager, later reflected: “We felt threatened … I remember setting up meetings at which we said we wanted to maintain independence. We did end up stalling the conversion to a public radio station, for a little while at least.” Yet by 1985, WDFM’s call letters were changed to WPSU and with this change came greater faculty influence, the loss of student general manager authority, and a shift in mission away from original content produced by students and toward NPR syndication.
By the late 1980s, WPSU had been absorbed by Penn State Public Broadcasting, leading Penn State Trustee Ben Novak to lament: “No doubt WPSU will be better and more professional according to some abstract national standard. But it will no longer be the voice of Penn State students.”
Determined to restore that voice and resurrect a unique and powerful Penn State tradition, students in the early 1990s once again championed the cause of student broadcasting. The Board of Trustees petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for a new license, to be operated independently by and for the students, and on October 31, 1995 the airwaves welcomed WKPS and the rebirth of student radio.
Located in Downtown State College, this third generation station experienced its share of growing pains, learning to excel not through an academic department or college, but for the first time as an independent student organization. Eventually WKPS found an identity in “The LION” and, in 2003, a home in the HUB-Robeson Center. Creating a station both innovative and well-programmed, students restored many of their earliest traditions, including Nittany Lion athletics broadcasts, coverage and fundraising for the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, and service as a platform and voice for a growing student body. Diverse programs such as the Jazz Spectrum, Jam 91, State Your Face, Latin Mix, and Radio Free Penn State echoed earlier incarnations from the WDFM era.
Students continued to narrate the stories of their time, notably during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, during which Mike Walsh covered the attacks through John Raynar, who was working one block from the World Trade Center. “We were the only media outlet in State College who had someone on the scene that day,” recalled Walsh. “That was the high point of our professionalism.”
While breaking new technical ground, student broadcasters also learned to redefine their value in light of a more connected culture, pioneering internet streaming ahead of peer stations, establishing an automated broadcast schedule, partnering with Movin’ On and The State Theatre to welcome acts large and small, and connecting major industry labels to independent and avant garde artists. In a tangible way, student broadcasters created a home for peers, professors, townspeople, and friends to put into practice the ideal of “a liberal and practical education,” embodying the principles of a free society through concern for speech in all its forms, as well as artistic and musical expression, and a cross-generational experience of a community in time which valued sense of place.
Forging their own identity in the context of the larger history of student broadcasting, students fused an often fierce commitment to principle with an evergreen mission of enhancing university and community life.
The historic and challenging lessons of time shaped the cultural and institutional character of Penn State student broadcasting, which has been defined since The LION’s founding by three bedrock principles. First, to be independently programmed and operated, led by an elected student president and general manager. Second, to honor a mission of public service to the Penn State and Central Pennsylvania communities, realized through open membership to students of any academic major as well as community members. Third, to pursue institutional support through technical, professional, financial, and legal assistance that respect freedom of thought and expression as imperatives for authentic public service.
These principles have defined student broadcasting since WPSC’s earliest days and continue to enable students to be adaptive, innovative, and confident in their mission. A tradition for more than a century, student broadcasting continues to contribute to the culture of Penn State and the wider listening community while providing students with a relevant media voice and an outlet to pursue excellence.