It was a risky plan, relinquishing control of the University’s 50,000-watt FM radio station to the rockers. But the students would tell you it’s the best thing that could have happened — for the progressive music scene and for themselves.
It’s 12 a.m., 1973. The doors to Kennedy Union are locked tight but WVUD-FM is spinning, the DJ on-air with his feet up on the control board.
He jams to his album pick for the night until a handful of stones thrown against the second-story window rattles him from his groove.
“I wanted to be a part of it,” said Patty Spitler, who tossed those rocks. Like so many students who had to work or just wanted to hang out, Spitler ’76 wanted in on a radio revolution that was sweeping the nation. For them, the entry point was UD’s commercial 50,000-watt megaphone controlled largely by the students to attract listeners like them. It was a risky plan, relinquishing control to the rockers. But if it succeeded, it would change the world — or, at the very least, their worlds.
When those stones thrown by co-workers or friends would rattle the window, the disc jockey would put on a “bathroom song” — like “Stairway to Heaven,” a song long enough for the DJ to take care of some quick business. He’d swing a chair around to prop open the locked door and bolt down the stairs with his footsteps echoing behind him to retrieve his new company so that he wasn’t alone with the music all night.
“With no cell phones and the hotline ringing all of the time, it was really the only way to get in at times,” said Chris Cage (Christian Caggiano ’70), a former program director of WVUD.
That scene, so familiar to decades of student DJs before an era of swipe door locks, described the excitement of 1969-76, the era when WVUD transformed from your mother’s (yawn) traditional music station to the students’ (rock on) music powerhouse.
In 1964, WVUD, “the Voice of the University of Dayton,” officially went on-air operating under 99.9 FM thanks to a man most knew as “Mr. Television.”
George Biersack ’52 was the father of television in the Miami Valley, producing thousands of shows for educational and commercial TV. He wired University of Dayton classrooms for closed-circuit TV but had even bigger ideas about how to expand educational offerings. He wanted to take the speech department — with its 15 majors in 1961 — and grow it into the communication arts department “in order to provide a more comprehensive communications program attuned to contemporary needs,” he wrote to the provost.
The new department, founded in 1964, included moving journalism from the English department and strengthening the theater arts and broadcast offerings. “Our prime obligation is the training of professional communicators,” he told Flyer News. By 1966, the new department had 175 majors; it would grow to be one of the most popular majors at UD.
A practical yet creative man, Biersack knew he needed hands-on opportunities for his students to learn, and he wanted a radio station. He approached the owners of WKET, a classical radio station broadcasting from the basement of the Hills and Dales Shopping Center a few miles from campus, and negotiated a sweet deal. According to Jim “Swampy” Meadows ’72, Speidel Broadcasting Corp. sold the station to UD for $25,000 while also donating $25,000 to the University. UD took ownership of the station in April 1964.
The station moved, along with Flyer News and UDCC (the closed-circuit television station, which would grow into Flyer TV), into offices in the new student union. Biersack’s daughter, Mary Biersack Stine ’72, remembers her father sitting behind the controls of the bulldozer during construction for the radio tower to be placed atop Stuart Hill.
WVUD went on-air to help fulfill the University’s educational and cultural responsibility to the community with the intention of avoiding being too “stuffy.” This WVUD — by all recollections, broadcasting at 25,000 watts that barely reached south over the Oakwood hills — was smaller and quieter than what it would become.
In 1967, the station operated 75 hours a week, 12 months a year with eight student announcers who got no class credit but were paid $1.25 an hour, as reported by Flyer News. “They’re getting paid for experience they couldn’t hope to buy,” Biersack told the student newspaper. Airtime was devoted to classical, folk, jazz, theater, dinner, Broadway albums, full operas, talk shows, “music to work by” and even Mass. By 1968, the station affiliated with American Broadcasting Company’s FM channel and gained airtime that included cultural interests, such as reviews of plays, books and recordings.
Biersack wrote that he hoped by 1970 “our radio station WVUD-FM will be well-established as an outstanding example of a public service station to the community.”
It already sounded good. WVUD was the only station in Dayton to broadcast stereophonic sound, which mimics the human ear by using two independent audio signal channels to create an overall better, more real listening experience.
Despite being ahead of the game technologically, the station wasn’t getting the attention Biersack had hoped for. As general manager, he added more upbeat jazz offerings to the classical and instrumental music rotations. But Biersack wanted more.
So he presented his young but dedicated staff with this challenge: Make WVUD appeal to a younger audience, and do not play Top 40.
In 1971, that meant one thing: album-oriented rock.
From brass to The Boss
Biersack put his faith in his students and a new program manager. Cage, a communication major, had worked at Dayton’s WING-AM during college and after graduation. In 1971, he took a job at WVUD as program director and sales manager. He said that in his time at WVUD, from 1971 to 1974, the station grew in Arbitron ratings from 1.7 percent to 7.3 percent of the total audience share.
Cage believed in tight programming, scripting a detailed plan with specific titles or genres student DJs were required to play. Known as a walking encyclopedia of radio, his total commitment to changing the station from “stereo with brass” to progressive music made him a perfect mentor for passionate student DJs.
“A little of ‘painting by the numbers’ is good for inexperienced people,” Cage said. “But once they learn how to do it well … you can allow them to freeform more.”
Allowing this freedom meant opening up the playlist. For a time, the station was criticized for airing a weird hybrid of sounds. The daytime format was upbeat, background music to appeal to adults with news updates from WVUD’s affiliate, ABC. At night the DJs would spin edgier progressive rock for a younger audience that would turn up the volume. Progressive music in the early ’70s blended folk, blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll and sometimes even classical into hits like those by Yes and the Moody Blues.
When the clock turned to 7 p.m., “Wax Museum” dominated the air. The rock ’n’ rollers plugged in their headphones — and recording devices. For one hour every day, WVUD played complete or nearly complete albums, usually rock and progressive style. Listeners would wait to hear a resounding “beep” that alerted them to the start of the album and then hit record on their tape cassette decks or reel-to-reels. “Wax Museum” provided its audience with new, complete music to own and listen to whenever they wanted — for free.
WVUD’s “Wax Museum” sparked the fire that became the station’s album-oriented rock programming. When the show ended at 8 p.m., DJs played songs in this style until
2 a.m., going after the young adult audience that preferred to not hear the extremes of commercial Top 40 or entire obscure albums. By 1973, the progressive format would dominate the station around the clock.
There were hits and misses, but the students got to lead the experimentation, push the envelope and discover new music.
Along with the change in music style, Cage helped the station embrace its commercial license. While WVUD was one of only three college-owned stations in the country to have a commercial license to sell airtime as advertising, Biersack said in a 1964 Flyer News article that he had no intention to use it. He saw that operating in the red was more than offset by the education the University provided to future broadcasters.
Cage thought differently: that commercial license was not going to be wasted. The station began selling advertising. Meadows recalled his first ad sale — Athena’s Bridal Creations — and some of the more inventive spots using owner Tom Weiser to do the voiceover on ads for The Forest Books and Records. Bill Andres ’75 was the mastermind behind the copywriting, said Dan Covey ’77, who became the station’s music director.
“Bill really knew how to speak to the audience,” Covey said. “He always found a way to make it really compelling. Whether it was funny or dramatic, people really wanted to hear it.”
Listeners also heard inventive — and suggestive — promotions. The banana shtick — where listeners walked up and asked people if they were the “WVUD Big Banana” or “Electric Banana” — made it onto bumper stickers for the station. Another promo, by DJ Steve Wendell ’73, asked listeners to call in and guess the length of his “Wazoolie.” (Answer: 12 inches.)
The edge found in the music and banter led to the success — and attention — the station was after.
“We lived the style of rock ’n’ roll for the most part,” said Covey, who deejayed at WVUD while in college. “We knew who the audience was, well, because we were the audience.”
Covey also knew the audience because he was a Daytonian. He started out at the station — his first position was receptionist — as a shy student with inherent ambition and evolved into a respected music expert who created and maintained critical relationships with record stores in the area. Cage said Covey was one of the reasons WVUD was ahead of the trends.
“All of the record stores knew and liked him,” Cage said. “He always wanted to work and have greater responsibilities; we had to throw him out almost every night.”
Being music director meant constantly exposing new music to listeners, and it included meeting with record labels to discuss what music would be played at WVUD.
Before the age of the Internet, record companies sent representatives to stations with precise agendas. They knew how to navigate people, specifically college students, and attempted to use the power of free food to sway the direction of the conversation.
WVUD music and program directors received invitations to the hallowed Pine Club on Brown Street. They’d be served steak and fine wine right next to a heaping stack of new album releases from the label’s superstars. On top would be what the representatives would push on stations. But Covey said WVUD had a different idea of what “exposing new music” meant.
“They knew our format and wanted to stay with our direction, but they would push what the labels were paying them to sell to help certain artists they thought would make it,” Covey said.
A steak would not sway the students from playing music from groups yet to become household names. For example, if records similar to the first Tom Petty album were shown to Covey, his common response would be:
“Eh, I don’t hear it.”
But four or five albums down the stack, he’d catch a glimpse of something interesting that hadn’t been discovered or widely heard yet — like Bruce Springsteen before his 1975 album Born to Run made him famous. The record companies wouldn’t even mention it because it wasn’t part of the acts that labels were getting behind.
Covey said WVUD music directors of that era predicted who would become stars. He admits that at times they had to comply with companies’ requests because, “Sometimes, it’s just business.” But their goal was to play new music and act as a discovery station for progressive rock and pop music lovers.
Rock ’n’ rivalry
In the 1970s, glasses were big, University of Dayton basketball uniforms were small, and technology enthusiasts had 8-track players in their living rooms. It was a time of social, governmental, cultural and technological revolution, and the radio industry was part of this change, thanks to the Federal Communications Commission.
In the works since 1964, the FCC’s FM Non-Duplication Rule required stations to get creative with their programming. Prior to this, many AM stations that had acquired FM bandwidth would simply double their AM content on this new portion of the dial. With this new rule enforced in 1967, stations had to broadcast at least 50 percent original content, forcing them to think outside the Top 40 playlists popular with their AM audiences.
Some stations turned to an all-talk format, while others — such as KLOS-FM in Los Angeles to WNEW-FM in New York City — began experimenting with progressive and album-oriented rock.
WVUD was part of this trend. The station told its story through Ten Years After, Carole King and the Allman Brothers interspersed with commentary and advertisements to make listeners feel like they were on the inside of the funniest jokes.
In 1972 and 1973, WVUD was a frequent contributor to Billboard magazine’s FM Action feature. Its correspondent — often philosophy major DJ Jeff Silberman ’73 — offered “Hot Action Albums” to inform the rest of the nation of the newest music trends. On Aug. 26, 1972, Silberman recommended The Slider by T-Rex, Toulouse Street by the Doobie Brothers and the self-titled album by Ramatan.
Billboard contributors were opinion leaders at “the nation’s leading progressive stations” in the largest population centers, and being on the list put WVUD in the company of KZAP-FM in San Francisco to WRIF-FM in Detroit.
In 1973, WVUD entered its next revolution: 24-hour programming, followed not long after by an upgrade to 50,000 watts that screamed into homes in southeastern Ohio and parts of Indiana and Kentucky. Geoff Vargo ’73 as program director ushered in this era as he replaced Cage, who moved on to a station in Princeton, N.J., and later onto a career at WRKI-FM in Connecticut.
Convey remembers Vargo as one of the most creative and energetic personalities at the station. Passionate and always ready to solve problems, his caring nature gave him the ability to “get people fired up” about the station, Covey said. Vargo was one of the primary reasons Covey became interested in UD and wanted to join WVUD.
“He lit up a room with positive energy,” Covey said. “He does it to this day.”
The 24-hour format skyrocketed the popularity of the station. Vargo stretched the “Hot Rotation Singles” — when DJs would play hits pushed by record companies — from three hours to six and added new artists, oldies and up-and-coming musicians. News reports said the phone lines rang off the hook with more than 150 requests per day.
The students also had other innovations. One was Spitler, WVUD’s first female morning personality. Her show, “Waking Up With a Woman,” highlighted her booming voice and pithy humor. Spitler was unexpected and unapologetically woman.
“Someone would say I ‘talked dirty and played the hits.’ I didn’t really talk dirty, just some innuendos. I was feisty … and maybe a little naughty,” she said. “We competed with the big dogs, people who did this as a living, and we were winning. We were breaking new ground.”
WVUD’s success was attributed to the students, their zany, risk-taking nature and the freedom UD gave them to maneuver within the progressive format of the station.
In Dayton, WVUD was “king of the mountain” of progressive rock, said Chuck Browning, who would move to Dayton to become program manager of what would become WVUD’s largest competitor.
Browning’s station was WTUE-FM 104.7, which has the FCC non-duplication ruling to thank for its programming split from sister station WONE-AM. When Browning, at age 23, arrived in 1976, WTUE was playing a schizophrenic mix of album rock and Top 40, mashing Led Zeppelin up against The O’Jays. He started instituting a playlist of album rock with an ear toward what the kids at UD were spinning.
While he cleared up the playlist, WTUE couldn’t compete with the far superior signal coming out of WVUD’s radio tower. “I spent the first two years at TUE getting my head caved in by a college radio station,” Browning said. “We remained the second radio station.”
The students relished the rivalry, beating out WTUE in ratings and, as Covey said, discovering new music while WTUE simply “stuck with the hits.”
While the students had the innovation, WTUE had the money, and eventually Browning got the technology boost needed to compete with WVUD’s signal.
But the students were ready to hurl one more rock at Goliath. Cage said the same day that WTUE upped its wattage and started broadcasting stereo, WVUD took out an ad in the newspaper announcing its next big leap in technology — a Dolby-B noise reduction system. It made its stereo FM broadcasting quieter while increasing the station’s effective range with no increase in power.
WVUD had built the popularity of progressive rock, and WTUE cashed in on it. After the technology upgrade, WTUE’s ratings skyrocketed, jumping from a 6 percent share of the audience to 13 percent in one rating cycle, Browning said.
The students may have been looking to beat WTUE at any turn, but Browning said he had a lot of respect for the student-run station. Covey remembers attending a local rock concert and bumping into Browning in the pressroom. Browning offered a greeting and said that the town was indeed big enough for them both. “I was a college punk,” Covey said. Covey’s response: “Hell no, there’s not.” And he walked away.
But Browning didn’t. He realized that UD attracted the best college talent from Chicago to Philadelphia and said he was able to build WTUE’s success thanks to the students.
“I was able to listen, pay attention and hire some of the best of them,” said Browning, who lists his time at WTUE and his most recent position — as general manager of KMYZ-FM and KTSO-FM in Tulsa, Okla. — as the most rewarding of his career.
The students had gotten to the top, accomplishing what Biersack had asked them to do, if not exactly in the way he might have imagined. But once the rest of radio caught up with the progressive music phenomenon, it was time for the University to create new plans for the future of WVUD-FM. As the freedom of the ’70s melted away into more formatted radio, the WVUD alumni carried their opportunities with them as they scattered across the nation.
Working at “The Radio Station” was far more valuable than the minimum-wage paycheck they received.
While the students were having fun, they were really building lives. The 17- to 20-year-olds weren’t just kids playing music; they were licensed DJs gaining professional experience, real revenue and popularity for the University of Dayton.
Andres, the WVUD copywriter, went on to careers in film, advertising, production and publishing. He attributes much of his success to the camaraderie among the students. If you were on-air — even late at night — and you did something great, one of your co-workers would always call in to tell you so. (They’d call, too, if you messed up.)
“To this day I stay in touch with people I worked with from WVUD,” he said from his home in Arizona. “It’s because we went through this all together. It was a great training ground and atmosphere, and we made great friends, because it was a great place to work. It was a rare hybrid — a 50,000-watt station owned by a university. It was the perfect place to discover radio as an art form and a one-on-one communication medium. It was unparalleled … and prepared me to be a professional communicator.”
The students helped push progressive rock in the Dayton market, and generations of female DJs have Spitler to thank for progressing the view of women in radio, Andres said: “She was a real pioneer.”
The station — in this era and beyond — helped shape the careers of radio personalities, sports announcers, station managers, media executives and producers in television and Hollywood.
Covey talked about his good fortune at being named music director. “That created an opportunity for me to establish the relationship with all the record labels,” he said.
His first job after college came at the invitation of Andres, who went to a station in Ann Arbor, Mich. When a program director job opened in Illinois at WZOK-FM, a record label rep suggested Covey for the job. His career brought him back to Dayton in 1980, and he now works as a senior account manager for Clear Channel.
Cage remembered a young Dan Pugh ’79 applying to work as a DJ. The station passed him over — twice — before giving him a shot. Pugh — also known as Dan Patrick — went on to DJ at WTUE before working for ESPN radio and now announces for NBC Sports and hosts The Dan Patrick Show.
WVUD of this era launched many careers. Steve Downes ’72 is morning man at WDRV-FM in Chicago and the voice of “Master Chief” on the game Halo. Alan “Mike” McConnell ’77 went from WVUD to WTUE, leading to on-air positions at WLW-AM in Cincinnati and WGN-AM in Chicago.
When Spitler graduated in 1976, Browning promptly hired her for WTUE’s morning drive show. It was a success — its ratings beat WVUD, she said, plus she got her first real paycheck, $200 a week: “I was rich beyond belief.” She went on to become a TV anchor in Indianapolis and is now host and producer of nationally syndicated Pet Pals TV.
They moved on, but they didn’t leave UD entirely behind. At WINE-AM and WRKI-FM in Danbury, Conn., Cage hired Flyers John Fullam ’75, Bob “Buzz Night” Kocak ’78 and Al Tacca ’78 to join him. Covey continues to interact with UD students through the Clear Channel co-op and internship program. Last summer, engineering technology major Michael Harper ’15 worked at Clear Channel.
“It’s about seizing every opportunity you get on campus,” Covey said, “making a contribution, being a part of something, trying to make a difference and then trying to maintain the relationships once you get out of school and paying it forward.”
By the 1990s, WVUD had grown into a light rock powerhouse that still employed students, but they were no longer in control. In 1992, UD sold WVUD to Liggett Broadcasting Group for $3.5 million, which went back to the University to support academic programs and other funds. The call letters changed to WLQT-FM, and the station moved downtown.
Student-centered radio, though, persists in the stu-dent-managed, non-commercial WUDR Flyer Radio. The free spirit of WVUD flourishes on channels 99.5 FM and 98.1 FM. It’s no 50,000 watts — 10 watts with a 50-watt translator, sending the signal into Dayton’s near suburbs — but it has the potential to reach far and wide thanks to Internet streaming. And the students have freedom to play what will attract listeners like them — an idea that has empowered students from 1964 until today.
“Everything was the right place, right time,” Spitler said. “It was magic.”
WVUD alumni will host a special reunion reception in the old WVUD studios in Kennedy Union during Reunion Weekend 2014. They invite all former staff and students — no matter your class year — to the celebration the afternoon of Saturday, June 7. To register for any Reunion Weekend events, visit reunion.udayton.edu.
About the authors
CC Hutten is a junior English major who stumbled onto the WVUD story during Reunion Weekend 2013. She writes, “The more I delve into the epic ’70s music scene, the more convinced I am that I’m attending the University of Dayton in the wrong decade.”
Michelle Tedford ’94 once sat in the control room with a DJ friend who played “Rhinestone Cowboy” (not on the designated playlist) during the last days of WVUD.