Aug 2021 - LOOKING BACK FROM WIRELESS TO THE WEB: A BRIEF HISTORY OF NOTRE DAME’S STUDENT RADIO STATIONS
From Wireless to the Web: A Brief History of Notre Dame’s Student Radio Stations
By Bob Franken ’69 and John Hickey ’69
The genesis of Notre Dame student radio stations goes back to the Radio Club of the 1930s. The first station with call letters appeared in the early 1940s. In its early years, Fr. Ted Hesburgh was influential in the growth of campus radio, which has grown in format and audience through the advent of web-delivered broadcasts in 2000. Below is a brief history of the stations at significant milestones.
The Radio Club conducted its first meeting in March 1934. Its mission was to discuss the radio industry, teach its members Morse code, and eventually created a campus station. The following year, WSBT—a CBS radio affiliate in South Bend—installed a radio studio in the Engineering Building. Its first weekly program was an address by University President Rev. John O’Hara, C.S.C. Over the next eight years, programming expanded to five weekly programs broadcasting to the ND and Saint Mary’s campuses featuring popular and classical music, drama, sportscasts, political and religious forums, and the Campus Quiz. In addition, club members gained experience as broadcasters, scriptwriters, and technicians.
The first station with the call letters WND began in Walsh Hall and by early 1943 had moved to the second floor of Alumni Hall. The founding fathers were Dan Tomcik ’43 and Bob Martina ’44, both electrical engineers. They built a wireless transmitter that could reach the entire hall and on a good night as far as Dillon. Programming ran from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. and again from 10:00 to 11:00 at night, featuring big bands and other popular music.
In 1944, WND broadcast from Washington Hall’s band room, focusing on two audiences—the Navy’s V-12 officer training program and civilian students. After that time, the station was mainly dormant until 1947.
WND—the “Student Voice of Notre Dame”—earned official club status in the 1947–48 academic year. Its studio bounced from Washington Hall to the stadium’s press box and finally landed on the second floor of the Old Fieldhouse. The one-watt transmitter reached the halls using carrier current—wiring in the steam tunnels connected to the dorms’ electrical panels. The “Steampipe Station’s” broadcasts could be interrupted by students using their electric razors. Programming included popular and classical music, student talent shows, and many campus activities. By 1952, Saint Mary’s students could listen to WND, and football games were on live broadcasts.
Student engineers built, installed, and maintained most of the station’s equipment through the years. That often meant repairing or replacing cables in the steam tunnels, which carried heat from the power plants to all of the buildings on campus What was it like down there? George Molnar ’71, one of those station engineers, said:
No matter what the weather was like outside on campus, summer or winter, hot or cold, etc., you always knew it was extremely hot in the tunnels. So before entering the tunnels, I took old clothes with me. I changed into them upon entering. Then I put my tools and spare parts (including light bulbs) into a case, hung my jacket and outer clothes nearby, and off I went. When I finished, I had to go back to where I entered, change into my original clothes, and then depart. We learned to do things swiftly before we got too sick to finish.
Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., became Notre Dame’s fifteenth president in June 1952. The growth of student radio over the next twenty years was largely due to his behind-the-scenes support.
In 1952, some South Bend locals complained to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that WND’s signal was radiating far beyond the campus buildings, and the FCC threatened to close the station. In response, Father Ted wrote a letter to Paul Walker of the FCC noting the capital invested, the dedication of the student staff, and the valuable work experience in the industry that the students obtain from the activity. He stated that other student-operated broadcasters face similar problems that could be solved by a pending amendment to Part 15 of the FCC rules, which would allow college broadcasters to continue their carrier current operations. Walker replied to Hesburgh's letter promising consideration of Hesburgh's comments. By September, the FCC authorized carrier current broadcasting for colleges and offered several call letters to the University. Hesburgh chose WNDU for use by the Notre Dame students. The station could be heard on campus at 640 AM.
When architects began planning O’Shaughnessy Hall, Fr. Hesburgh offered the student broadcasters space on the fifth and sixth floors of the tower, which they occupied in 1954. That was the beginning of the heyday of the carrier current system, which extended to all of the dorms at Notre Dame and St. Mary’s and many other campus buildings.
After buying out the local WHOT station in 1954, Fr. Hesburgh announced the University’s plans to begin commercial TV and radio operations in 1955. The new station appropriated the students’ call letters, and in return, the school gave them a new audio board and other equipment. Thus was born WSND—“We Serve Notre Dame.” It aired mainly popular music, live Notre Dame sports, and regular hourly newscasts of campus and world news. Saint Mary’s students became on-air announcers in the late 1960s.
WSND Channel II
At noon on December 4, 1959, WSND’s second station—Channel II—broadcast its first program at 610 on the AM radio dial, featuring the “Afternoon at Concert” with Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major. Junior Tom Musial ’61, ’70Ph.D., Channel II’s new program director and later the director of the Collegiate Seminar program in the late 1960s, recalled:
I did WSND’s classical program freshman year and kept pushing for more cultural programming. In 1959, Bob Fulton [’60, ’62M.S.], WSND’s technical director, said we could split our carrier current to carry another station. We now had a lot of airtime to fill, and I recruited and trained announcers who picked their show’s music. I created a pronunciation guide for composers, titles, and musicians and chose the second movement of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra as our theme between all segments. We also recorded Fr. Hesburgh reciting St. Francis’s “Prayer for Peace” that ended each broadcast day. It was challenging & great fun to help create Channel II.
At this time, a new type of radio broadcasting, FM, was gaining popularity. It was much less susceptible to interference than AM radio and certainly had a clearer sound than carrier current. With the support of Fr. Hesburgh, a lover of classical music who saw it as an opportunity to reach out to the South Bend community, WSND and Notre Dame applied to the FCC for a spot on the FM dial with a transmitter strength of 10 watts; that was then the average the FCC granted to educational institutions. That would barely reach five miles, or just south of downtown South Bend, but it was a start. In June 1961, the FCC granted Notre Dame a license as WSND-FM at 88.9, and the FM DJs went live on September 30, 1962. FM manager, James Malling ’63, promoted the station’s slogan: “The Creative Sound of a Great University.” Station lore was that Father Ted, a classical music lover, helped secure funding and regulatory approval for WSND-FM.
Classic ND Radio Broadcasts
There were many broadcasts popular with the students over the years. One of the most notable WSND-AM productions was “Hoosier Hysteria,” which first aired on April 16, 1967. It was a classic satire of an Indiana high school basketball tournament game. Scriptwriter Reid Duffy ’67 was play-by-play maven Clyde Clubtongue; John Sturm ’69 was analyst Frank Crazier—inspired by South Bend WHOT broadcaster Frank Crozier; and producer Steve Durlacher ’67 was the clueless coach interviewed at halftime. WSND was still airing the show annually when Sturm’s son Patrick ’11 was on campus. (Link to “Hoosier Hysteria” video)
The news and sports departments frequently broadcast notable speeches and sporting events. For example, in September 1968, WSND-AM was in the Old Fieldhouse when actor Pat O’Brien reprised his Knute Rockne speeches in front of a rabid mob of students at the Purdue pep rally. (Link to ’68 Purdue pep rally video)
John Sturm ’69, the 1968–69 station manager, recalled his regular trips to see Fr. Charles “Black Mac” McCarragher, C.S.C., the vice president of Student Affairs. “He would call me to his office if one of our announcers got out of bounds. So I would trudge into his office almost monthly and absorb a verbal thrashing. It usually ended when I said, ‘It will never happen again, Father.’ But, of course, it always did. It was our regular kabuki theater ritual—I would profess repentance, and he would give me this friendly wink and a pat on the back as I walked out of his office.”
In March 1969, the students sought to increase the FM power to 1,000 watts and made plans to install a transmitter on top of the library, but security and access were a concern, so they looked at Grace Hall, which was then a dorm. Grace’s rector and other nearby dorms were afraid it would cause interference with their own TV systems and the matter was referred to Fr. Hesburgh who enlisted Father McCarragher to find a solution. As a result, plans were made for any new transmitter to share the WNDU tower south of town.
Two years later, the Ford Foundation, again with an assist from Fr. Ted, granted $25,000 to the WSND-FM to purchase a new transmitter and stereo equipment, which increased the station’s power to 3,430 watts. The FM operation now had a reach of fifty miles or more by transmitting from an old WNDU-TV tower five miles south of campus connected to the campus studio by telephone lines. The format remained classical music by day and specialty music programs at night.
The upgraded FCC license now required the station to operate every day, year-round, beginning September 1971. With 122 hours of weekly air time to fill, the programming could not rely solely on student announcers. The staff had to recruit paid announcers from the community—community announcers—to fill in during exams, semester breaks, and summer vacations.
Russ Dodge ’74, currently the host of the “Indiana Nocturne” syndicated radio program, remembers those days:
Three other students and I spent two summers on-campus in ’72 and ’73 to work at the FM station. We stayed in a dorm with summer school students the first summer, and the station rented a house for us the following year. We earned $800 each summer to work twenty to twenty-three hours per week and ran a fundraiser to ensure our pay. Community volunteers picked up the hours we did not fill. I also picked up two other announcing jobs—WRBR (top 40) and WJVA (country).
Father Hesburgh was said to listen to WSND-FM often in the evenings, especially when working late in his office on the third floor of the Main Building. That practice continued after he retired, and he would spend late hours on the thirteenth floor of the library that bears his name. Father Ted expected professionalism from the announcers. Ed Jaroszewski, who worked as a staff technician at WSND for more than forty years beginning in the 1970s, recalls a phone call he received in the late 1990s from a man who did not identify himself—but Ed recognized as the unmistakable voice of Father Ted. He just wanted to alert someone to the fact that the students who were announcing when WSND-FM went off the air the previous night “were not very professional.” Ed says he assured the caller that he would relay the complaint to the student station manager.
WSND Becomes WVFI-AM
By 1984, the condition of the transmitters and the almost forty-year-old current carrier system supporting WSND-AM had deteriorated to the point that most dormitories could not receive its broadcasts. To solve that problem, the students applied to the FCC for a noncommercial FM station in the spring of 1984 with the call letters WVFI. Unfortunately, the FCC did not grant that license because the University already had an FM license, and other local institutions without a license had applied. The following September, the students decided to change the AM station’s name anyway to WVFI—the “Voice of the Fighting Irish.” One silver lining was WVFI remained a commercial station and could continue to sell advertising, which WSND-AM had done for years.
In early 1987, WVFI received $65,000 worth of equipment to enable all dorms to pick up its signal. The station shut down for two weeks that February to move to the second floor of the LaFortune Student Center and install the new equipment; the WSND-FM studios remained in O'Shaughnessy Hall. Now separated by name and location, WSND and WVFI began working independently of one another.
WVFI-AM on the Web
By the late 1990s, WVFI’s carrier current cables and amplifiers were in such disrepair that fewer than a half-dozen dorms could listen. Beleaguered by persistent technical difficulties, the station suspended operations in November 1998 for four months. Those problems were rectified during the following summer when students created a website for the station. Thus, WVFI became one of the first stations to broadcast entirely over the internet. Because this was a new format for the University and students, the administration limited its online audience to campus listeners. The fall 1999 broadcasts included ND football games.
In 2000, station manager Adam Frick ’02 and new Broadcast Media Coordinator in Student Affairs, Laurie McFadden—wife of Terry ’83 and mother of three Domers—researched laws and put equipment in place to go online worldwide in October 2000. Frick said,
Many students were worried that WVFI would slow down the rest of the campus internet connection by going online. I do know that most student staff was in support of switching to streaming. Student DJs were thrilled to share their favorite music or commentary with friends, family, peers studying abroad. Notre Dame is a global institution, a global brand, and to have a radio station that could reach people globally was a major step forward for all of us who were part of the movement. For Notre Dame sports fans overseas, WVFI provides an opportunity to hear live student broadcasts of football games both home and away. For the student announcers, it’s an invaluable experience to call the plays and rub shoulders with professional broadcasters.
After more than fifty years of broadcasting only to the campus, WVFI and its predecessors moved from a reach within Alumni Hall’s walls to enabling anyone anywhere with internet access to listen.
State of the Stations Today
Both stations moved to modern studios in the new Duncan Student Center in January 2018. Today, WSND-FM (wsnd.nd.edu), ND’s fine arts station at 88.8 MHz, has a student staff of about forty-five, community announcers numbering forty-one, and an estimated reach of twenty-nine-hundred listeners daily. WVFI (wvfi.nd.edu), featuring college rock, has a student staff of more than 150 and had nearly seventy-two-thousand visits to its website during the last academic year. One can listen to them on Radio Garden, TuneIn, and other internet streaming services, or by requesting the stations via Google, Alexa, or Siri.
Notre Dame student radio has come a long way since the 1930s. It’s easy to imagine Fr. Ted sipping a Manhattan and enjoying a cigar while listening to these student-run enterprises he supported through his presidency. Happy listening!
About The Authors:
Bob Franken ’69 was news director of WSND from ’67 to ’69 (known then as “Flash” Franken). He served as the 1997-98 president of the Alumni Association. After a career in newspapers, he worked in ND Student Affairs from 2000 until 2019 as the adviser to the Scholastic, Dome, and Juggler. Now retired, Bob hosts WSND-FM’s “Afternoon Concert” on Wednesday afternoons.
John Hickey ’69, a retired banker living Milwaukee, created the University of Notre Dame Class of 1969 Blog in 2017, coauthored two class of 1969 fiftieth reunion books, and is currently the Central Region director for the Notre Dame Senior Alumni board.