Dec. 7, 1995
Vol. 15, No. 7

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    WHPK: Still spinnin' after after all these years

    It's a typical Monday afternoon at WHPK-FM, the University's 100-watt radio station, which this year marks its 50th anniversary.

    The main 'HPK office in Mitchell Tower, its walls and ceiling plastered with new and old promotional and concert posters, is crammed with people sitting on worn but comfortable old sofas and talking nonstop about music.

    Graduate student Marthame Sanders, WHPK deejay and archive specialist, is praising the work of fellow deejay and graduate student Robert Clark, whose "Aleatory Hour" show -- which features two different classical works played at the same time -- can be heard in the background.

    Station manager Ed Reno, a third-year student in the College, mentions that Clark's show will be followed by a special edition of the public-affairs show "50 Ways to Be a Feminist."

    A couple of students walk in and ask about some songs played on the early-morning show "Music From Angry People With Guitars."

    Between these and such other popular shows as "Arkansas Red's Blues Excursion," "Radio Dada" and "Kristen L. Externalizes, Objectifies and Reappropriates Your Mom," WHPK seeks to explore the complete range of musical, political and cultural styles.

    "Basically, we have done our job if you hear what we play and say to yourself, 'What the hell is this?' " Reno said. "That's the WHPK tradition."

    Celebrating with first CD

    WHPK is celebrating its 50th anniversary with its first commercial release of recordings from its archives -- a first for a major college station. Called "100 Watts," the recordings will be released on compact disc and will feature a compilation of performances by Chicago bands recorded in the station during 'HPK's "Pure Hype" show. The CD is expected to be released in January. Also in early 1996, WHPK will host a concert on the North Side featuring several of the bands heard on the CD, and a party on the South Side is being planned for the end of the academic year.

    With more than 150 members -- more than double the number during the 1980s -- and 24-hour broadcasting, WHPK is as vital as it has ever been in its long history. While about 40 percent of the station's funding comes from student activity fees, the rest comes from quarterly $10 membership dues and such fundraising activities as the yearly listener "beg-a-thons" and sales of logo-emblazoned T-shirts and coffee mugs.

    Recent Arbitron surveys of radio listenership found that WHPK has an estimated 50,000 listeners within its 10-mile broadcast span. According to station manager Reno, the reasons for this popularity are varied.

    "First, we are not commercial, so we can play a range of music -- you may not like all of what we play, but I can assure you that something is always on that someone likes," he said. "Second, for seven or eight years now we have been the city's only station with all-rap shows. We have featured local rappers and deejays and have been participants in Chicago's hip-hop culture. Finally, we are more than just a campus radio station. Some may say we don't do enough for campus, but the majority of our deejays are students, and the station has always broadcast for a broader audience."

    The early years

    The WHPK story begins in 1922, when the University became involved in radio broadcasting with the formation of the Radio Office, an administrative body created to define the University's relationship to the then-new medium.

    Although students were involved in the work of the Radio Office, doing research and some engineering work, the finished product was scripted by radio professionals and always produced for other stations.

    By 1931, however, the Radio Office had begun its first independent production, "The University of Chicago Round Table." Initially a cooperative venture on a local scale between the University and WMAQ, the "Round Table" was picked up after two years by NBC and broadcast nationally until 1955. The show, which was the first regular network program to be produced without a script, featured University professors and others discussing issues of the day. The program was produced from a studio in Mitchell Tower and at its peak was broadcast on more than 90 NBC-affiliated stations.

    The University's own radio station -- WUCB, located in Burton-Judson Courts -- was established in 1945 by returning students after World War II who were veterans of Armed Forces Radio. In 1959, the station moved to the studios in Mitchell Tower and broadcast originally produced and scripted programming five to seven hours a day to transmitters in Burton-Judson Courts, Pierce Tower, International House and Woodward Court.

    "The programming of WUCB largely consisted of classical music, but by the '60s there were also folk, blues and jazz shows, original radio plays and theatrical productions, plus the occasional Maroons basketball game," said archivist Sanders. "When original programs were not being broadcast, the station rebroadcast programming from classical and arts station WFMT-FM."

    Moving to the FM dial

    In 1968, as a sign of its support of "counterculture" values, the University's secret Society of the Owl and Serpent voted to disband. The group donated its office space to the student radio group and its remaining funds for the purchase of an FM transmitter. At 6:26 p.m. on March 22, 1968, WHPK (standing for "Hyde Park-Kenwood") made its first broadcast at 88.3 on the FM dial. The station had only 15 watts of broadcasting power.

    The founding document of WHPK proclaims that the station "shall provide students with the opportunity to learn and practice broadcast skills, and shall broadcast as a service to the University community and the surrounding community." With that aim, the station featured a variety of programming, from rock, blues, jazz, folk and classical to news, a resurrected version of "The University of Chicago Round Table" and live shows from the Blue Gargoyle coffee house.

    The station also soon found itself embroiled in campus issues. When students decided to occupy the Administration Building in 1969 in protest against the University, WHPK was the only representative of the electronic media allowed into the building.

    "For 17 days, WHPK broadcast special live reports as the situation developed, and the station became the provider of information for the city's major newspapers and radio stations," Sanders said.

    Throughout the 1970s, WHPK remained focused on news and music that could not be found on other radio stations -- including those "underground" radio stations that defined rock music during that era. In the late '70s, WHPK led the way as one of the first stations to feature the new "punk" sounds of the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. At the same time, the station continued to provide its listeners with blues, jazz, folk and classical programming, as well as live broadcasts of Chicago Maroons home football and basketball games. In 1985, WHPK purchased a new 100-watt transmitter, and the station moved to 88.5 FM.

    For all the station's current success and innovation, the staff is low-key about reaching the half-century mark.

    "We definitely are all conscious that the station is more than a typical student organization, and that we are part of 50 years of broadcast history," Reno said. "But then the WHPK spirit is one of continuity -- the spirit is not determined by current musical trends or individual deejays. The music may be different, but the spirit is not.

    "The spirit of WHPK is alive and well and ready to go for 50 more years of educating, entertaining and providing a space for the expression of independent and creative ideas and for unknown music and voices. When you have commercial stations selling a watered-down version of 'alternative' music, then a truly independent station like WHPK becomes more important -- a station that is committed, in all formats, from rock to classical, to provoking a response from our listeners by playing something new."

    -- Jeff Makos