WXYC celebrates 40 years of airtime
But that’s not what came out of the WXYC soundwaves. From the second floor of the Frank Porter Graham Student Union, the speakers started to play “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” by Joni Mitchell.
“Call me at the station, the lines are open,” she sang over twangy acoustic guitars and mellow beats.
It was the first song the station played. WXYC, after years of fighting for funding and recognition, was finally on the air — and it was here to stay.
On Saturday at the Chapel Hill/Carrboro Downtown Hampton Inn, a group of about 35 WXYC alumni — the ones who were there on that day, the ones who came before it and the ones who came after — were all there to celebrate 40 years of WXYC.
“Some of you may not know, I noticed this at lunch, but today is March 18,” said Jim Srebro, a WXYC alum and first chairperson of Student Educational Broadcasting, Inc., the entity that holds the FCC license to the station. “This is, in fact, the day that WYXC signed on the air at 5 o’clock in the morning.”
Like the creation of the station itself, transmitting the first WXYC signal was not guaranteed.
“(Former WXYC Station Manager) Jim Bond and I were in a transmitter facility — we were not sure at all that it would work,” Srebro said. “I think we went home at like 1 o’clock after turning it off and turning it on like 15 times, but you know how it goes.”
After everything WXYC went through to get on the air in the first place, there was no way it was going off anytime soon.
On Oct. 5, 1965, a campus-wide referendum passed 3,301 to 1,099, voting to establish a campus radio station. Although the interest was there, the student legislature did not act on the measure and money was not set aside in the budget.
But in 1966, students received transmissions from stations in the basements of residence halls like Ehringhaus, Morrison and Granville. Each transmission was local to these dorms through current carrier stations. These stations conglomerated to form WCAR, the first form of WXYC.
On Sept. 19, 1973, a student referendum supporting the establishment of a student FM radio station passed 1,356 to 498. Student Congress allocated $35,000 for initial construction costs.
Legal and political struggles were one thing, but construction was another as WCAR-affiliated students — self-identified broadcasting geeks — helped with technical construction, installing everything from signal processors to a high fidelity microwave studio. The FM tower was installed on top of the Manning Drive water tower, Srebro said.
“I like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent person, but I was a stupid person when I climbed on that tower,” he said.
Nodding heads and laughter in the room showed he wasn’t the only one.
Although WCAR and eventually WXYC were funded by Student Congress, it was a difficult road.
“It was just always a challenge,” said Gary Davis, WXYC DJ and chief engineer from 1975 to 1979. “We were always at the mercy of student government.”
When WCAR was funded by student government in the 1970s, it was directly competing with The Daily Tar Heel, the Yackety Yack yearbook and a student graphics group.
David Klinger, DTH news editor in 1974, worked at WXYC and said this caused a lot of animosity between these groups, especially toward the DTH.
“The Tar Heel was really an assertive, aggressive paper,” he said.
Most of the time, Klinger said, funding was allocated to the organizations with more success. The award-winning DTH and subscription-selling Yackety Yack took precedence over the recently founded WCAR.
But in 1972, funding was raised from $2,000 a year to more than $10,000, signifying commitment to the organization.
And in 1984, WXYC petitioned to have constitutional funding — 4 percent of the annual budget, which passed and brought their annual budget up to around $40,000, which is where the budget is set today.
They went on the air 24 hours a day immediately after, and have been on 24 hours a day ever since.
Feuds were even settled.
“One of the things I realized we needed to do was get over this business with the DTH where they hated us and were always writing articles about how we were a catastrophe,” said Bill Burton, chairperson of the WXYC board and former station manager. “We would have regular softball games across the street by Carmichael against the DTH.”
‘Color on a palette’
For Burton, WXYC station manager in the mid-1980s, WXYC was a place where students could be themselves.
“I walked in and was immediately accepted and fell into this tribe that was my tribe of people,” he said. “Within a week, I had like 40 new friends, and that was the real turning point of what WXYC meant to me.”
It’s that spirit that’s kept WXYC going for 40 years.
Under Burton, who was music director before he became station manager, WXYC evolved from a station that primarily served as an alternative to top 40 to a station that celebrated music of all kinds.
“I think all music is color on a palette,” he said.
Community leaders noticed this shift. Burton said Bill Friday would invite him to his house to talk music. Students would walk in off of the street to become student DJs, creating three-hour DJ shifts for a variety of programming styles.
As long as they had a good idea and a good sound, he would let them on the radio.
In 1994, a student came to Burton and said he could get them streaming on the internet.
“I said, ‘Great. What’s the internet?’” he said. “Two days later, a caller from Belgium or Finland called in.”
He said he didn’t know the magnitude of the decision, but it made WXYC the first radio station in the world to broadcast over the internet.
“I didn’t realize what a big deal it was until a few years later, Jeopardy was on,” he said, referring to a clue naming WXYC.
For an organization with 40 years under its belt, there’s no sign of slowing down.
“It’s important to maintain these traditions,” Klinger said. “Media evolves, but communication remains the same.”
When it comes down to it, radio is simple, Burton said.
“You have 10 seconds not to suck,” he said.
And with every 10 seconds comes an expansion of a legacy that continues to grow with every song — more than 350,400 hours of WXYC.
Still, even with such a milestone, Srebro said the anniversary was all about reuniting with old friends.
“We all built the station from earth, air, water and fire,” Srebro said.
“I would have been happy if we just had a few beers and told a few tales.”